When it comes to beer, the craft connoisseurs say Americans just don’t get it. Right-thinking drinkers all know that bitter is better. But despite the explosion in the market for craft beers, which are often high-alcohol, hoppy ales, Americans still like their Bud Light. According to the Washington Post, there’s an explanation for our intransigence on IPAs: politics. The Post's Roberto Feldman efforts to explain why we’ve got such bad beer taste here in the U.S.A.:
Beer, the lifeblood of so many happy hours, is the most popular alcoholic drink in the United States. But while there's been a burst of craft brewers introducing beers with complex flavors, Americans still largely love their beer to taste one way: bland.
Almost every best selling beer is a light beer. Bud Light, the most popular brand by far, accounts for nearly one out of every four beers sold in the United States.
Dismayed by the popularity of tasteless beers, economist Ranjit Dighe decided to figure out the origins of Americans' preference for pilsners, lagers and other milder brews. What he found is that a taste for bland beer might as well run in Americans' veins.
Dighe explains that the temperance movement at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries stigmatized high-alcohol beers like ales and led Americans to favor the lighter, blander (Feldman’s term) pilsners. "Protestant, baptist, methodist values—they all were too strong," Dighe told Feldman. "So the whole temperance movement had a profound effect on the type of beer Americans drank. No one touched the more alcoholic stuff." Throughout and after prohibition, Dighe found, Americans continued to shun hoppier beers for the lighter fare. As a nation of drinkers, we’ve been stuck in our cycle of ignorance ever since.
But the meddling ladies of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union may not be to blame. Feldman unwittingly offers a hint at another force at play when he lists the four best-selling beers in America by volume: Budweiser Light, Coors Light, Budweiser, Miller Lite—pale lagers all. Consider some other popular beer brand names in America: Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Schlitz, and Yuengling, the oldest operating brewery in the country.
Notice a theme? As Thomas Sowell documented in his social history Ethnic America, the growth of the American beer industry can be traced to the decades-long influx of German-speaking immigrants to the United States. Men with names like Busch, Anheuser, Miller, and Pabst traveled up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to the cities of the Midwest the middle of the 19th century. Almost as soon as these Germans began arriving they began brewing and selling their light, pale lagers. Americans weren’t drinking much of the warm, bitter British-style ales before this, and as they did with many aspects of American society, the German-Americans transformed our drinking culture.
“So when the country went from drinking almost no beer in the early 1800s to drinking quite a bit of it in the late 1800s and early 1900s…it was almost exclusively bland,” writes Feldman. “Some 85 to 90 percent of beer consumed in the United States around that time were pilsners and lagers.”
By the time the temperance movement reached its height at the turn of the century, Americans were already drinking plenty of German-style beer. That familiarity seems a surer explanation for America’s longstanding love of lagers than the pernicious influence of the temperance movement.
And that may not be the whole story. The affordability of Bud Light and its peers certainly goes a long way, as well. While a six-pack of my favorite IPA (Atlanta’s Sweetwater) can be as much as $10 at my Northern Virginia grocery store, a six-pack of Bud Light is often half the price—and much more drinkable on a summer afternoon spent next to the grill.
In recent years, there have been major upheavals in the beer businesses, though, which makes the Post’s piece on light beer’s persistence all the more curious. Sales are down for the legacy lagers, and craft beers are starting to "crowd out" the traditional brands. Witness Budweiser’s direct hit on hoity-toity microbrews (calling itself a "macrobrew") in its Super Bowl ad earlier this year. In truth, Americans' tastes are shifting, though not as quickly as craft connoisseurs might hope.