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Americans share our passion for beer. It is by far the most popular alcoholic beverage, drunk by more people across the States than wine or spirits, and the number of breweries currently in existence has passed the 3,000 mark - the first time that has happened since the 1870s, when almost every neighbourhood boasted its own brewpub or micro taproom. This escalation of breweries signals a resurgence of American brewing and is a far cry from the stagnant years of the 1980s. Today, there are not only more breweries but a much greater range of styles thanks to the booming craft beer industry.
A brief history of American beer
Beer was drunk in America long before the Europeans arrived with their version of beer - Native Americans had been making a corn beer for centuries. Most beer drunk in the 17th and 18th centuries was brewed and consumed in the home as an alternative to what could often be unsanitary and therefore unsafe water. The first known New World brewery opened in 1612 in what is now Manhattan but it wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century that commercially brewed beer really took off, the market expanding at an outstanding rate. By 1873 America boasted 4,131 breweries. To put the per capita ratio into context, that would mean the country being home to over 30,000 today.
As the century drew to a close, however, consolidation forced huge numbers of local, independent breweries to shut down and by 1918 only a quarter of the number that existed in 1873 were still operating. In 1930 Prohibition brought that number down to zero brewing what we would term beer today. Many started making 'near beer,' a malt beverage containing little or no alcohol, or branched into other food, medical or even military products. Thirteen years later the act was repealed and by 1934 756 breweries were operating as true breweries once more.
The big conglomerates soon whittled that number down again though, so that in 1961 there existed a mere 230 breweries. By 1983 just 80 breweries operated and more than half of those were large beer conglomerates. However, even the independents largely focused on the same type of beer that had begun to become popular at the end of the 19th century and still seemed to be in the 1980s - pale, light-bodied lagers with little hop character, all of which were fairly bland.
Towards the end of the 20th century, a new movement was starting to take pace - craft brewers were not only increasing the number of breweries in operation in America, but widening the range of beers available exponentially. Today America is home to more breweries than it has been since the golden years of the 1870s and offers a far greater diversity of beers than it ever has before.
Popular American beer styles and brands
America was once known (and disparaged) for its pale lagers but today boasts one of the most varied and innovative beer cultures in the world. As well as the popular styles described below there are plenty more that defy categorisation thanks to the USA’s fantastic creative spirit, fostered by the fact that they are not bound by centuries-old traditions.
American lager - The vast majority of beers produced and sold in the USA are still adjunct lagers. They are based on German and Czech Republic pilsners but are less hoppy and contain corn and rice as adjuncts to the barley. These aren’t beers that are going to set your taste buds alight but are made to be easy-drinking, light-bodied, low-bitter and relatively low alcohol session beers. The big brands include Budweiser, Miller and Coors.
Blonde and pale wheat ales - These are also incredibly drinkable but are more complex than American adjunct lagers. Pale in colour, with a bready maltiness and a little bitterness but not hop-forward, they serve as a good gateway between light lagers and more flavour-packed and complex beers. Look for great examples by Goose Island and Samuel Adams.
Steam beer - This is a beer originating in California, born from a necessity to create a beer which didn’t need the refrigeration lager did. The fact that they didn’t taste much like lager meant that widespread refrigeration drove them to near-extinction but they resurfaced in the 1980s at the hands of Anchor and are amber beers with a light maltiness, a wood-like hoppiness, and a fruity hint as a result of the warm fermentation temperatures.
India Pale Ale (IPA) - Although originally brewed in the UK in the early 19th century for export to India - the high alcohol content and hopping rate designed to survive the long journey by sea - America has adopted the style and made it its own. American IPA has become hugely popular, both in its native country and in Australia, and with good reason. Driven by bright American hops and offering a lasting bitter finish, the flavour varies depending on the type of hop and malt used, but at between 6-8%, they are all fairly strong. For an even stronger brew, pick up a double or triple IPA. Russian River, Riverside Brewing, Feral Brewing and Wayward Charmer all offer great examples of the style.
Barleywine - As with IPA, this is a style that originated in England and is characterised by its size - it’s big in strength, depth and complexity. American barleywines are hoppier than their British cousins, displaying the citrusy, piney hop taste that is characteristic of American hops, but retain the maltiness and fruitiness that makes a barleywine sing.
American brown ale - Based on English brown ales, the American counterparts are rich and caramelly thanks to the focus on malt. Where they differ slightly is that they tend to be stronger in flavour, with darker roasted grains giving them hints of chocolate or coffee, as well as being hoppier. Look out for Brooklyn Brewery’s award-winning American brown ale.
Barrel-aged beers - Nowhere is barrel ageing beer more popular than in America, which is unsurprising considering the technique really took off there. By law, bourbon must be aged in new barrels, meaning that distillers can only use barrels once. Some barrels are shipped to Scotland for ageing whisky, some are recycled to store coffee or tobacco, and American brewers have long taken advantage of these bourbon-infused oak barrels to age beer. This gives the beer added complexity and nuances of flavour and the beer takes on components of both the previous occupants of the barrel and the barrel itself. Today, a variety of different styles of beer are aged in barrels that once contained bourbon, other whiskies, wine or tequila.
The American craft beer scene
Although the American craft beer scene may still be niche, comprising around 11% of the total beer market share, it is an incredibly fast growing one. Craft breweries are opening at an incredible rate of 1.2 a day and that is only set to increase over the coming years. The vast majority - 99% to be exact - of the 3,000+ breweries currently in operation in American are small, independent, local outfits focusing on high-quality and often inventive beers. As most are locally focused, having either no off-sale presence (brewpubs) or only a small, local market, the craft scene is still a long way off the production levels of the big conglomerates but, as many craft beer lovers would say, surely that’s part of the point of craft.
Dogfish Head, Brooklyn Brewery (which exports to over 20 countries, including Australia), Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas Brewing Company, and Samuel Adams (produced by Boston Beer Co.) all have loyal followings both across the States and globally. Spotting an opportunity to capitalise on the growth of craft beer, some of the big beer companies have started to buy up craft breweries or produce their own craft beers. The popular Goose Island and Blue Point Brewing Company are both owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev and Blue Moon is made by MillerCoors.
American beer in Australia
They may get a bad rap but American lagers are well-suited to our warm climate and Budweiser and Coors are both popular here. When it comes to craft beers, we embrace the imaginative offerings of the likes of Sierra Nevada, Sixpoint and Brooklyn Brewery, among many others.