According to most brew-enthusiasts, we're currently drinking our way through the golden age of American beer. The rise of micro-brewing in the 90s and 2000s brought on higher-quality ingredients & colossal variety, while the rise of the Internet made it possible for anyone, anywhere, to indulge in (and argue about) every pioneering pint this nation produced.
But in this great future, we can't forget our past, so I asked a baby boomer & former beer man to tell me about the near-forgotten dark ages of American beer -- before craft beer, green-bottle imports or even nationally distributed light lagers.
Fuller disclosure!: The expert is my father, Nick Infante. He grew up drinking Rheingold & Ballantine in a Connecticut factory town, then went on to work in marketing for St. Pauli Girl, Labatt, Rolling Rock, and many more.
America's back-in-the-day beer landscape
As my father tells it, the U.S. beer industry was basically a fiefdom for those intervening decades between Prohibition's blessed repeal and the industrial improvements in bottling, shipping and mass-batch brewing that arrived post-WWII. Provincial breweries dominated their respective regions, but rarely expanded beyond the invisible boundaries of cost-effective distribution.
By the 70s, he says, these insular realms were entrenched in crippling competition with Big Beer, and when the 90s dawned, there were only a handful of indie brewers still successfully defending their local shelf-space from the constant threat of homogenous, homogenized brew.
What follows is a primer on 23 American beers of yesteryear: formerly glorious brews that are either dead & gone, drastically enfeebled or -- in a few improbable cases -- still thriving today. These brave brands fought the good fight, in their failures paving the way for an entire second act in local American beer-brewing. Cheers to that.
CREDIT: Flickr/Jack Newton
Founded: 1890, Rhode Island
Home territory: New England
Claim to fame: As the largest brewery in New England, 'Gansett won hearts & minds by sponsoring the Red Sox for decades. It was a Boston sportscaster who immortalized the beer's slogan on-air -- "Hi neighbor! Have a 'Gansett!"
Present-day status: After changing hands twice (once to St. Louis' Falstaff, then to private investors), the label mounted a comeback in the Aughts with a focused offering that's contract-brewed by Genesee in upstate New York. They even do special editions.
CREDIT: Wikipedia/Otto Yamamoto
Founded: 1883, NYC
Home territory: NY, NJ, PA, CT
Claim to fame: In 1962, the German-American brand became the official beer of the then-new New York Mets. Its Miss Rheingold contest blazed the trail on disguising crowd-sourced sexy photos as "marketing".
Present-day status: Sold into irrelevance, then nostalgically dredged back to the surface by my father's former boss, R is available -- albeit sparsely -- throughout the Tri-State area these days.
CREDIT: Flickr/Keijo Knutas
Founded: 1833, Albany
Home territory: NJ, NY, CT, PA, MD, DE
Claim to fame: The brand's "three-ring" logo was synonymous with the New York Yankees for decades thanks to a longstanding partnership. Mel Allen -- the Bronx Bombers' legendary call-man -- was a key endorser.
Present-day status: Now owned by PBR, Ballantine makes a single brew, which is sold throughout the Northeast & Midwest in 40oz bottles instead of the traditional longnecks.
Founded: 1842, NYC
Home territory: Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest
Claim to fame: Popularly credited with introducing American drinkers to Germany's lager-style beer, Schaefer held the crown as the country's largest brewery until giving up the ghost to Anheuser in the Seventies.
Present-day status: Also owned by PBR, Midwestern fans can still slug "the one beer to have when you're having more than one". Sadly, the rest of us are out of luck.
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