- Historic Sites
Beer And America
It came over with the Mayflower and stayed on to be the unchallenged drink of democracy.
June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
As America’s entry into World War I neared, these associations became, to say the least, a liability. The brewers’ support of German-American cultural groups, and their lobbying of the federal government to fend off politically well-organized prohibitionists, suddenly looked like a secret plot to undermine the war effort. Antialcohol feeling merged with nationalism and xenophobia, and suddenly beer was under attack. “We have German enemies in this country too,” declared one leading Wisconsin prohibitionist in 1918, “and the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller.”
When Prohibition came, beer was banned along with more potent beverages. Some companies tried to market “near beers” with most of the alcohol removed, under brand names like Bevo, Yip, Ona, Chrismo, Famo, Luxo, Quizz, Vivo, and Hoppy. Drinkers, not surprisingly, weren’t having any. (The food authority Waverley Root called near beer “such a wishywashy, thin, ill-tasting, discouraging sort of slop that it might have been dreamed up by a Puritan Machiavelli with the intent of disgusting drinkers with genuine beer forever.”) Most brewers, unable to compete with bootleg beer and whiskey, went broke. Home-brewing supply stores mushroomed, but the quality of home brew was awful and the effect unpredictable. “After I’ve had a couple of glasses I’m terribly sleepy,” one drinker reported. “Sometimes my eyes don’t seem to focus and my head aches. I’m not intoxicated, understand, merely feel as if I’ve been drawn through a knothole.”
The irony was that Prohibition torpedoed a century of temperance campaigning. Since the Civil War the consumption of spirits had declined as beer became more popular. Prohibition changed that, driving people away from beer and toward spirits, which carried a higher profit margin for bootleggers. Samuel Eliot Morison recalled that “college students who before Prohibition would have a keg of beer and sit around singing the ‘Dartmouth Stein Song’ and “Under the Anheuser Busch,’ now got drunk quickly on bathtub gin, and could manage no lyric more complicated than ‘How Dry Am I!’” Heywood Broun dubbed the Volstead Act “a bill to discourage the drinking of good beer in favor of indifferent gin.” Worse, there were dangerous grumblings. Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor fumed that Prohibition was a class law directed against the beer of the workingman, since wealthy people had laid in supplies of wine before the ban and were the only ones who could afford to drink in speakeasies.
Repeal was an act of sanity as well as of political expediency, and it established a legal distinction between beer and spirits that remains to this day. Government was back in the business of promoting beer, allowing it to be sold in grocery stores and supermarkets alongside its new competition, soft drinks. Prohibition had killed the old saloon, which had offered beverages of all kinds both for drinking on the premises and for carrying out. New laws restricted public drinking and encouraged package sales of beer for home consumption, which grew steadily through the thirties and forties, fueled by the introduction in 1935 of the beer can. Anyway, beer drinkers had gotten out of the tavern habit during Prohibition, and new refrigerators made it easier to keep beer at home.
Ever since the 1880s, beer had a powerful connection to sports.
World War II showed how far Americanization had come. This time there was no talk of prohibition for the sake of the war effort, nor was there a whisper of anti-German sentiment directed against brewers. Instead, brewing was designated an essential national industry, and the largest beer companies were asked to set aside 15 percent of their production for servicemen. Grateful returning soldiers would help make beer an inextricable part of postwar American life and would contribute to the dominance of a few powerful national chain breweries.
The story of beer in America since World War II, apart from skyrocketing consumption, is about the shift in power from sales to marketing. By the 1960s the big brewers were in every market, and the battle had become one for market share. Advertising spending increased exponentially, brand image became all important, and new products—lite, low-alcohol, no-alcohol, “draft,” malt liquor, ice beer—proliferated as the giant brewers fought among themselves and tried to fend off flanking moves, first from imported beers and then from the micros.
But the symbols and emotions with which these battles were (and continue to be) fought were already familiar, and the marketing blitz simply confirmed their continued power in the American imagination. Or, in one case, continued implausibility. Beer and temperance, for example, a theme that went back to the Puritans and the Founders, was the centerpiece of a fifties advertising campaign, “Beer and Ale—America’s Beverages of Moderation.” Family picnics, fishing trips, and boating jaunts all were used to suggest that beer was just a normal part of middle-class life, or, as an early Pabst television commercial put it, “It’s beer, Mama, and TV … three ingredients of a recipe for successful living.” Mad , with its unfailing nose for hype, quickly parodied the ads, depicting pie-eyed, Bermuda-shorted suburbanites stumbling around at their backyard barbecues.