The history of beer in the United States, with a focus on the the beer industry in relation to the development of monopoly capitalism and the labor movement.

The history of beer in the United States started when the drunken and sea sick colonists stumbled off the Mayflower. The first brewing in the colonies occurred in 1587 when early Virginia colonists started brewing beer using native corn. Native Americans taught colonists how to grow corn for survival, and colonists in turn taught Native Americans how to get drunk off alcohol made from corn.


“I sure swindled those natives.”

Fur traders introduced Native Americans to alcohol, and used its effects which were unfamiliar to Natives, to take advantage of them when trading. The use of alcohol became a standard practice for trading.


A shitty map of North America

Beer brewing in the colonies was very limited by ingredients, recipes, and technology. For two centuries between 1650 and the 1850, the market for beer did not change much. Brewing and consuming beer were only done on a very local scale because bottling was expensive and beer had to be kept and served from wooden kegs, and beer did not travel well. Several founding fathers brewed their own beer, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Until the Germans arrived in the 1800’s beer brewing in the Unites States was mostly done at home, to make ales, porters, and stouts, the beers of choice among the Dutch and British settlers, many of whom were puritans. Of course the Puritans liked to get drunk too.


“Thou shalt not maypole!”

Some early New England laws banned the use of maypoles, drama, games of chance, and the sale of alcohol to Native Americans.


“Dad’s drunk again”

Maypoles weren’t the most profitable industry but when laws started to step on the toes of the brewers, wine salesman and fur traders, puritan tradesmen spoke out, saying it was “not fit to deprive Indians of any lawfull comfort aloweth to all men by the use of wine.”


“Get out of the mash Otto, you’re drunk”

While some beer brewing existed, it wouldn’t become truly popular until the German migrants brought their brewing skills, recipes, and thirst to the US much later. Another factor for the increase in beer consumption was the rise of industrialization, and urbanization. It was common for workers to drink on or after the job, and they drank heavily to escape the difficulty of industrial labor, which had no regulations before the rise of the labor movement. Until the great German migration in the mid 1800’s, people drank mainly whiskey and wine. When the Irish immigration began to slow in the 1840’s-50’s there was a huge influx of Germans who followed due to social and economic problems in the old country.


“Let’s roll these barrels of lager at them boys!”

The last great wave of German migration that happened after 1848 was comprised of “Forty-eighters.” They were people who supported the 1848 revolution in Germany, but emigrated when it didn’t prove a success. They brought their strong political ideals of increased democracy and guaranteed human rights, a strong moral opposition to slavery, as well as skills in trades, farming, and the ability to brew beer. The Germans, along with the Irish brought a new thirst for beer to the states. One leading fortyeighter wrote “Only when his beer is in danger does the German-American rouse himself and become a berserker.”


The quality of this image is roughly equivalent to the quality of Jacob Best beer.

1844 Jacob Best emigrated from Germany and immediately founded “The Empire Brewery,” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which was one of the most successful breweries in the city producing 300 barrels a year.


Statue of Capt. Frederick Pabst at “Best Place” in the former Pabst Brewery

Best’s brewery became the Pabst Brewing Company in 1889. The brewery remained at the same location on Chestnut Street (now Juneau Avenue) until it stopped producing in the 1990’s.


He looked like a teenage Alfalfa

In 1849 August Krug emigrated from Germany and opened his own brewery in Milwaukee. A year later, Krug’s nephew August Uihlein left Germany when his tavern flooded. On his way to join his uncle’s brewery in Milwaukee, the ship caught fire and sank in the Atlantic Ocean. He held on to a wooden box until he was rescued.

In 1856 August Krug died…

Joseph Schlitz , a book-keeper in a tavern owned by the brewery, took over the operation, and in a classy move swooped in to marry Krug’s widow.

In 1854 Frederick Miller emigrated from Germany and settled in Milwaukee. He opened the Miller Brewing Company in 1855 at Old Plank Road Brewery in the Menomonee valley where there was easy access to raw materials from nearby farms. The brewery is still in the same location, although there are now several Miller production facilities spread across the country.

There were 431 breweries in the country in 1850, many of them In the heavily German populated cities. By the end of the 1850’s, the German migration had transformed the Midwest in cities like Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee.

By the time Adolphus Busch emigrated from Germany to Missouri in 1857 there were already over 40 breweries operating in st Louis alone. In 1861 He married a 17 year old Lilly Anheuser, and soon invested in her father’s failing brewery.

