5 myths about Americans and beer

Updated May 27, 2017 - 4:36 pm

Summer for Americans is a time of backyard barbecues, baseball and beer. Memorial Day weekend is a perfect chance to sit outside with the season’s first sixer, and the varieties of beer you can pick up at the local grocer have multiplied. “This is a golden age for beer lovers,” as the Washington Post reported in 2016. Yet the sheer number of options could confuse even the most enthusiastic consumer. No wonder myths about beer’s past and present abound. Here are five.

myths about americans and beer
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Myth No. 1: The Midwest is the birthplace of American beer

Beer calls to mind the great cities of the American heartland, where 19th-century workers slaughtered pork, processed grain and brewed. They created iconic brands with staying power, such as Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Pabst and Schlitz. For several months in 2016, St. Louis’s Anheuser-Busch renamed Budweiser “America,” making the country’s most-consumed beer brand synonymous with the nation itself. Budweiser is “an icon of core American values like optimism and celebration,” its makers tout.

Yet American beer has a much longer and more geographically diverse history. Archaeological evidence indicates that indigenous peoples in North and South America produced fermented beverages from corn, fruits and other plants long before Europeans arrived. The continent’s first commercial brewery opened in what’s now Manhattan in 1612. Barrels of English ale supplied hydration and nutrition to the Pilgrims as they sailed west in 1620. In the late 1700s, hops grew at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. When Gold Rush hopefuls and railroad builders looked west in the 1800s, German immigrants brewed for them in New Orleans, Denver and San Francisco. As the nation grew, beer went with it.

But when Prohibition began in 1920, it shuttered American breweries. Only a few big producers, most in the Midwest (plus Colorado’s Coors), survived. Their size allowed them to adapt, redirecting factories and refrigerated trucks toward the production of soft drinks, ice cream and even ceramics during years when they couldn’t brew. They would come to dominate the market and shape Americans’ palates. In these ways, ties between the Midwest and American beer are products of a more recent past.

Myth No. 2: Beer is a man’s drink

In 19th-century America, men brewed in modernizing factories and drank in rowdy saloons, becoming the public face of beer production and consumption. In print and on TV, 20th-century ads broadcast beer’s masculine image to a wide audience. By 2016, 74 percent of American men drank beer each week, whereas only 26 percent of women did.

Nevertheless, history shows that beer has always been a woman’s drink, too. In colonial and early republic America, women and enslaved people brewed beer as a domestic task. Martha Ballard, a Maine midwife, wrote in her diary on May 18, 1786: “A Clear day. we Brewd a barll & 1/2 Beer.” Nineteenth-century women, especially widows, operated boarding houses where they served beer and food to travelers. As women entered wage-earning jobs at the turn of the 20th century, they, too, came to patronize urban saloons. Soon, however, advertisers’ nearly exclusive focus on male drinkers reduced its popularity among women. Petite bottles, low-calorie styles and Miller’s declaration that it was the “champagne” of beers sought to bring women back into the fold. Yet their consumption never equaled men’s.

Contemporary beer culture offers a slowly changing story. In 1983, the American Homebrewers Association tapped a woman, Nancy Vineyard, as its Homebrewer of the Year (a feat not repeated until 2013). Since 2008, the Pink Boots Society, a charitable organization with 50 chapters in 10 countries, has awarded educational scholarships to women in the industry. An increasing number of women are studying brewing and founding breweries.

American women’s relationship to beer has been equally, if not more, long-lasting than men’s ties to the drink. It has just been more likely to occur out of the public eye.

Myth No. 3: Craft breweries are small breweries

What is craft beer? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a beer made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by a small brewery.” Merriam-Webster says it’s “a specialty beer produced in limited quantities.” Similarly, the Brewers Association (BA), the not-for-profit trade association that promotes craft beer, designates a craft brewery as “small, independent and traditional.” Size seems key. Yet the BA also considers eight of the 15 largest beer companies in America to be “craft.” What’s going on?

