We’ve hit a major milestone in American beer history: As of 2015, the U.S. had 4,269 breweries — more breweries than ever before, finally beating the 1873 record, according to the Brewers Association. The thing is, this data is presented without some fairly necessary historical context. In 1873, Ulysses S. Grant was beginning his second term in office as president of the United States, the Jesse James Gang was robbing trains out West, the national population had just crept over 38.5 million and America boasted 4,131 breweries. This would seem like a clear cause for celebration, right? 1873 defended its “most breweries” record for 142 years, and we modern titans of beer knowledge have finally defeated it! Woooh! U-S-A! U-S-A! But why did it take this long? Is it even possible that a simple count can carry anywhere near the same relevance or meaning today as it did back then?
Here’s why 1873 saw the beginning of an extended decline in the number of breweries: That year also witnessed the birth of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The creation of the WCTU (which still exists), while originally driven by the altruistic intentions of advocating for issues including women’s suffrage, improvement of society through labor reform, and international peace, was a key prerequisite, along with the forming of organizations such as the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) in the series of events that led America into Prohibition.
I went to see the Anti-Saloon League collection at the Westerville Public Library in Westerville, Ohio, outside Columbus, for a little extra credit and found it pretty mind-blowing that the center of everything the ASL did is right in my own backyard. I was able to really register what took place during that time period, how public opinion was molded and how different things appear today through the lens of the modern craft beer movement. Upon leaving the museum, I speed-walked seven minutes up the road for a bit of post-Prohibition poetic justice with a calming pint of Westerville’s own Temperance Row Brewing’s “Hatchetation” Pale Ale (named after temperance movement radical and noted hatchet carrier Carrie Nation) and began to realize that the United States will likely never fully recover from all of the cultural, political, societal and economic missteps that took place during Prohibition. It’s a little sad that people are regarding the Brewers Association’s brewery count from a place of “Finally, the last vestiges of Prohibition can be relegated completely to the past! Glad that’s over, it sure was inconvenient!”
Let’s be real, though: In no way is it that simple. Yes, it’s better that the U.S. is registering more breweries than ever before and that the public is progressively educating itself on the desirable aspects of quality brew ingredients, processes and innovation, among other things. But 4,269 breweries in 2015 cannot directly equate to a net positive socioeconomic conclusion just because there’s now 3 percent more than what existed a century and a half ago. For one, assuming the July 1, 2015, U.S. population estimates of 321,418,820, the population of the U.S. has grown about 735 percent since 1873. Now, this data is skewed as it doesn’t factor out children and nondrinkers, but let me give you a general sense of the scale of difference: While there used to be one brewery for every 9,320 people in the country, as of 2015 there was one brewery for every 75,291 people. If we’re comparing brewery numbers across different time periods as a direct apples-to-apples comparison, we should have closer to 35,000 breweries before we bust out the party hats.
We also have to recognize some blatantly obvious differences between the two periods. To start, distribution networks and technology are ridiculously different in terms of refrigeration, packaging and the buying power of the average American. The two time periods are worlds apart and largely escape comparison. But even if we were to correct for population, technology and other previously stated differences, what about laws? Seriously, every state in the union has outdated Prohibition-era legislation rooted in the ignorance of a bygone era that is still somehow actively being enforced. Ohio has a limit levied on beers produced and sold within the state dictating that they must be below 12 percent ABV; in Tennessee, the state considers all beers with ABV above 6.2 percent to be “high gravity” beer, required to be sold in liquor stores; Oklahoma currently requires any beer above 3.2 percent ABV to not be sold cold outside of a liquor store; and there is an ongoing legislative battle raging in Georgia right now where craft brewers have been forced to fight extensively just to achieve common-sense business autonomy regarding brewery tours. These examples barely even scratch the surface of our legal reality. What is the logic surrounding these archaic laws? Answer: none, outside of a vestigial ignorance we all complacently allow to persist within our society long after we, as a nation, acknowledged Prohibition, the Noble Experiment, was an epic fail.
What I’m saying is perhaps we should all be a little bit more pissed off about what that Brewers Association data is suggesting, from how long it’s taken us just to get our brewery numbers back up, to acknowledging that some of the same political agendas that drove us into Prohibition in the first place are still arguably quite present in today’s culture. In the midst of all the growth, optimism and excitement of the craft beer revolution, if we consider our history and culture as a whole, at 4,269 breweries in 2015, something is clearly still holding us back.