Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage in the United States, making up nearly halfof domestic alcohol sales. As a country, we consume 50 billion pints of beer each year: that’s 6.25 billion gallons, enough to fill more than 9,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Those numbers make the U.S. the 2nd largest beer market in the world, just behind China, by total consumption.
That’s not a new trend: Americans have long enjoyed a love affair with beer. In the 16th century, colonists in North Carolina tried their hand at brewing beer (likely based on a recipe from Native Americans) with corn instead of malt since corn was easier to grow in warm climates. That method didn’t catch on and when colonists permanently settled in America, they got serious. In 1609, colonists placed what is considered to be America’s first “Help Wanted” ad – for a brewer.
At the time, England was having some beer problems of its own. In 1695, taxes were raised on beer, making gin the cheapest beverage in England. Gin was taxed at 2d (about 2 pennies) per gallon while beer was taxed at 4 shillings 9d (about 57 pennies) per gallon. The difference in price was thought to contribute to a serious drinking problem in the 18th century, especially among the poor.
The problem didn’t go unnoticed in the U.S. In 1784, Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence and eventual Treasurer of the U.S. Mint, published “An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body,” where he encouraged those who would drink to consider beer: a small beer would bring “Serenity of Mind, Reputation, Long Life, & Happiness” while a strong beer would lead to “Cheerfulness, Strength, and Nourishment.” He warned against drinking liquor which might result into “Idleness, Gaming, Peevishness, Quarreling, Fighting, Horse-Racing, Lying and Swearing, Stealing and Swindling, Perjury, Burglary, Murder.” To promote the more wholesome consumption of beer – and clearly save the general population from the dangers of horse-racing and murder – Dr. Rush advocated exempting breweries from tax while “imposing the heaviest of taxes on whiskey distilleries.” Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton was glad to comply but it didn’t end happily: the increased tax burden resulted in the Whiskey Rebellion.
(For more on tax, politics, and Whiskey Rebellion, click here.)