Beer: An American Revolution

March 9th, 2009 | Posted by Jay Brooks

In 1920, the National Prohibition Act destroyed the beer industry in the United States, putting some 1,500 breweries out of business. When the “noble experiment” was repealed in 1933, beer lovers rejoiced, and the beer industry staggered back to its feet. The industry had lost much of its diversity, however, and the emergence of national brands in the 1950s and 1960s led to industry consolidation and fewer choices for American beer drinkers. By 1980, there were less than 50 breweries in the U.S.

By the 1980s, American beer had an international reputation as weak and watery as a case of Hamm’s. Most breweries only produced American-style lagers, a light and inexpensive style of beer typically made with rice or corn adjuncts in addition to barley, hops, yeast and water. In 1982, Monty Python’s Eric Idle famously quipped, “We find your American beer is a little like making love in a canoe. It’s fucking close to water.”

What American beer lovers didn’t know at the time was that a revolution was imminent. In 1979, a clerical error in the 21st Amendment was corrected, and for the first time in nearly 50 years it became legal to brew small batches of beer at home. Home brewers who had little interest in cutting costs or making beer with mass appeal began brewing big, flavorful beers in a wide range of styles. Many of these home brewers decided to turn their passion into small businesses, and microbreweries began popping up all over the country.

Today, although mainstream beers still dominate the market, more than 14,00 breweries in the U.S. produce more styles of beer than anywhere else in the world, and American beers routinely dominates international beer competitions.

So the next time you’re at your favorite brewpub, hold your glass up high and celebrate the American beer revolution.

Now playing, on Reason TV:

“Beer: An American Revolution” was written and produced by Paul Feine. Alex Manning was the director of photography and Nick Gillespie is the narrator. Approximately seven minutes.

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6 Responses to “Beer: An American Revolution”

  1. Good Burp Says:

    This is a great post. I love stuff like this. It makes me want to brew.

  2. nate Says:

    Nice, concise history. That third paragraph is my personal American dream.

  3. SteveH Says:

    “Can really mess you up if you’re not careful”?

    Why do I have the feeling she thinks all micros are high alcohol just because they have flavor?

    Great interviews with the brewers.

  4. Bob Skilnik Says:

    14,000 breweries? I think you’ve got an extra zero in there.

  5. Tim L Says:

    The myth is still alive. Ben Franklin did not say that. He wrote about the terrior of the French vineyards!!

  6. Shoshana Says:

    That joke about love-in-a-canoe is attributed to Eric Idle? My Dad told me that joke back in 1973. He claimed that when he was a kid (1930s), some beer company (I think a European one, but I’m not sure) asked customers to tell them why their beer was like “love in a canoe” since they intended to use that image/motto in an advertising campaign. Some person came up with the now famous explanation. For some reason I just felt like doing some research and seeing if I could find the full story about that, which is how I ran across this post. So, I don’t know if my Dad’s version is the truth, but the joke definitely didn’t originate with Eric Idle!