Why bland American beer is here to stay

Although craft beer has experienced explosive market growth over the past 25 years, the vast majority of Americans still don’t drink it.

Only about 1 in 8 beers sold in America is a craft beer. For the first time, the three best-selling beers in America are light beers: Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite. Bud Light alone has a greater market share than all craft beers combined.

So while the selection has broadened dramatically, most people’s tastes have not. Even craft beer companies are adjusting to this reality: A recent Chicago Tribune article noted that craft breweries are releasing beers that are “less hoppy and in-your-face” in order to appeal to the majority of Americans who prefer “big corporate lagers.”

In other words, they’re brewing blander beers.

How did Americans come to prefer such bland beer? As an economic historian, I’ve extensively researched the political economy of alcohol prohibition, and the unique history of the U.S. temperance movement might bear some responsibility for country’s exceptionally bland beer.

The ‘lager bier craze’ clashes with teetotalers

Unlike European countries with beer preferences and styles that have evolved over centuries, America lacks a homegrown brewing tradition.

The classic American beer is an “adjunct pilsner,” which means that some of the malted barley is replaced with corn or rice. The effect is a beer that’s lighter, clearer and less hoppy than its counterparts in countries like England, Germany and Belgium.

In colonial America, English-style beers and ales predominated, but rum and then whiskey were the drink of choice. Cider, easier to make at home, overtook beer by the early 19th century.

However, the American beer market grew during the great mid-19th century wave of German immigration. German lagers were an immediate hit, partially because the German brewing method of bottom fermentation – which involves a relatively long fermentation period and cold storage – made for a more consistent, storable product than top-fermented ales. The lagers were also mellower, though they were dark and hearty compared to what would become popular later.

But the “lager bier craze” dovetailed with another big trend: the temperance movement, which at various times sought to reduce problem drinking, reduce drinking more generally and eradicate alcohol consumption completely. From 1830 to 1845, the temperance movement gained momentum as more and more Americans were taking voluntary “temperance pledges” and giving up spirits and cider.

A print from the 1800s promotes ‘lager bier’ as a ‘healthy drink’ and a ‘family drink.’ Library of Congress
German brewers always maintained that beer was a “temperance beverage,” unlike ardent spirits such as whiskey. And indeed, European temperance movements did tend to regard beer as relatively harmless.

But activists in the American temperance movement – which by then had become more about abstinence and intertwined with evangelical Protestantism – didn’t buy the argument. The 1850s saw the first big push for state-level prohibition laws, which ended up being passed in a handful of states. Those laws didn’t last for a variety of reasons (including the Civil War), but they did serve notice to the brewers that they needed to work harder to convince the public that beer was a temperance beverage.

Perfect for a midday drink

In the 1870s, American beer would become mellower still with the advent of a new type of lager: the Bohemian pilsner. Clearer, lighter and blander than the Bavarian lagers that had previously dominated the market, pilsners looked cleaner, healthier, more stable and less intoxicating.

As an 1878 issue of the trade publication Western Brewer noted, Americans “want a clear beer of light color, mild and not too bitter taste.”