When I was a kid in northern Michigan, there were three basic kinds of beer (assuming you ignored Stroh’s): Busch, Bud and Michelob. A bit later, Miller Lite invaded my dad’s fridge. I still drink beer, but none of those have been in my glass since college. Today, I’m more likely to fill a growler with the likes of a Ruthless Rye, Hopdevil or random tap down the street. Just as my tastes for beer have changed over the years, so has the industry and its geography.
Where beer is produced is determined by the same three factors used in other industries: resource availability, access to markets and transportation costs. Since beer, being liquid, is heavy, its production has typically been near where it is consumed. In earlier days, localized production also had the added benefit of minimizing spoilage.
Beyond industrial geography, though, culture also plays a role. The patterns of immigration, notably those of the Germans and Czechs, contributed to and cultivated local tastes as these new peoples populated the landscape and introduced lagers and pilsners to a beer market dominated by ales prior to the 1850s. As a result, the industrial and transportation corridors of the Ohio River from Pittsburgh through Evansville became the epicenter of North American brewing (circa 1850-1880). Later immigrants to the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley brought markets to Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee. These days, new cultures, experimentation and globalization have expanded the beer aisle to include ales, pilsners, lagers, porters, stouts, wheats, and ryes, as well as seasonals spiked with pumpkin, blueberries, and even black pepper.
Today, brands like Stroh’s (a Michigan beer) that defined the taps of your neighborhood bar are long gone; most disappeared in the 1980s. While it would be easy to blame globalization’s black helicopters for the homogenization of American beer, the process was the result of a predictable combination of emerging technologies, decreased transportation costs, and increased capital intensity. Interestingly, those factors have contributed to two eras of brewery consolidation—the first between 1880 and Prohibition and more recently between 1950 and 1980.
In 1880, there were 2,100 brewers, and they could be found in every major and minor city. By 1920, there were fewer than 1,200. When Pro-hibition was repealed, the total number of breweries rebounded to over 700; however, varying combinations of under-capitalization, the war, lingering localized prohibition, and the increased national scale of the marketplace prompted firm failures.
While local and regional beers returned in the 1940s and 1950s, consolidation resulted in a total of fewer than 90 U.S. breweries by the 1970s. The firms that came to dominate the U.S. beer market through the 1980s are familiar ones, including Miller and Anheuser Busch, as well as once-regional producers with national or extra-regional markets, such as Olympia, Stroh’s, Coors, and Pabst. As a result of consolidation and globalization, only three of these producers are recognizable and their ownership more “global”—Anheuser-Busch InBev (Belgian), SABMiller (South African), and Pabst (now Los Angeles—not Milwaukee). So like everything else, American beer isn’t American, per se (and bourbon may be on the same trajectory).
If you enjoy local beer, thank Jimmy Carter. He signed H.R. 1337, which permitted states to determine the rules and regulations surrounding beer production. The results were relaxed rules, decreased barriers to market entry, and the informal schooling of a generation of home brewers who transformed the American beer palette. Most important, some of these home brewers would become entrepreneurs, producing local, regional, and eventually national brands that looked, smelled, and tasted different – and that are more likely to be drunk from designer glassware than a set of cheap beer mugs. As a result, beer—like coffee and wine before it—has become a luxury item that creates community, distinctness and meaning.
Today, more than 2,500 breweries are in operation across the U.S. and nearly 97 percent of them are local or regional. What makes these beers interesting to me isn’t just their taste, quality, or variety, but the many ways in which they reflect place and the cultural landscape. Indeed, the resurgence of local production has resulted in the branding of localities and reimagining of histories that make communities “stickier” and connect folks to one another.
With brews like Hoosier Daddy and brands like Bluegrass Brewing Company, craft brews sew together history, place, and identity to create a shared experience. Similarly, beer label art demonstrates how identity and even the physical landscape can be powerful marketing devices that reinforce the persistence and uniqueness of place. The result is that local beer contributes to a broader trend toward neo-localism that gives meaning to everyday life and enlivens slogans such as “Keep Louisville Weird.”
So when you hoist Lexington’s Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, think about how your tastes have changed and how even in a global world, people like local. And think about the many ways that local has become big business. After all, it was only a few years ago that Boston Lager was a local beer.
Jay D. Gatrell
Jay D. Gatrell, Ph.D., is the assistant vice president for academic affairs and a professor of geography and environmental studies. To learn more about the spatial dynamics of beer geographies, see Geography of Beer (Patterson & Hoalst Pullen 2014), published by Springer. Data for this story were obtained from the Brewers Association website.