The light mediocre: American lager pt2

In part two of our history of American lager, Louise Crane looks at the lingering effect of prohibition and the rise of ‘diet’ beers


In the first part of this two-part series, we looked at why American lager ended up achieving total domination in the US beer market, and how it developed from the original pilsners brought over to the States by German immigrants into a drink entirely of its own. Against the darker lagers, the Bohemian pilsner won out, and it suited the American factory worker, who would typically drink a beer with a meal before returning to shift sober. With rice and corn adjuncts, American beer became lighter, softer and milder - to great success. Now we take some time to explore the lingering impact of prohibition on the American palate and how this further shaped the somewhat bland lager that so many Americans know and love. We’ll also examine the phenomenon of ‘light’ beer, unpacking exactly what it is, where it came from, and why, why in the name of the beer gods, why.

American lager has had a shadow hanging over it for over 150 years, that of the temperance. German brewers in the mid-nineteenth century brought over a European outlook towards beer, arming the brewing industry with the argument that beer was a nourishing life-stuff, natural and, above all, relatively harmless and persuading many temperance supporters that a light beer was a suitable drink for the adult masses. Then prohibition fully hit in January 1920, when the Volstead Act made the sale, manufacture, and distribution of all alcohol illegal in the United States (interestingly, consumption never was). 

Large-scale alcohol producers shut down and, while it was relatively easy to knock-up some moonshine or bathtub gin at home, the expanse of equipment needed for brewing – the huge boil kettles and lauter tuns – meant that illegal beer never really took off. Only the largest breweries could remain open by manufacturing malt syrup, soft drinks, root beer and by brewing “near beer”, which contained less than 0.5% alcohol. The most popular “near beer” was Bevo, brewed by the Anheuser-Busch company. The Pabst company brewed “Pablo”, Miller brewed “Vivo”, and Schlitz brewed “Famo”. All very probably about as tasty as their names sound. Of the 1,392 brewers in operation before Prohibition, only 164 remained afterward. 

By the time prohibition ended in 1933, a generation of drinkers had grown accustomed to soft drinks (and for the lucky few, cocktails) and their palates now rejected the bitterness of the Bavarian-style beers that had been popular in America before Prohibition. A sweeter beer was demanded and more corn and rice was used in brewing than ever before. There was also a more practical reason for this: the Second World War meant that much of the barley supply was rationed, whereas corn and rice were not. The war furthered arguments between the remaining prohibitionists, who saw brewing as a squandering of manpower, grain, fuel, power and cargo space, and the brewers, who countered that their product was an important source of vitamin B12, or thiamine. Their argument that an increase of this vital substance in the diets of soldiers and factory workers would improve performance proved persuasive, and the American government agreed to a request that fifteen percent of beer production went to active servicemen. 

Despite the small number of active breweries, the overall production of beer increased by over 40% from the time America entered the war in 1941 until it ended in 1945. This wartime growth allowed the large breweries such as Anheuser-Busch to dominate the American market for over fifty years. Beers of this time were noted for their uniformity rather than any particular flavour, and were almost invariably in the pilsner style, made with large-scale industrial processes. 

An interesting effect of prohibition was that female drinking came to be accepted. Saloons died out and, with them, the macho connotations of drinking. In the semi-public, clandestine environment of the speakeasy, women could go for a drink without being seen as immoral or prostitutes. When prohibition lifted, women represented a lucrative new market sector, which eventually paved the way for ‘diet’ alcohol drinks and a style of beer that has come to dominate US drinking culture. 

In 1967, the first era of the supermodel and a time when the pressure on women to be thin intensified, a biochemist at Rheingold Brewing Company employee named Dr Joseph L. Owades formulated a beer with reduced carbs and calories by removing starch, using an enzyme he had found that could break down the side-branching chains of starch, and making it accessible for yeast to gobble up. His creation was christened Gablinger’s Diet Beer, and it bombed. 

Owades’s boss at Rheingold gave him permission to share the beer recipe with a friend at Chicago-based Meister Brau brewery, who relaunched the beer as Meister Brau Lite. Success eluded the diet beer for a second time when Meister Brau went bankrupt in 1972. The Miller Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was waiting in the wings to swoop in and buy three of Meister Brau’s brands, including Meister Brau Lite. It reformulated the recipe and, with the help New York ad agency McCann Erickson, rebranded the beer as Miller Lite in 1975, with its iconic white-label bottles. 

The ad agency provided invaluable market research and advertising advice, pointing Miller in the direction of blue-collar drinkers who didn’t want a diet beer, but the freedom to drink more without the usual heavy feeling. Miller started producing TV adverts that are now legendary in America, featuring retired sports personalities like New York Jets 1969 Super Bowl star, Matt Snell, who touted the beer for its feather-like fullness factor with all the flavour of a regular beer. Out went Miller’s longtime tag, “The Champagne of Beers,” and in came “Everything You Always Wanted in a Beer. And Less.”

Miller Lite propelled Miller to the No. 2 brewery in the United States (behind Anheuser-Busch), birthed the light beer segment and spawned a mini-revolution in American food and drink. More than 350 product labels in the first half of the eighties featured the word “light” or “lite”. Anheuser-Busch jumped on the bandwagon with Natural Light in 1977 and Michelob Light in 1978, while D.G. Yuengling & Son started production on its first-ever light beer in June 1986, calling it, simply, Yuengling Premium Light, a lower-calorie variation of one of its most popular offerings, Yuengling Premium. Four years before that, Anheuser-Busch rolled out its new Budweiser Light (the abbreviation to Bud would come later) in 40 states, which is now United States’ best selling beer brand.

Despite the phenomenal rise in craft beers (today, 1 in 8 beers sold in America is a craft beer), light beers remain dominant. Bud Light alone has a greater market share than all craft beers combined and the second and third best-selling beers in the US are Coors Light and Miller Lite respectively. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune last January, craft breweries are releasing beers that are “less hoppy and in-your-face”, targeting the majority of Americans who prefer “big corporate lagers”. 

Dr Joseph Owades, who received the Award of Merit from the Master Brewers Association of the Americas in 1994, was quoted in his Washington Post obituary as once having said the following: “When I got into the beer business, I used to ask people why they did not drink beer. The answer I got was twofold: One, ‘I don’t like the way beer tastes.’ Two, ‘I’m afraid it will make me fat.’ I couldn’t do anything about the taste of beer, but I could do something about the calories.” 

It may seem to us craft beer connoisseurs that light beer is indeed beer for people who don’t like the way beer tastes, but to Americans who have grown up on the stuff, craft beer doesn’t taste like beer, it tastes like bitterness, fruit, barley and spice, or rather, everything we like to savour in a pint. As America’s beer market evolves, we are likely to see more craft beer drinkers emerge as millennial tastes filter down to the next generation, but time will tell if it can undo 150 years’ worth of development towards a drink that is so deficient in calories that it is devoid of tast

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