Why Did American Beer Tend to Blandness Prior to the Craft Era?

I haven’t read the book which is the subject of this interesting Atlantic article, but would like to offer some thoughts.

First, even post-Prohibition, American beers must have had plenty of taste. Look at A.L. Nugey’s table of beers circa-1936 I posted a few days ago. Those beers were hopped at .5 lb to upwards of 1 lb per (American) barrel, which is much, much more than the modern norm – I’m speaking here of the typical mass market beer, not the craft segment. It’s rather more than English bitters were achieving in the period leading up to the craft beer onset in the U.K.

Even though most of those beers used some rice and corn adjunct (or sugars), they had to be far more impactful on the palate than the typical modern light beer or standard macro offering. This is due both to the much larger hop content than today but also the probable average lower percentage of adjunct used as compared with modern mass market beers.

Sam Adams Boston Lager uses about 1 lb hops per U.S. barrel and is based on an 1800’s recipe of the founder’s ancestor: would anyone claim it is bland? Would anyone claim Pilsner Urquell, the “first” blonde lager and 4.4% abv as it was in the 1800’s, is bland? The American Budweiser in the 1800’s surely tasted much closer to both these beers than it now does… I don’t see that German immigration or lingering Volstead attitudes had much to do with the decline of beer flavour. The lowest alcohol level permitted in some states after 1933, 3.2 alcohol by weight, is about 4% by volume, fairly respectable. Foster’s lager, a large-selling brand in English pubs, is currently 4% abv. And many states post-Volstead had higher limits on beer abv or no limits.

I believe the blandification of North American beer started mainly in the post-war era and gathered pace from the 1950’s in particular. This was for a variety of reasons: cost-savings under more sophisticated business strategies (use less or less costly materials = make more money), expanding the beer market to include more women and young people, and foremost, industry consolidation. Also, the U.S.  and Canada had a corn crop, thus corn (or rice) became acceptable to use as an adjunct to barley, for which too there were technical brewing reasons at the outset, e.g., they promoted clarity.

The UK has a lower-alcohol, inexpensive lager-based beer culture.  So does France, Spain, many other countries. Well how did they get there then? No Prohibition, no huge German influx. I think the same factors explain the watery mass market taste as occurred in America after WW II. I do agree that a lot of lager was on the weaker side in the 1800’s, but this was so in Germany too at the time – the achievement of the circa-5% abv norm only occurred somewhat later both in the U.S. and Germany. This was probably connected, or in my view, to reduced multiple unit consumption vs. the later 1800’s, something which made sense both in light of greater health knowledge but also the increasing urbanization and mechanization of society. Of course this discussion is largely of a historical nature since the craft beer segment now ensures a range of very characterful beers (as the Atlantic piece noted), but still I thought it useful to indicate some thoughts in reaction to what I read.

6 thoughts on “Why Did American Beer Tend to Blandness Prior to the Craft Era?

  1. Wait, I see now Doug’s figures show in fact the 30’s beers were as malty as Urquell. So this on top of much greater hop use and (IMO) likely heavier barley malt use.

    Gary

  2. Gary, it is indeed possible to calculate FG if you have OG and alcohol content. I used online calculators (which I don’t entirely trust) and applied them to four samples from Nugey’s table:

    Golden Beer OG 11.5B <3.2% ABW FG 1016
    "Beer" OG 16B 5.25% ABW FG 1015
    Lager OG 13B 4.0% ABW FG 1014
    Draft/Bottle OG 12.5B 3.6% ABW FG 1016

    A modern day outlier in this regard is Pilsner Urquell, which at a stated strength of 4.1% ABV and OG of 12 degrees Plato, works out to finishing gravity of an astonishing 1017, setting it apart from its hundreds of much drier imitators. A quick glance through Ron P's tables indicates that this spec is virtually unchanged since the mid 19th century.

    • Doug,thanks for this. Sounds like the FG’s approximate the modern norm, however I feel many quality recipes used less extract than today, some were at 15 or 20 per cent for example and today I’d have to think 30 per cent is a minimum and it often goes higher, to 40 or even more. Also, the much higher hop rates as stated earlier. Urquell is actually 4.4 per cent abv, and a 1997 Brewing Techniques article stated FG is 1015, still higher than the modern norm you indicated. I’ll link that article when I get back from a short trip away, but IIRC Peter Emsinger wrote it in Brewing Techniques, which is probably easy to find with a search online.

      Gary

  3. I think it’s worth looking at beer in America in the larger context of food in America. At the same time that beer became so much more uniform and unagressive, the same trend was happening in food. The amount of specialized ethnic sausage Americans ate went down, and the consumption of hot dogs went way up. The variety of vegetables and fruits eaten by Americans shrank, as did the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the consumption of canned fruits and vegetables went way up. You can see the same trends in baked goods, soups, meats — you name it.

    To a large extent these changes were influenced by forces affecting beer — consolidation, mass production, and so on. But it’s also worth noting that the tastes of American consumers were also far less adventuresome, as the great waves of immigration prior to 1930 faded and ethnic communities became more similar to the older, larger mainstream.

    Likewise, the rise of craft beer in America has neatly tracked the growing diversity of American tastes over the past 30 years, which has also followed the renewed growth in immigration. It’s not that the large recent influx of Asians, Hispanics, Africans and others brought along a strong demand for beer, but it has meant that mainstream consumers who now enjoy a wide variety of ethnic foods are also now far more receptive to a much greater variety in their beer.

  4. Gary,
    There has been another trend, all over the developed brewing world, over the last century that I believe has also resulted in blander beers.

    Contemporary mass-market beers typically have a finishing gravity of around 2 degrees Plato (SG 1.008) or less, making them dry and relatively thin-bodied. A quick glance through historic brewing texts or Ron Pattinson’s innumerable tables is a real eye-opener to a modern brewer, revealing finishing gravities that seem outrageously high (often>1.020 SG / 5P) by current standards. Historic beers doubtless were fuller bodied and occasionally downright sweet.

    The business case for this trend is obvious. By simultaneously lowering finishing and starting gravities, alcohol content can be maintained while lowering raw material usage. For some breweries, that’s tonnes of malt and adjuncts.

    In the UK, it was a matter of necessity. A punitive and progressive excise tax based on Original Gravity, plus war-related shortages forced brewers to produce highly attenuated beers, even at a measly 3% ABV.

    In Europe and North America, it seems to have been more a matter of the drive for efficiency. Brands that have maintained roughly 5% ABV for decades are generally OG 11.5P/1.046 – FG 2P/1.008 but a century ago might have been OG 13.5P/1.054 – FG 4P/1.016.

    This ignores the practice of high gravity brewing, but that’s grist for another mill…

    • Doug, excellent comment. I do recall the issue of historic finishing gravities often being higher than today and Ron gave one calculation, involving Guinness in the early 50’s, that is telling.

      The Nugey table does not give finishing gravities, it does give SGs though and the abw for many of the beers listed. Can you calculate the finishing gravities for these beers? If so are they higher than the commercial norm today?

      But again, your point, combined with what I said about drastic hop reduction and possibly considerable barley malt reduction since the war years, spell the tale more – in my opinion again – than anything about low abv and bland taste in the 1800’s – I just don’t believe those beers were bland. Indeed many of them, including the one in the period illustration in the article, were dark (dunkel or bock) and would have gained extra flavour from that alone.

      Gary

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