Beer is America's favorite alcoholic beverage. The United States is the largest producer of beer in the world (about six billion gallons annually), and approximately 85 percent of the volume of alcoholic beverages sold in the United States each year is beer. Americans, per capita, drink about 85 liters a year. The United States is ranked eighth in the world for its consumption of beer.
Beer produced in the United States constitutes a $190 billion industry, providing 1.7 million jobs and $36 billion of federal, state, and local taxes. The craft brewing sector of the industry occupied $5 billion of the market in 2007. That same year, American consumers spent $97 billion on beer. Only a relatively small quantity of North American beer is exported each year: 4.4 million hectoliters as opposed to the 30 million hectoliters of beer that is imported annually.
The origins of beer in this country mimic the international origins of many of its population's national heritages. British, Dutch, German, Czech, and Irish immigrants contributed to the birth of American beer, building breweries in many of the places they settled. Beer was originally brought from England to the colonies, and, in the nineteenth century, Germans brought the newly developed lager styles better suited to large-scale production. By the late nineteenth century, there were more than 4,000 breweries in the United States, but that number shrank after the invention of refrigeration in the early years of the twentieth century.
Steam beer is claimed to be the first beer to have originated in the United States, in San Francisco during the nineteenth century. Steam beer was no longer brewed after Prohibition, although the Anchor Steam Brewery has attempted to recreate the style.
Prohibition (1920–1933) decimated the brewing industry, causing almost all of the 1,400 breweries to close. Only a small number of these breweries were able to reopen after the repeal of Prohibition. Prohibition gave rise to illegal home-brewing of beer.
Prohibition set the stage for the dominance of megabreweries, which continues to the present. During Prohibition, only the largest breweries could stay in business through the production of nonalcoholic beverages such as root beer, nonalcoholic beer, colas, and malt syrup. When Prohibition was repealed in part by the amendment of the Volstead Act in April 1933, beer up to 3.2 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) was labeled as not “intoxicating” and was therefore not prohibited. Although beer was again made legal in December 1933, with the repeal of Prohibition according to the Twenty-first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the brewing industry had suffered enormously. Only the stronger and larger breweries had survived.
By World War II, the brewing industry had not yet recovered, and breweries were forced to use lower-cost ingredients, producing lower-alcohol beer so that grain could be employed for the war effort. This may have been the catalyst for America's taste for low-alcohol, low-flavor beer. The industry came to be dominated by the brewing giants Anheuser-Busch and Coors Brewing Company, characterized by the uniformity of their pilsner-style lager and their use of low-cost ingredients such as corn, rice, and other adjuncts, which provided the starch needed for alcohol production but gave little flavor character to the beer.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the American national brands rose in popularity, which greatly minimized the variety of beer available in the country. Although in 1880, there were more than 2,200 breweries in the United States, in the early 1980s, there were fewer than 50. Some industry experts predicted that it would only be a short time until there would be only five brewing companies left in the country. The 1970s and 1980s have been called the pre-revolutionary period of American beer. Gradually during these years, imported beer became more prevalent in the American market, and consumers sought out new choices in beer. These beers were sold at higher prices, but many consumers thought they were well worth the price.
Since the 1980s, the United States has seen what has become known as the craft beer revolution, characterized by the rise of microbreweries, regional craft breweries and brewpubs. Microbreweries produce fewer than 15,000 barrels (1 barrel = 31 gallons) of beer per year. Although some craft breweries produce a volume that excludes them from this categorization, annual production generally is less than 2 million barrels per year, qualifying them for the Tax and Trade Bureau's small brewers excise tax differential. The number of regional craft breweries, microbreweries, and brewpubs is currently approaching 2,000. Craft breweries brew traditional styles, sometimes interpreting them in new, creative, and unprecedented ways.
Most commercial craft beer grew out of the hobby of home-brewing. Unsatisfied with the available beer in the United States, home-brewers realized that one of the only ways to drink stronger, more flavorful beers of greater diversity was to brew them themselves. These home-brewers eventually became many of the first commercial craft brewers. While the craft brewing sector of the brewing industry faced many difficulties getting off its feet in the 1980s, and although it still composes only 3.8 percent of the beer sold in the United States, it is the fastest-growing sector of the brewing industry.