According to the BA’s definition, a craft brewer produces 6 million or fewer barrels of beer every year. Six million sounds like a lot, especially in contrast to early micro-breweries that typically made a few thousand barrels, at most. Yet despite the success of big craft companies such as Yuengling, Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada, their sales volume counts for a drop, or a few, in the proverbial bucket. According to the BA’s math, even the largest craft brewer produces no more than 3 percent of the volume of beer sold to Americans in a year. In 2016, craft beer counted for 12 percent of the total American beer market, by volume. The takeaway is not that some craft breweries are very small and others less small, but that companies on top of the beer market — Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and Pabst — are so extremely, gigantically big.

Ask consumers to define craft beer, and they’ll name a variety of factors other than size that appeal to them. The brewers often concoct new styles that let drinkers experiment; they run taprooms where customers can relax with their friends and neighbors; they build ties to their local communities. Some craft breweries are active in philanthropy, others emphasize environmental sustainability, still others employ innovative management practices such as employee stock ownership plans, and many pursue collegial, collaborative ties with other breweries. Market share, ultimately, is the wrong way to define a beer.

Myth No. 4: Craft beer is a recent invention

The explosive pace of brewery openings and eclectic new offerings could convince anyone that craft beer is a 21st-century innovation. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of American breweries, most of them craft, leapt from 1,460 to 5,301, exceeding the pre-Prohibition total. As of early 2017, two new American breweries were opening each day. Craft beer’s surge fits with consumers’ enthusiasm for artisan foods and the inclination to “revitalize” formerly industrial neighborhoods across the nation.

Yet American craft beer is much older than that nanobrewery down the block. Loose collectives of home brewers began to tinker in West Coast basements in the 1960s and early 1970s, when home brewing was still illegal. Bored by light lagers, they found inspiration in English, Belgian and German styles during military or educational travels abroad. Motivation came, too, from the California wine industry, Fritz Maytag’s reborn Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco (1965) and Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma County, Calif. (1976). Brewing-science classes at the University of California at Davis trained people who would transition from home brewing to professional, starting a craft beer revolution.

Early craft brewers elbowed their way into a market dominated by big beer. They changed consumers’ palates by introducing porters, stouts and hoppy styles, like Sierra Nevada’s iconic pale ale. Initial generations’ success paved the way for today’s brewers, who find eager investors and consumers as they experiment with wild yeasts, barrel aging and more.

Myth No. 5: Wine is for aging. Beer is for drinking fresh

Cool cellars evoke images of dusty wine bottles, their contents mellowing and growing in value the longer they sit. Beer, on the other hand, should be consumed fresh, right? There’s even an iPhone app that calculates a beer’s age, using codes printed on the bottle or can, lest the drinker be fooled by something that has been sitting on the shelf too long.

For many beers, fresh is better. Certain styles, such as pilsners and most saisons, should be enjoyed close to the date of production. Others, especially hop-forward beers like IPAs, require uninterrupted refrigeration and timely consumption to preserve the volatile flavors of hops. Nevertheless, certain beers improve in character if aged and cellared. American brewers have long experimented with holding beers in wine and liquor barrels, aging them before they reach the consumer. High-alcohol-by-volume styles, such as barley wines, benefit especially from cellaring at home. Aging a beer softens the high-alcohol edge and allows a complex set of characteristics and flavors (toffee, straw, wood, wine) to emerge.

So how should a consumer cellar beer? First, choose the right styles. If you begin with a six-pack, drink one bottle fresh to understand its initial flavor profile. Keep the beer in a cool, dark space. Store it standing up or on its side; conflicting opinions abound. Sample aging beers regularly, perhaps once a year, to catch a brew that threatens to age past its peak. When it’s time to enjoy it, serve it in the correct glassware and at the proper temperature. Cheers.

—-

McCulla is the historian of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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