In 1862 Louis Pasteur created a landmark change for the global beer industry when he conducted his first successful test to preserve wine and beer. Pasteurization super heats the liquid to kill certain organisms, but that process leaves the beer tasting like it is already a few weeks old. After successfully pasteurizing wine and beer, someone eventually decided to pasteurize milk, which usually had toxic additives to disguise the organisms that grew in it.

Busch referred to beer as “slop” and drank wine instead. But because of his knowledge of wine, he knew it was already being pasteurized to last longer, and decided to apply this technology to a beer recipe he purchased from a village called Bud Weiss in Bohemia. He revolutionized the beer industry by pasteurizing his Budweiser beer. This allowed Anheuser Busch to sell their beer in a much larger market than was ever possible before. Even though the flavor of fresh pasteurized beer wasn’t as good as fresh non-pasteurized beer, Budweiser could be sold in much larger quantities at a lower cost, paving the way for the cheep, shitty beer we all know and love today

In 1871 The Great Chicago Fire destroyed all of Chicago’s breweries, which included the largest brewery in the Midwest.


An early Schlitz cold storage rail car.

In a profitable act of “disaster capitalism” Schlitz swooped in to Chicago to take over the huge market. With industrialization and the new ability to transport beer by rail, Schlitz brewery was able to set up a distribution point in Chicago. “The fire that destroyed Chicago” would allow Schlitz to earn the title “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.”

Schlitz also built several “Tied Houses” in Chicago. Tied houses were taverns funded by the brewer and were only allowed to sell beer from that one brewing company. Schlitz tide houses can still be seen in Chicago and Milwaukee, they usually had a Schlitz mosaic built in to the brickwork.  There is a white church on Holton and Wright St. in Milwaukee that has this same parallelogram shape in the brickwork, where the tied house mosaic used to be. The Many brewers operated tied houses before they were made illegal following prohibition.

In 1875 Joseph Schlitz took a ship back to Germany, but it hit a rock and sank. The brewery was passed on to August Uihlein and his brother.

23 c
In the late 19th century and early 20th century the largest brewers invested in their own bottling companies, distributing warehouses, companies to build their own rail cars, private refrigerated railroad transit lines, coal plants , advertising firms, and tied houses. The major beer producers were able to control the entire pipeline of production. Around 1900, Blatz brewery based in Milwaukee, WI became the first brewery to distribute its product nationally.

The ability for the larger brewers to control every aspect of production with no oversight caused serious abuses against workers who often labored for 16-18 hours a day with no benefits and very little pay. Brewery workers were usually required to live in the brewery itself. After seeing the barrel makers and carpenters gain pay and benefits by unionizing, the mostly Immigrant German socialist workers began to find success in organizing in the 1870’s. Brewery workers flocked to unions and began to win some victories.

On July 22, 1886 the brewers union, up against the brewery owners business association won their demands for free beer, the closed shop, freedom to live anywhere for brewery workers, a 10-hour day, six-day week, and a board of arbitration.

In 1888 the first major beer boycott was launched after the National brewery replaced union workers with scabs. Workers at the National Brewery in San Francisco went on strike for 9 months and pushed the boycott regionally. During the strike, two nearby union breweries were prospering wildly, which helped the San Francisco boycott hold and forced the company to give in to union demands in 1889.

The great success of the strike led to many others by the militant young union that would eventually be called the International Union of United Brewery, Flour, Cereal, Soft Drink and Distillery Workers of America (BFCSD). The BFCSD even used their abilities to assist workers to organize in other sectors. They successfully organized the Retail Clerks International Protective Association in 1890, and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America in 1897.


Postcard from a beer garden in Chicago.

By 1910, beer production was one of the largest industries in the United States. Sales soared between 1850 and 1910 because of the growing population, but also because of increased beer drinking per capita. As beer became more popular and wages rose due to massive unionization efforts, per capita consumption increased from less than four gallons a year in 1865 to 21 gallons a year in the early 1910s.

In 1913 Adolphus Busch died at his vacation mansion in Germany. He was worth an estimated $50-60m which is equivalent to many billions today. He was to the beer industry what Rockefeller was to oil and Carnegie was to steel.

When the US joined the fight against Germany in World War One in 1917, the temperance movement for prohibition of alcohol gained high profile support from people who capitalized on the anti-German sentiment to stop the political power of German Americans. The movement which was initially targeted toward hard liquor shifted to include the beer industry for two reasons: one was that there was a huge amount of German money and influence in the beer industry, and the other was the beer industry controlled so many taverns that they could not be shut down without attacking the beer industry.

