So one of the many questions rolling around my head, particularly since living in the United States, has been: why is American beer so bad?
It really is bad. I know Brits get mocked for flat, warm beer (I love it – the taste is terrific), but American beer – your Buds and Millers – really is absolutely dreadful. Tastes of nothing at all, doesn’t refresh or quench or present any of the pleasurable qualities that beer has brought to me many, many times over the past 20 years. In fact, just about the only thing American beer does do is get you drunk – if you can stand to drink enough of it.
Well, I have found out the answer. There was a History Channel documentary on US brewing history at the weekend and it was pretty easy to divine the historical and cultural reasons behind this peculiarity that an entire nation loves drinking rat’s piss while everyone else in the world has spent centuries savouring their beer.
And this is the three-part answer:
- It wasn’t always like this. Americans used to love decent tasting beer. But during World War One, there was a massive backlash against the Germans in the US. At the time, most of the breweries were German or based on German beers or called German names. They took a massive hit and new “American” brewing companies appeared and prospered amid the patriotic fervour.
- Before this had time to shake itself out, Prohibition kicked in. From 1920 to 1933, it was illegal to produce alcoholic drinks. So the brewing industry used its factories to produce other sorts of goods instead. Not only did this cause serious brewers to up and leave the country but it effectively hit reset on the nation’s palate. After Prohibition ended, all that was left was a few giant American breweries able to effectively shape a nation’s taste.
- Before great beer was able to make its inevitable way back into people’s lives, America went through the Second World War and then, crucially, entered the great modern era of advertising. The best example was Miller Lite – which was originally a diet beer aimed at women. The ads – with the still-used tagline “Great Taste…Less Filling!” – were hugely successful and showed working men enjoying Miller. It became one of the first lifestyle approaches to advertising. And, in the way that the greatest ads flip reality, it sold a dreadful tasteless liquid as possessing a “great taste”. Miller Lite and Bud Lite continue to be advertised with unbelievable logic-altering force to this day.
But there is good news.
Micro-brewers save the day
Over the past 15 years or so, there has been the Great Rise of the microbrewery with the United States. With no calamities in between, the American public slowly began to realise its palate and good beer began to find more and more of a market.
Although the light beers still take the majority of the market, the microbreweries are growing in strength and you can find a lot of decent beers in the US these days. Although you may have to seek them out.
I can recommend Anchor Steam from San Francisco. I also tried Brooklyn Beer last weekend in New York, which was pretty good. Sierra Nevada is widely available in Los Angeles and is very enjoyable. And my new favourite is Arrogant Bastard which I had at Baby Blues BBQ on Lincoln the other day. The writing on the label was worth the cost itself. Another good location is Father’s Office in Santa Monica and Culver City which specialises in very, very good beers from the US and elsewhere.
More importantly there are beer festivals across the year. I just missed the Los Angeles one. And there is a Great American Beer Festival. Also, according to one local, who was listening in to my explanation of the above at the LA Galaxy match on Saturday and turned around and told me he was pleased I recognised the microbrewing industry, there is a beer festival coming up near Los Angeles in the next month (may have to track it down).
Anyway, so there you go: an explanation of why American beer is so bad, plus an optimistic ending.