By the late 19th and early 20th century, the temperance movement had returned in force. Efficient organizing campaigns by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League led to a new wave of state and local prohibitions and, finally, a push for national prohibition.
An 1888 photograph of the New Hampshire Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Keene Public Library and the Historical Society of Cheshire County
National constitutional prohibition, as decreed by the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, was devastating to the beer industry in the short term. But in the long term, it further laid the groundwork for a nation of bland beer drinkers.
Careful estimates by economist Clark Warburton found that alcohol consumption during Prohibition may have actually risen for wine and spirits but fell by two-thirds for beer, which was harder to conceal. Although Prohibition may have introduced a generation of young people to cocktails, they had hardly any exposure to beer – and certainly hadn't acquired the taste for hearty beer.
In March 1933, eight months before the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition, Congress modified the Volstead Act to allow the production of "non-intoxicating," low-alcohol beer and wine, with a maximum of 4 percent alcohol by volume.
The new, watered-down beer was a huge hit with the public, which hadn't tasted a full-strength legal beer since 1917. Dark beers and ales had accounted for some 15 percent of the market before World War I. But in 1936 their share was just 2 to 3 percent. In 1947, researchers at Schwarz Laboratories analyzed the alcohol, hop and malt content of American beers in the 1930s and 1940s and remarked that many of these early post-repeal beers were "too hoppy," "too heavy and too filling" for consumers' tastes. The report noted "a corrective trend" in which brewers sharply reduced their hop and malt content.
More adventurous brewers and drinkers were also stymied by post-Prohibition laws. State and federal policies effectively banned homebrewing, and most states required a "three-tier" system of brewers, distributors and retailers that made it more difficult to make and market specialty beers.
The blandification of American beer continued for another 70 years. During World War II, American troops got 4 percent alcohol beer in their rations, exposing yet another generation to the joys of weak beer. The hop and malt content of beer fell sharply and steadily over this period. Hop content fell by half from 1948 to 1969, and the rise of "lite" beer in the 1970s accelerated the trend. Hop content fell 35 percent from 1970 to 2004.
Despite the phenomenal rise of craft beer, light beers are still dominant. The craft beer explosion is a remarkable story, but perhaps we should stop calling it a revolution.
For now, bland beers are still king.