Approximately 1,440 breweries currently operate in the United States, four of which constitute about 95 percent of the industry. These four breweries produce a uniform beer, and they distinguish themselves more through their image and marketing than through their product. In recent years, the industry giants have recognized the craft beer niche market and have made attempts to develop craft beers that rival the popularity of the independently made craft beers.
Beer in the United States is produced through the same process as beer in other parts of the world: sugars from malted grains (usually barley or wheat, but also rice and corn) are boiled with hops and water and then the wort, or unfermented beer, is fermented with yeast. The strength of beer is measured in terms of ABV. The average strength of beer in the United States is 4.2 percent.
American beer can be divided roughly into two categories: ales and lagers. Ales are beers that are fermented at higher temperatures (59–77°F) using grains that have been kilned at higher temperatures, giving more color and flavor and fermented by top-fermenting yeasts. Lagers are fermented at cooler temperatures (43–50°F) using bottom-fermenting yeasts. These beers are lagered, or stored, after fermentation at cooler temperatures for a period of several weeks.
Most beer produced and drunk in the United States is the pale lager, the style of Budweiser, Coors, and Miller. This style, originated in Europe, is characterized by its pale yellow color, low alcohol content, and light flavor. Other beer styles that were developed in Europe but have grown into distinctly American versions include the pale ale, India pale ale, brown ale, porter, and stout. Some markedly American versions of these beers such as the American Stout or West Coast India pale ale are now recognized beer styles of their own. Many craft breweries in the United States also produce Belgian-style beer such as Saison, Dubbel, Tripel, Belgian Strong Golden, and Belgian Strong Dark.
Most beer in the United States is consumed in the home, but about one quarter of the beer sold in this country is consumed in bars, restaurants, and breweries. A slightly lower amount is purchased in gas stations (20%), supermarkets (19%), and liquor stores (17%). Although beer can be sold on the premises in brewpubs (establishments that sell most of their beer on the premises), most breweries do not sell beer directly to the customer. Instead, beer is sold through a three-tier system involving the supplier, the distributor, and the retailer.
Unlike in many other countries where the legal drinking age is 18, Americans must be 21 years old to legally drink beer. Many underage Americans, however, are not dissuaded from drinking beer. Beer is one of the most common beverages for underage drinking in the United States because, for many, beer is considered less harmful and more socially acceptable than wine or hard alcohol. Young adults are also more likely to be inundated with advertising that promotes beer more than any other alcoholic beverage.
Beer is a beverage of relaxation and celebration in many parts of the world. However, among many consumers of beer in the United States, it is not the drink of moderation as it is in other countries. A relatively small population of drinkers consumes most of the beer drunk in the United States. Beer drinkers are overrepresented by men and young adults who disproportionately represent the heaviest drinkers. Although they constitute only about one quarter of the population, they make up almost half of adult drinking. For many Americans, beer has a negative association with elements such as sex, partying, and aggression among young males. Some mainstream beer advertising also tends to play into the negative stereotypes associated with beer.
Men drink the most beer in the United States, but women represent a growing market. Beer advertising is almost exclusively targeted toward men. Although women have historically been marginalized from the beer world, and beer drinking among women is less socially accepted than among men, women currently account for one quarter of the beer consumers in the United States. Women in their 20s drink more beer than in any other age group, although beer drinking among women above the age of 50 is also on the rise. Women tend to be more discerning beer drinkers on the whole than men, preferring beer with more flavor and character than the average beer drinker. Lower-alcohol and low-carbohydrate beers, wheat beers, and light ales are popular choices among American women. The craft beer sector of the beer industry continues to be male-dominated, as does the home-brew hobby, but this is changing as many talented women enter the field producing high-quality beer.
Although the average beer drinker may know or appreciate little about the process that goes into the beer, through the educational undertakings of select breweries and beer enthusiasts, beer is slowly shedding some of these negative associations and is becoming an alcoholic beverage of more integrity.
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