I recently came across the headline “Number of U.S. Brewers Exceeds 3,000“, a level suspected last seen in the 1870′s. This statistic is another piece of anecdotal evidence that beer’s heyday–in the U.S.–occurred well before prohibition, followed by its dark ages in the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s. With the American beer industry now entering its age of enlightenment, I wanted to find a simple way to tell the whole story that wasn’t a one-off statistic. Enter the Beer Institute.
The Beer Institute publishes an annual brewers almanac chock full of raw data dating all the way back to the late 1800′s. Using this resource I was able to produce a chart that I think clearly shows the trends in the U.S. beer industry since 1887. In 1887 the U.S. had 2,269 brewers producing on average 10,190 barrels of beer per year. I suspect there were a large number of small local brewers producing a lot of great beer. Even before Prohibition the number of brewers in the U.S. began to slide. I imagine there were many reasons for this including improved shipment methods, allowing some of these smaller brewers to extend their reach, acquiring or putting less successful brewers out of business. What this means is while Prohibition was a catalyst to to moving beer toward its Dark Ages it was not the cause. This trend rapidly worsened and by 1979 we had just 44 brewers in the U.S. producing on average over 4 million barrels of beer per year. Beer production shifted from quality to quantity, good for the brewers but terrible for the consumers. Lucky for us today, beer was about to enter its Renaissance.
Beer Advocate has a fantastic timeline illustrating how this Renaissance was born, but some key events include the legalization of home brewing in 1978, the first ever Great American Beer Festival in 1981 and the birth of the brewpub in 1982. Today, while craft beer still makes up a relatively small amount of market share there has been an obvious shift back to quality. As of 2012–the most recent almanac data–there are 2,751 breweries operating in the U.S., producing on average 71,152 barrels of beer; 98% below the 1979 level. While we will never know what we missed in the late 1800′s, if you are a fan of beer, now isn’t a bad time to be alive.
Here is the chart: