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The great beer abandonment: America’s young drinkers are drinking wine and hard alcohol instead

Not enough alcohol for a millennial. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

America's young adults aren't that into beer anymore.

The percentage of twenty-somethings who prefer beer to other alcohol has fallen drastically over the past two decades, according to a new study published by Goldman Sachs Investment Research. Just twenty years ago, nearly three-quarters of youths aged 18 to 29 said they liked beer best. Today, after years of steady decline, the percentage of young beer lovers is down to just 40 percent.

Meanwhile, the very opposite has been happening with hard alcohol. The percentage of young adults who like spirits best has shot up (as it were) from roughly 13 percent in the early 1990s to nearly 30 percent today.

Wine is on the rise, too. The percentage of young adults who prefer wine has gone up from just under 15 percent in the early 1990s to just under 25 percent today.

The change in preferences isn't restricted to the country's youngest drinkers—the whole country, as it happens, has been drinking less and less beer for quite some time now. Nationwide, beer consumption fell by nearly 9 percent between 2002 and 2012.

But, as the first chart above shows, it's likely being driven by the fact that young drinkers don't like beer as much as they used to. The decline in the number of 30- to 49-year olds who say beer is their drink of choice, after all, has fallen only marginally. And the percentage of those 50 and older has remained virtually unchanged.

Even the beer world's coveted corner, craft beers, which has been gaining market share for many years now, might be on the verge of hitting their peak. "While we're not there yet, we're definitely approaching bubble territory,"  Spiros Malandrakis, an industry analyst at Euromonitor, said this past summer.

What's going on?

It's hard to pin beer's waning popularity on anything specific. As The Atlantic's Derek Thompson noted last year, the rise of health narratives, which have demonized more caloric food and drinks likely hasn't helped. Neither have economic collapses, like the recession, which appears to have had a noticeable effect on beer sales (possibly because beer is a relatively inefficient way to get a buzz). There's also the fact that in the mid-1990s, a ban was lifted on ads from hard alcohol makers. "Since that time, spirits have been steadily gaining share in the U.S.," Thomas Mullarkey, a market analyst with Morningstar, told MarketWatch earlier this year.

And it's also possible that young people are merely rebelling against the tastes of the generation before them—a sort of alcohol-soaked shift that's more reactionary than people realize. People, after all, tend to eschew what their parents drink, because what their parents drink isn't "cool." The good news for beer makers? For roughly the same reason, they also tend to pick right up where their grandparents left off.

"Alcohol consumption is cyclical by nature," Malandrakis said. "Believe it or not, we tend to drink what our grandparents drank, not what our parents drank."