The Rise And Fall (And Rise Again) Of America’s Breweries


When you head to the local bar and scan the tap handles, you’ll often see a myriad of choices for consumption that generally fall into two main categories — “macro” beer (think Budweiser, Coors, Miller) or “craft” beer (think basically everything else). No matter what style you choose, consider yourself lucky that you even have a choice, as for most of U.S. history beer choices weren’t nearly as diverse.

The history of brewing in America has been subject to many types of ebb and flow, from the obvious such as Prohibition, to the less obvious but equally significant advent of refrigeration, which forever changed the way breweries operated in America. While some may disagree, beer is a temperamental beverage. Unlike spirits, which are rather shelf-stable, and wine, which can handle prolonged storage, beer should be served as fresh as possible. This was both a blessing and a curse during what I consider to be America’s darkest period, Prohibition.

According to the Brewer’s Association, America’s breweries peaked in 1871, when the United States claimed a respectable 4,131 breweries in operation (compare that to 3,418 in 2014). However, unlike today’s breweries, which have access to refrigerated train cars and shipping containers, transporting beer was much harder before the advent of refrigeration and pasteurization. This ultimately meant that most beer stayed where it was brewed, to ultimately be consumed locally. In Brooklyn alone there were 45 breweries, and in a feat probably never to be repeated (unless some especially industrious hipsters really get after it), 11 breweries once sat on a 12-block stretch in the Williamsburg neighborhood. As refrigerated train cars began to take hold, numerous breweries began to be gobbled up by larger, so-called “shipping breweries.” As these larger brewers began the mass-market consolidation of smaller breweries, Prohibition nearly decimated the industry entirely.

As the Smithsonian Magazine explains, Prohibition hit American breweries so hard that by 1970, there were only 89 breweries left in the United States, and only 42 companies operated them. In the aforementioned east coast brewery capital of Brooklyn, only nine of the 23 breweries that entered Prohibition came out the other end.

So what happened to American breweries during Prohibition that didn’t happen to distilleries and wineries? As Rufus S. Lusk explains in The Drinking Habit, the answer is pretty clear — brewing beer at home isn’t as easy as making spirits or wine. During Prohibition, enterprising alcoholics could easily construct a rudimentary still, or if they preferred, purchase grape concentrate conveniently sold with a warning label instructing them how to make wine: “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine.” Homebrewing was not nearly as accessible, and in the throes of Prohibition, drinkers who had experienced “the delightful taste of Budweiser, Pilsener [sic], and other beers” prior to Prohibition simply couldn’t drink the swill they were able to make at home.

After the post-Prohibition dark ages (in which it was once predicted the American brewing industry would be consolidated into five companies by the end of the 1970s), brewing at a personal and industrial scale started to turn around in the mid-70s. As a Business Insider article explains, this was largely because of a “little-known bill introduced by Wisconsin Representative William A. Steiger” that served to legalize homebrewing. House Resolution 1337, which was passed in 1978 and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter, marked the first time since Prohibition that home production of “wine and beer for personal and family use” was federally allowed.

As Business Insider goes on to note, with brewing beer at home now legal, homebrewers were free to experiment and hone their craft without fear of government reprisal. Homebrewing, coupled with the legalization of brewpubs and changing public tastes towards “subtle, carefully crafted flavors” allowed brewers to once again flourish. Craft brewing pioneers such as Fritz Maytag, who purchased Anchor Brewing Company in 1965 and brewed “unique beers during a time when all of America’s unique beers and breweries were disappearing,” and the New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma, California, (which went out of business after six years but nonetheless inspired “hundreds of homebrewers” to go pro in the 1980s), were greatly aided by another man, Charlie Papazian.

Papazian, a homebrewing legend, founded the Association of Brewers and the Great American Beer Festival, and also wrote the seminal book on homebrewing, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing. Papazian is also said to have influenced the pioneers of today’s craft brewing industry, such as Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, and Jim Koch of Sam Adams.

Today, Papazian’s Great American Beer Festival (which in its first year of existence had only 22 breweries and 40 beers) plays host to 700 breweries and 3,500 different beers in its festival hall, and last year received 5,500 entries from over 1,300 breweries for its competition.

If you’d like to see what the brewing landscape looked like in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the New York Public Library has collected and digitized several editions of “Tovey’s Brewers’ and Maltsters’ Directory,” which show what the state of the brewing landscape looked like at the turn of the last century. In reviewing these documents, one thing becomes immediately apparent — despite being set back in the early part of the 20th century, American brewing has thoroughly reestablished itself. Barring another “noble experiment,” we can safely assume that for beer in the United States, the only way to go is up.


Salvatore Colleluori is a political writer by day and a homebrewer and beer enthusiast by night. He holds a degree in Political Science from the George Washington University and enjoys reading about alcohol, history, and foreign relations. He is also an avid music lover, specifically jazz and the Grateful Dead.


Photo credit: Nitram242