Prohibition was naturally a time of crisis for the 4-5,000 breweries that existed by 1920. The breweries that were wealthy enough were able to survive prohibition by producing and distributing beer making materials like yeast, malt, and other ingredients that were used by bootleggers and bathtub homebrewers.

During Prohibition, Schlitz changed its name from Brewing Company to Beverage Company and adapted its slogan to “The drink that made Milwaukee Famous.”


Hipster Cheese

Pabst became a cheese company through prohibition, and eventually sold that operation Kraft once brewing resumed.

In 1929 the US stock market crashed, causing the decade long great depression.

When prohibition was officially lifted in 1933, in the midst of the great depression, only 33 breweries were able to immediately start operating again, and the beer industry was consolidated into much larger, powerful national beer brands. The three large national breweries after prohibition were Anheuser Busch, Schlitz, and Pabst.

1941-45: During WWII all breweries were required to allocate 15% of their total production for military use. In addition, the largest breweries were able to secure big government contracts to sell beer to the military.

This is a real Heineken ad from WWII, notice the white star in the logo which was changed from red to white until the Soviet Union was overthrown.

Following World War Two the United States had become an imperialist super power. There were decades of growth in the industrial sector, which resulted in the rapid modernization of brewing technology, and the ability to distribute beer nationally was greatly increased by the improved national infrastructure. The national breweries raced to make the most profitable and efficient production systems, and there were bitter battles between the three mega beer companies over the title of top producer.

All the major producers tried to increase profits by sourcing cheaper ingredients, buying a larger share of the distribution system, and streamlining production which allowed companies to slash salaries and pay fewer workers.


“Patrick Swayze for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.”

Aggressive marketing campaigns were also a major part of the battle, and advertising expenditures began to skyrocket with the popularization of television. Anheuser Busch found huge success at relating their beer to sports through television advertising and quickly rose to the top where they remain today.

Marketing didn’t work for everyone.

In 1953 unionized Schlitz employees in Milwaukee went out on strike demanding pay equivalent with the east and west coast brewery workers. The strike lasted 76 days, and the workers won higher pay.

After kinda just hangin’ out for 115 years, Miller Brewing Company was launched into prominence 1969 when it was purchased by the mega conglomerate Phillip Morris for $130 million. Phillip Morris had the experience, money, and marketing strategy to compete with the other big breweries. Anheuser Busch lost billions in profits trying to promote their beer and out-compete Miller, but they remained on top.


“Give me all the dollars.” – Milton Friedman

In the mid-1970’s a huge shift occurred as the federal government sought deregulation, tax reform, and the smashing apart of labor union protections. Beer sales also boomed in the 1970’s for the last time before leveling off where they have remained flat for about the last four decades.


In 1976, 400 Anheuser Busch employees in Jacksonville, FL went on strike for 14 weeks. As part of the new contract, Teamsters Local 947 won amnesty for pickets, where there were several altercations.


A comic book produced for the Coors boycott.

In 1977, 1,200 union Coors Brewery workers went on strike. 250 union workers plus supervisors kept the plant operating at a reduced capacity. Coors threatened to hire scabs and successfully split the strike. 700 workers quit the strike, and Coors replaced the remaining 500 workers. The next year, workers voted to decertify the union, because the strike was over a year old the remaining striking workers were blocked from voting.


Labor unions organized a boycott of Coors for the next ten years. Sales of Coors suffered considerably. In order to maintain production levels, Coors expanded its sales area from 18 states to national distribution. The AFL-CIO ended the ten year boycott after backroom deals with Coors.


In 1979 the United States saw the worst economic recession since the great depression, which was followed by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981. The crisis for the working class now came to full steam. Reagan’s administration destroyed the Air Traffic Controller’s union, signaling a major shift in labor relations. He also passed legislation weaken union power, and allowed big beer companies to consolidate their power more than ever before with tax cuts for big business, and the evisceration of anti-trust laws.


In the 1970’s the beer industry began to conduct demographic research which discovered that men account for 80% of beer consumption, and that minorities drank less beer per capita. The industry began to market malt liquor specifically towards African-Americans. Although the first malt liquor was introduced in 1939, it wasn’t until the late 70′s and early 80′s that it began to take off, when it was packaged in the 40 oz bottle for the first time. The drink became popular due to its high alcohol and low price, and the heavy marketing to Black communities. Over the years, the industry has also marketed light, low fat beers to women, with moderate success.


