In The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker writes about the historical conditions that shaped the flavor and body of America’s popular commercial brews. Like the cultural melting pot of America itself, various factors, including market forces, thirsty laborers, WWII rationing, religious movements and the idea of temperance all thinned our big brand beers into the light, offensively inoffensive yellow water they are today, and helped birth our current craft brewing renaissance in response:
But Americans didn’t develop a more unified taste in beer until the mid-1800s, when huge numbers of German immigrants—including David G. Yuengling, whose brewery still operates today, outside of Philadelphia—arrived and brought lager with them. Less intense in flavor than porters, stouts, and ales, lagers were a hit with America’s growing number of factory workers and miners, who ate at saloons near where they worked. “It was normal to get a beer with your meal, but not allowable to be tipsy on the job,” says [economics professor Ranjit] Dighe. “So if you wanted a beer, your safest option was a weak beer.” As more and more immigrants came to the U.S. and unemployment stayed high, the stiff competition for jobs made this pressure for sobriety even higher.
From this perspective, wateriness was not a bug, but feature. In the late 1800s, when Anheuser-Busch started selling a milder version of Budweiser made with rice, it cost a nickel more than its competitors—and it sold quite well.