Why Americans Like Light Beer

Despite the proliferation of hundreds of microbreweries over the past few decades, only about three percent of the beer consumed in the U.S. is microbrew, with imports representing only about nine percent of the total.

The vast majority of beer that people drink is "macrobrew". There seems to be a dichotomy among beer lovers: a lot of macro drinkers find the taste of micros to be too strong, while many micro fans consider macros to be too thin, watery and tasteless. Why does the public's taste lean so heavily toward the lighter stuff? In order to answer this question, we need a little history lesson.

In 1880 the U.S. had 2272 breweries. Almost every town of any significance had its own brewery. It was kind of like Germany, except without the genocide. Then the number of breweries started to dwindle, for a couple of reasons. Pasteur's discovery that flash heating beer killed spoilage bacteria was a boon to the bottling of beer. The development of an efficient transcontinental railway system (and later the nationwide highway system) allowed easy transportation of bottled beer across the U.S. Thus, the large "shipping" brewer could sell his beer almost anywhere, whereas the smaller, local, draft beer seller was pretty much confined to his little township. By 1918 more than half of American breweries had folded.

Then came Prohibition. "Teetotaling prudes" who hated to see people having a good time pressured legislators into outlawing the elixir that hard-working people everywhere looked forward to after spending 12 hours in a factory. Actually, alcohol was not the main enemy in the eyes of many Prohibitionists; saloons were. The lower-class working masses self-medicated their problems in smoky dens of alcohol, gambling and prostitution. This took away large portions of their time and money that they should have spent on their families. Corruption, work absenteeism, crime and domestic violence were also at least partly attributable to liquor. All these factors caused a group of concerned citizens to form the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) and to write anti-booze legislature which, because they were a powerful political force, became the 18th Amendment in 1920.

Most brewers tried to stay in business by switching to soft drinks, ice cream, fruit drinks and the like, but most of them went under. Their buildings were converted into warehouses and other businesses. One even became a church.

Unfortunately, all Prohibition did was force all the time and money spent on liquor underground. Thousands of "speakeasies" popped up across the nation, many with the small sliding panel you see in old movies which enabled the bouncers to make sure that people knocking on the door were known customers. The police, for the most part, were no threat to speakeasies, since the majority of them took bribes to look the other way. The willingness of the average citizen to drink despite the 18th Amendment ensured that there would be plenty of demand to keep illegal drinking establishments in business.

Supply kept up with demand. Both commercial and homemade concoctions fed the public appetite for alcohol. Additionally, there was inadequate border patrol to prevent imported booze from entering the country.

Thirteen years after the enactment of the 18th Amendment there was public outcry for Repeal. It was plain to see that Prohibition had been a miserable failure: it did not keep folks out of drinking establishments, there was added crime and corruption, and many people became sick or died from drinking "rotgut" (imported booze cut with industrial alcohol, creosote and other noxious substances in order to stretch supply). Furthermore, the Depression was in full swing, and Repeal would supposedly bring jobs and tax revenues. So, in 1933, Prohibition was repealed (woohoo!).

Prohibition is partly responsible for America's preference for light beer. During Prohibition, bootleggers often made beer with corn and/or other adjuncts, not only to cut costs, but in order to avoid being caught: the less hops and malt in a product, the more difficult it was to track down where it came from. Meanwhile, high-quality imported beers were often watered down in order to get more servings per keg. More than a decade of drinking this stuff caused the public to develop a taste for it.

After Repeal, more than 700 brewers attempted to go back into business. Unfortunately, many of them were undercapitalized or poorly managed, and much of their equipment had become obsolete. The introduction of the beer can in 1935 made shipping even more economical, thus giving larger breweries an advantage. Economies of scale favored the heavyweight brewers (i.e. big company = big purchase = big discount). National radio - and later national television - led to national advertising that only the big guys could afford (and of course this still remains true today). So what we've ended up with is an industry dominated by a handful of giants.

"But what does that have to do with flavor?" I hear you query. "Aren't the brewing titans capable of producing something other than fizzy yellow water?" Yes they are. In fact, "macrobreweries" have the best quality control in the beer industry. Their modern equipment and attention to detail ensure that a beer brewed in St. Louis, Missouri tastes exactly like one brewed in Fairfield, California. They are certainly capable of producing more robust selections like Bocks and India Pale Ales.

So why don't they?

Our story resumes in the early 1940s. Many young, able-bodied men are fighting in Europe and the Pacific, and many women are working in the steel mills and other places where our soldiers used to work. At the end of their shift they go out to socialize. They're not used to visiting pubs, let alone drinking alcohol, so they order the lightest thing offered: beer. It's still too strong. They cut it with water. Word gets back to beer executives that they can water the beer down and still sell it. The prospect of even greater profits is too attractive to pass up, so thinner brews start being produced. By 1945, the public's taste has been transformed, and the returning GIs are so happy to be home that they don't make a fuss about diluted beer.

In the early 1970s, Miller Brewing launched a huge ad campaign that successfully convinced people that they should drink beer that was even lighter than what they were used to. They used ex-football heroes like Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith to assure the macho, sports-watching public not only that light beer had flavor, but also that drinking it did not make them wimps.

All of these factors - Prohibition, economies of scale, World War II and advertising - have contributed to the American taste for beer that's, well, "less filling". Not that there's anything wrong with that. Just as a football fan shouldn't look down on a baseball fan for enjoying a non-contact sport, there is no reason for a connoisseur with a preference for imperial stouts to diss anyone because they prefer an Ice Dry Light. Remember, we're all brothers (and sisters) in beer.