Infographic: The Worst Year in the History of American Beer

Most of us have seen a graphic showing the number of breweries in America from the 1800’s to today.  It tells a story we’ve all heard before – America had a lively brewing scene up until Prohibition, when nearly two thousand breweries were wiped off the map, most never to be seen again.  The number of breweries in America stayed low until the craft beer movement took off in the 1990’s.

Well, I just came across a new (to me) infographic which overlays a key bit of info onto this old chestnut.  It’s from the book Beer Craft: A Simple Guide to Making Great Beer by William Bostick and Jessi Rymil, and it adds production volume to the mix.  It’s cool to see these two pieces of information together, and it allows us to draw an interesting conclusion…

Click to Enlarge

Prohibition aside, 1980 was the worst year in the history of American beer. The sidebar on the graphic above calls these “the darkest days for beer” and I couldn’t agree more.  Blondie topped the charts, Empire Strikes Back ruled the box office with an iron fist, and fizzy yellow beer flowed through the streets.

This beer ad from 1980 pretty much says it all.

In 1980, there were just 44 breweries in America, and they produced around 187 million barrels of beer – that’s over five and a half BILLION gallons.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that most of that beer was mass-produced swill. I was only a little kid back then, and thank god – I can’t imagine how hard it was to get a decent beer.  I guess that’s why folks started brewing their own at home, which later led to some of them starting up their own breweries, which was the birth of the robust craft beer scene we enjoy today.

We have yet to know if the craft beer scene we all love has passed its peak, but we’re certainly far better off than our fathers when it comes to the selection, variety and quality of the beers we can enjoy.  80’s fashion might be coming back into style (god help us all), but I’m happy to report that the marketplace dominance by a few mega breweries continues to erode.

Since 1980, production has leveled off at around 200 million barrels, but the number of breweries has swelled to over 1,500 and continues to climb.  Good beer is available most everywhere, and the industry continues to grow as new folks discover the pleasure of drinking brews crafted with love.

So I guess it is always darkest before the dawn, especially if you’re wearing your sunglasses at night. cool




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Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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31 Comments on “Infographic: The Worst Year in the History of American Beer”

  1. June 6, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    Note to self: attain time travel machine, go back to 1873.

    • June 6, 2011 at 11:11 am #

      Yes, just make sure to get all of your shots before you go – one of those guys have to be brewing up dysentery!

  2. June 6, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    I believe cider was heavily consumed before prohibition and I’m sure that cut into beer consumption… Just sayin….

    • June 6, 2011 at 11:11 am #

      True, and America just surpassed France for total wine consumption – we like our drinks any way we can get ’em!

  3. June 6, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    I kinda like the idea of being rescued in the snow by the 1980 snow patrol chick.

    • Don
      June 6, 2011 at 11:09 am #

      Yeah the chick was HOT, by 1980 standards.

      • June 6, 2011 at 11:29 am #

        Monique St. Pierre (born November 25, 1953[13]) is a German-born American model and actress. She was Playboy magazine’s Playmate of the Month for is November 1978 issue and the 1979 Playmate of the Year. Her original centerfold was photographed by Richard Fegley.[13]

        St. Pierre was born in Wiesbaden, Germany. She spoke English, German and French, had signed with the Wilhelmina modeling agency right before she was a Playmate, but was fired soon after her first pictorial was published.[14] She stayed with Playboy both as a model and as an executive, with a top position at the fledgling Playboy Channel.[14]

        • June 6, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

          So your factoids made me re-read the ad more closely (after googling Monique with SafeSearch off – yowza!) and I realized that the dog’s name is Suds. How lame is that?!!

        • Don
          June 6, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

          Maybe he was Spuds Dad?

        • Don
          June 6, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

          Like I said…She was hot!

        • June 6, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

          So she wasn’t actually a ski patroller? Fantasy = ruined. 😦

    • June 6, 2011 at 11:13 am #

      Me too, I just want that dog to be carrying better beer!

  4. Don
    June 6, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    What is interesting to me in this chart is the era before prohibition. What the hell was going on? Between 1873 and when Prohibition began the number of breweries went from over 4000 to around 50 near as I can tell in the year before prohibition began and yet the beer production ramped up tremendously. WTF? Looks like the Big Macros were just learning their craft, and then refined it after prohibition ended.

    • June 6, 2011 at 11:15 am #

      There was a ton of consolidation in the industry before Prohibition hit and the increase in output lines up with America’s growing industrial capability – it was the birth of mass-produced beers.

    • ScottG
      June 6, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

      In addition to consolidation, there were the states which had a state alcohol prohibition act prior to Volstead, which is what led, in part, to the enactment of a national prohibition act. Breweries in those states would have had to close as the state they operated in made it illegal to produce alcohol.

      Then breweries operating in states which had not already enacted a prohibition act, once the Volstead Act/18th Amendment came into existence, they probably just closed shop during 1919, after selling their existing production, rather than keep brewing until alcohol production was illegal, one year from ratification.