In 1981, 700 Schlitz workers at the Milwaukee plant went on strike. This worker holds a sign criticizing the board of directors, specifically the Uihlein brothers for pouring millions into their pet project The Milwaukee Circus Parade, while refusing to negotiate with workers over wages.

The company responded by selling to the company to the LaCrosse, Wisconsin based G. Heileman Brewery.


The Uihleins are still one of the wealthiest families in Wisconsin. They sat on Board of Directors of the Schlitz Brewing Company, United States Brewers’ Association, Allen-Bradley, Briggs & Stratton and First Wisconsin Bank. David Vogel Uihlein Married into the Pettit-Bradley family. The Pettits, Bradleys, and Uihleins were the most powerful families in the city, with connections to major foundations, control over local politics, and ties to the largest industries and banks in the state. The Uihleins were not unique however, at this time you could see the phenomenon of merging banking capitol and industrial capitol, even amongst the beer industry executives.


In the 1983, six companies controlled 92% of all beer production in the US. Those are Anheuser-Busch, Miller, G. Heileman, Stroh, Coors, and Pabst. In response to the increased homogenization of beer products, micro breweries began to spring up in the mid 1980‘s, a trend that is a still on the rise today.


Miller workers in Milwaukee went on strike for two months 1983 in order to save jobs and benefits. The workers signed a new contract which resulted in a loss of 300 jobs.


After beer consumption seemingly reached its peak in the 1970’s, and the market fully saturated, Anheuser-Busch began to look for new markets around the world in order to continue their growth. In 1995, Anheuser-Busch opened two breweries outside the US for the first time, in England and China respectively.


In 1996 the labor contract expired for 300 Pabst brewery workers. The company proposed cutting working hours in half from 800,000 hours to 400,000 hours, elimination of healthcare benefits, and elimination of retirement benefits. Workers represented by Brewery Workers Local 9, Milwaukee threatened to strike after the company failed to negotiate a new contract in good faith. Their union, Local 9, called for a boycott of Pabst beer. Other local unions that had contracts with Pabst, Teamsters 43 and the District 10 of the Machinists publicly denounced the boycott. The division among Pabst workers proved to be fatal when Pabst management responded by contracting out all production to Stroh’s Brewery, and eliminated their Milwaukee production of 152 years.


Dog driving a beer can.

In 1999 Pabst purchased Stroh’s who could no longer compete with the much larger competitors.


Dog wearing a beer can

In 2001 Pabst and all its subsidiaries contracted their production out to Miller.


In 2007 Anhueser-Busch was the top selling beer of the three national breweries, selling more than twice as much as Miller and Coors combined. In 2008 – Miller and Coors merged to become MillerCoors.


In 2011 Anhueser-Busch was sold to the Brazilian-Belgian transnational corporation InBev for $52 billion, the largest cash deal in us history. Anheuser-Busch InBev now controls 25 percent global market share, employs 116,000 people in over 30 countries, and makes $36 billion in profit annually.


Despite making tens of billions in profit, InBev announced plans to lay off 300 Belgian workers. Union workers quickly blocked the plant and halted the mass layoff.


In 2012 Anheuser Busch drivers, warehouse workers, and mechanics represented by Teamsters Local 166 in Riverside, California went on strike for two months. About 8,000 Anheuser Busch workers are represented by the Teamsters nationwide.

Also in 2012, about 1,000 workers went on strike at Snow Beer in Dalian, China after it was purchased by Anheuser Busch. For three days workers blocked all the gates to the production facility, demanding a 13th month of salary that workers at other Budweiser facilities have in their contracts. Guo Yanhong, general director of Budweiser China said to the press “The workers had believed incorrectly that they would get better treatment following the acquisition by Budweiser.”


The 1% of the Beer Industry.

In the United States today, beer is the most popular alcoholic drink, accounting for roughly 85% of all alcohol sold by volume, and raking in $91.6 billion in sales annually. About 80% of the US beer market is now dominated by two corporations, Anheuser-Busch Inbev, and MillerCoors. As of February 2013 InBev was in the process of purchasing the Mexican brand Modelo, which controls 7% of the beer market in the US and is the single largest remaining competitor, the purchase was challenged on anti-trust grounds and will be decided in federal court. Although the consumption trend of beer has been flat for decades, the beer industry is still increasing profits because of expanded market share, price increases and production efficiency. This of course is aided by the monopolization of the market, the easing of regulations, and massive corporate welfare.