Beer, the lifeblood of so many happy hours, is the most popular alcoholic drink in the United States. But while there's been a burst of craft brewers introducing beers with complex flavors, Americans still largely love their beer to taste one way: bland.
Almost every best selling beer is a light beer. Bud Light, the most popular brand by far, accounts for nearly one out of every four beers sold in the United States.
Dismayed by the popularity of tasteless beers, economist Ranjit Dighe decided to figure out the origins of Americans' preference for pilsners, lagers and other milder brews. What he found is that a taste for bland beer might as well run in Americans' veins.
"It goes back to the early 1900s, or even late 1800s," said Dighe, who teaches at the State University of New York at Oswego. "Americans have preferred to drink bland beer for more than a hundred years."
The reason, outlined in a recently published article by Dighe, is fairly simple on the surface: alcohol has a long-time stigma in this country. But bland beer has also benefited from history in ways other tastier brews have not.
Let there be light
In the late 1800s, the temperance movement, which pushed for moderate to no alcohol consumption, swept across much of the Western world. In certain countries, including England, beer was promoted as a 'temperance beverage," something that could be imbibed because it had a lower alcohol content than spirits and wine. But when brewers tried to pitch the same argument in the United States, it didn't work.
"Protestant, baptist, methodist values—they all were too strong," said Dighe. "So the whole temperance movement had a profound effect on the type of beer Americans drank. No one touched the more alcoholic stuff."
The result was that rather than developing a taste for all beers, Americans instead opted only for those that looked like they had the least amount of alcohol. Lighter ones, in other words. So when the country went from drinking almost no beer in the early 1800s to drinking quite a bit of it in the late 1800s and early 1900s (as you can see in the chart below), it was almost exclusively bland. Some 85 to 90 percent of beer consumed in the United States around that time were pilsners and lagers.
Building a taste for bland
Over the years, a number of events have slowed the development of an appreciation of more alcoholic—and often complex—beers in the United States.
Prohibition certainly didn't help. When the alcohol ban hit in 1920, beer consumption fell off a cliff and was slow to recover. Unlike drinking clear liquor, beer consumption was harder to conceal.
"Good beer was really hard to find when prohibition ended," said Dighe. "Anyone who was drinking beer after pretty much had to drink lighter stuff."
But it wasn't just that good beer wasn't available. People simply didn't care for the hoppier stuff. Dighe points to this anecdote, a reminiscence by an old brewer, in his paper:
We packed up a case of the beer and sent it on to our laboratory in New York City. They could find no fault with it except, as Dr Graf said, ‘It is just too much hop for this new generation.’ So we immediately brewed up a number of new brews with only a light amount of hop and blended it with the original.
Then came World War II, which essentially made it impossible for higher end beers to be made. The grain rations and strict price controls that came with the war meant that it was simply too expensive to produce stronger, hoppier brews.
What's more, the military lifted its ban on alcohol. Soldiers received shipments of beer that was very low in alcohol. An entire army's worth of young men, in effect, fell in love with light beer.
By war's end, Phil Berkes, who was the president of the Master Brewers Association of American, noted that the country was heading toward a time when "the majority of consumers will probably favor a beer pale in color and with an agreeable, mild hop flavor without any bitter after-taste."
"Above all," he said, " the beer should not be satiating."
That last bit is perhaps the most prescient part of Berkes' prediction.
The past half century, after all, has been defined by the consolidation of the beer industry. Anheuser-Busch InBev, Miller Coors, and the like, have come to dominate the beer landscape in the United States. Bud Light is the best selling beer in the country; Coors Light, the second; Budweiser is third; and Miller Lite is fourth.
And the main appeal of the most popular beers in the United States hasn't been taste so much as a lack of it. Miller Lite's classic slogan, 'tastes great—less filling,' had little do to with waist management. What it pitched was a beer that didn't fill people up, so they could drink more of it.
Today, there is a growing migration away from lighter beers. Craft brewers, which have sprouted all across the country, are finding success selling higher-end bottles that were once unpalatable to Americans. Domestic beer hasn't been this hoppy since the 1930s, according to Dighe. And some of the biggest brands are suffering as a result.
But even as fancier, more bitter beers gain favor in the American palate, there are still some things that this country longs for that bland ones are simply better suited for.
There are so-called session beers, beverages that can be sipped over the course of hours. And for that, a light beer is sometimes just better.
"The whole idea of a beer that you can drink more than one or two of is really important to Americans," said Dighe. "That's why you see craft brewers today selling 'session IPAs.' People want something they can drink for a while without getting too drunk."
Flavor, in other words, is important. But only so long as it doesn't get in the way of other things, like tailgating.