    • June 6, 2011 at 1:50 pm #


      • June 7, 2011 at 11:04 am #

        I’m sure this is reflected in the “Americans Driving Drunk” stats!

    • Don
      June 6, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

      All sound like plausible theories. I personally think a giant meteor struck the earth, plunging the earth into darkness for about 20 years, at which time all the breweries went extinct. Then, when all the dust settled, they reopened in massive form…you know…kind of like a reverse dinosaur thing.

  5. June 6, 2011 at 11:11 am #

    Ah, 1980, sixteen years old and getting beer any and every way possible! If I remember right, it was around this time that Boulder Beer began releasing it’s annual Holiday brew, the taste of craft beer to come.

    • June 6, 2011 at 11:16 am #

      True, back then a warm Schlitz did the trick!! Anything you could get.

      • June 6, 2011 at 11:21 am #

        If I’m in a place that doesn’t carry any craft beer, I’ll choose Schlitz in a heartbeat, even though I grew up on Coors; definitely the taste of nostalgia.

      • Don
        June 6, 2011 at 11:23 am #

        I believe I too was in my Sneakaschlitzicus phase on the beer geek evolutionary ladder.

  6. June 6, 2011 at 11:30 am #

    Yo Don (note the Philly “typecent”)

    As always, another great post. It’s not at all lost on me that I began my Quest for the Holy Ales during the MedieveSwill Ages (1981 to be exact). The infographic you posted parallels many of my experiences as I chronicled my transformation from sub-novice to confirmed beer geek in my Crafting Of A Craft Beer Geek ( ) It explains exactly why I couldn’t a single brew worth enjoying in the early 80’s. God knows that nights listening to Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Human League and Level 42 could have used something stronger and far more interesting than Christian Schmidt’s Golden Classic!!


    • Don
      June 6, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

      You forgot Flock of Seagulls. I too was going to the “Field House Bar” in Iowa City and drinking my share of Bud Light and Old Style. It was a bleak time. I think that might be where i got my taste for Whiskey. Some really good whiskeys back then!

  7. June 6, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    Interesting how that first peak coincides with the peak of German immigration (largest groups between 1840 and 1880). Not hard to imagine how many of them would start brewing once they got here or got established. Then the consolidation started, weeding out the small breweries. It is a persistent myth in craft circles that the prohibition caused the decline of beer, it did not even slow down the decrease in absolute numbers of breweries, a decrease that started much earlier. If you continue the downward trend throughout prohibition, you end up right where the amount of breweries picked up again right after, as if no prohibition had ever happened. It was the inevitable trend towards Miracle Whip and Wonderbread. A trend I escaped growing up, I only remember the ubiquitous ads in American magazines my grandmother had (she loved the US, American movies and music).
    Anyways, 1980 was indeed a turning point for beer in the US! Did I mention that that is the year of my birth? 😀

  8. June 6, 2011 at 11:34 pm #

    Prohibition halted all legal production… wonder how much illegal production happened?

    • June 7, 2011 at 11:03 am #

      All of it 😉

  9. Timothy McGinnis
    June 7, 2011 at 5:39 am #

    With the given statistics that still means there is one brewery for every 200,000 people in the states whereas here in England where I currently live, they have one brewery for every 100,000 people (all of these stats have an ‘ish after them). It feels like there are so many more choices here (3,000 or so different ales) but the travel time is so much less as a long distance trip here can be two hours and within that space it is filled with breweries to meet the local needs. I say America can still increase the quantity of local brewing without sacrificing the quality but hopefully keep it regional and not feel the need to supply the entire country. Although you can get most brands all across the UK, there are still those moments when you come across a local brew that you may get excited about (St. Austell in Cornwall, Greenjack in Suffolk, Salopian up in the midlands) when passing through those spots. I hope upon my return to the states I can find this on a local level. This may be totally off the prohibition subject but the numbers got me thinking.

    Down with prohibition!!!


    • June 7, 2011 at 9:12 am #

      Timothy, there are some states that you can do just what you describe; travel from town to town and have a brew that is only available in the immediate area. The New England states, Oregon, and my beloved Colorado are much like that, only in the case of Colorado, the driving times are much greater! You should let all of us American beer geeks know when and where you want to go here the States, I’m sure you’ll be overwhelmed with suggestions of unique, smaller breweries! 🙂

      • Timothy McGinnis
        June 7, 2011 at 9:54 am #

        I have been doing my research and quite honestly it took me to get stationed in England to learn about American beer. There is actually a movement over here for American Craft Beer. It is apparently bigger up north in the Leeds area but in my town we have a pub that is getting ready to put one or two on draft. Sounds like Anchor and Sierra Nevada will happen first. There is a big interest in some of the newer brewers using American influence over here and even some of the older breweries are now using more American hops.

        I have found a store over here that has a lot of Left Hand, Rouge, Stone brewery products so I am quickly getting excited about what we do over there.

        • June 7, 2011 at 11:03 am #

          Sounds like you found a good store Timothy – hope you’re enjoying what our brewers can do over here. I’d add Washington to the states Will has shared. They are thick with nano-breweries up there!

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