There aren’t many things that tie together Belgian monks, lederhosen-wearing Germans, and American crowds packing the infield at a stock car race, but the common thread between these disparate groups is beer. Beer is the world’s most interesting beverage because of the endless local differences in drinking habits, beer styles, and pubs.
The world’s biggest brewers are larger and more international than they were in the past. The largest global brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, for example, is a half-American company headquartered in Belgium and controlled by Brazilians. But as Gavin Smith shows in this short and engaging book, the familiar global brands are the least interesting ones. Nearly every country has a brewer that is either one of the international leaders or an affiliate brand. But the same countries also have brewers that slavishly tried to imitate the leaders and have long since become part of history.
In the United States, for example, the three largest brewers are Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, and Pabst. But the fourth-largest brewer is Yuengling, which started operations in 1829 and remains a privately owned, family-controlled enterprise that, since 1873, has been headquartered at Fifth and Mahantongo Streets in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. The fifth-largest American brewer, Boston Beer, is the creation of Jim Koch, who in 1984 decided to contract with older breweries to use their excess capacity to make his Samuel Adams beers. Contracting enabled Boston Beer to grow to the point that it could buy older breweries in Cincinnati and northeastern Pennsylvania and turn them into Boston Beer plants.
While Yuengling and Boston Beer are thriving, older companies that tried to imitate the larger giants are now part of history. As late as 1974, Milwaukee’s Schlitz Brewing was the second-largest American brewer, with a 22 percent market share. But arrogant executives and bad marketing campaigns ensured that the company went out of existence in 1982. Schlitz now survives as one of the many budget brands produced by Pabst.
Smith shows that a similar winnowing of second-tier breweries has taken place in Germany, still the world’s fifth-largest beer producer, even as per-capita consumption there has steadily declined. While the beer industry is not as concentrated in Germany as in the United States, the Germans now routinely speak of Brauereisterben, or “brewery death.” The malaise has also affected Germany’s beer-drinking culture: Munich’s largest beer hall, the 5,000-seat Mathäser, has been torn down and replaced by a multiplex.
Even Munich’s renowned Oktoberfest is less fun than it used to be. Smith quotes writer Christian DeBenedetti, who observes, “Once a decorous wedding pageant, Oktoberfest is a hot mess, with cheesy carnival rides and hordes chugging cheap lager as if it were Hawaiian Punch. Paris Hilton even showed up for the anniversary celebration.”
If the story of beer were solely that of giant breweries with substantial advertising budgets, the thoughtful drinker would give up and subsist on cider and spirits. But beer’s comeback is due to the rise of smaller, craft brewers, who flourish in heartland cities the elites ignore: the aforementioned Pottsville; Chico, California; Milton, Delaware. According to the Brewers Association, there were 2,538 breweries and pubs in the United States in 2013, up from a low of 89 breweries in 1980. There are more breweries in America today than at any time since records were first kept, in 1887. Politicians welcome new breweries, which offer well-paying manufacturing jobs that aren’t exported overseas.
The introduction of all these breweries means that the drinker has far more choice than in the past. Lovers of British beer, for example, know that the best British ales and stouts are “cask-conditioned”—fresh, unpasteurized, with live yeast still in the beer. Cask-conditioned beers were rarities 10 years ago, but they are now so common that major league baseball stadiums now offer cask-conditioned beer on weekends. Most large cities now have innumerable options for drinkers who want to enjoy Belgian ales, German lagers, or locally made American adaptations of classic European styles.