Why Are America’s Favorite Beers So Weak?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 27 2013 1:04 PM

Big Breweries, Small Brews

Why are American beers so weak?

Drinking hard or hardly drinking?
Drinking hard or hardly drinking?

Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images

Beer drinkers have filed class-action lawsuits against the makers of Budweiser and Michelob in several states, claiming that the beers are watered down below their stated alcohol content of approximately 5 percent. Beer can be made at many different strengths, with some craft brews surpassing 20 percent alcohol by volume. Why are the most popular American beers so weak?

Because they’re the next best thing to prohibition. Mildly alcoholic lager beers rose to prominence in the United States in the mid-19th century. At the time, Americans faced a dwindling selection of drinks. English-style ales often soured before reaching the consumer and weren’t particularly successful on a commercial scale, especially in warmer states. Independence had reduced the flow of rum from the British-dominated Caribbean. Hard cider was enormously popular during the Colonial Era, but it couldn’t be produced in sufficient quantity to slake the thirst of rapidly expanding American cities. Whiskey became the country’s tipple of choice, almost by default, and Americans drank it in prodigious quantities. By 1830, the average American drank 7 gallons of alcohol per year, much of it in the form of whiskey. (We now consume a comparatively paltry 2.5 gallons of alcohol annually.)

Creeping national alcoholism fueled the temperance movement, and more than a third of U.S. states banned the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol. Then, in the 1850s, the temperance movement hit a roadblock: slavery. Political parties had to take a position on the future of slavery. No matter which side they chose, they immediately lost a huge portion of the electorate. Party leaders feared that taking a strong position on a second controversial issue such as temperance would further narrow their base. As Maureen Ogle chronicled in Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, temperance crusaders were forced to find an alternative to outright prohibition. German immigrants, who didn’t seem to suffer the same problems with alcoholism as many other imbibers, caught America’s attention. Their low-strength lager beer and culture of relaxed, social drinking became the model for American alcohol consumption. Within a couple of decades, Germany’s mild lager beer became America’s favorite drink.

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German-American brewers made some alterations to their mother country’s traditional beer, as any beer aficionado knows. Fearing that American drinkers wouldn’t appreciate the malt-heavy Bavarian lager, they substituted American-grown grains like corn and rice for some of the barley, lightening the beer’s flavor. In the end, they brewed an American alternative to the Bohemian lager. Modern American beer enthusiasts tend to sneer at the two or three mass-produced beers that have dominated the industry for decades, but their success has little to do with corporate trickery, market manipulation, or the effects of Prohibition on smaller brewers. Nineteenth-century Midwestern lagers simply beat other styles of beer in the American market. Mass-marketed lagers were the first beers to truly catch on in the United States, and they have never relinquished that position. Although craft breweries have made significant inroads in recent years, Anheuser-Busch-InBev and Miller-Coors together supply approximately 80 percent of the U.S. beer market.

If you think 5 percent beer is weak, you’re lucky not to have been born 150 years ago. Many early American lagers measured approximately 3.5 percent alcohol by volume, even weaker than some of today’s light beers. When Prohibition was repealed, the legal limit on beer in many states was 4 percent alcohol by volume. If you’re looking for a modern commercial beer with close to 3 percent alcohol, you might try Anchor Small, by California’s Anchor Brewing Company. It’s made with the malted barley left over after making a stronger beer, a traditional ale style known as “small beer.”

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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