Guns, Germs, and Steel author Jared Diamond argues that a nation’s wealth is in part determined by how well its producers can gain economy of scale, and he uses beer as an example. At the turn of the century, there were hundreds of independent American brewers, one or more in almost every major northeastern or midwestern city; almost all have now vanished. The ten largest brewers now dominate the industry (as cited by Beerhistory.com). What happened? Baltimore’s National Brewing, maker of National Bohemian and smooth Colt 45, is representative: a few miscalculations, the dwindling importance of relationships between brewery sales reps and local publicans, a disastrous period of ownership by Black Label maker Carling Beer (itself recently purchased by Coors), and the rise of national television campaigns. Now the National Brewery building in Baltimore is being converted into condos and Mr. Boh is shipped in from North Carolina. By 1950, the brewing world had been winnowed at least once, by Prohibition. The interstate highway system was making pale, rice-laden Midwestern beer available on the cheap to much of the rest of the country. The middle-sized brewers, the Falstaffs and Carlings of the world, despite rounds of mergers (National was owned by Carling; Carling’s North American division was purchased by Pabst), couldn’t compete up as their geographic moats vanished. The bottles of Yuengling Black and Tan (brewed in the same Pottsville, Pennsylvania brewery since 1831) strewn about my apartment may indicate my allegiances, but I’m not sure that there was ever anything sacrosanct about beer made by local breweries; the current incarnation of Narragansett Lager, Natty Boh, or Iron City aren’t going to win any taste tests. (But don’t take my word for it.)
Some beers are being resurrected for nostalgia value, although few are as storied as Rheingold, the New York brewery who sponsored Miss Rheingold every year. And microbrews — some using old breweries, some building new, and a surprising number utilizing spare capacity at giant corporate breweries — are springing up three abreast in some parts of the country. The only successful strategies for mid-sized breweries seem to have revolved around making non-mainstream beer; Fritz Maytag (of the washing-machine Maytags) did it with Anchor Brewing, and the formula has been replicated since by Sierra Nevada and Boston Beer among others.
Middlebrow beer that couldn’t compete on taste, image, or price was not long for the world; a vast influx of cheap beer designed to appeal the broadest possible spectrum of the marketplace while offending no one was flooding the market. The parallels to other American consumer products — from media (Blink 182 is the Miller High Life of radio) to retailers (been to a Banana Republic lately?) to restaurants — are inescapable. And turn an eye to the mid-sized, successful American businesses today. What moats do they have that they can’t even see? What happens when the floodgates open?