Great American Beers: 50 Brands that Shaped the Twentieth Century

When I was an freshman in college, I'd hand over my beer money to one of the upperclassmen who brought back whatever was on special at the liquor store that week. Some of those beers were quite awful, but beggars can't be choosers. Especially when they're too young to buy their own.

A few years later, I got to return the favor. At the time I was as a field researcher, and my job took me into some out-of-the-way parts of the country. Before heading home, I loaded up the car with oddball brands I couldn't find at home and inflicted them on–I mean shared them with--my friends. And yes, some of those beers were quite awful.

Turns out I wasn't the only one who was fascinated by the local brew. So was Chris O'Hara, who pays tribute to them in his book Great American Beer. Like me, O'Hara grew in the New York City area when baseball was king and the corner tavern was an important part of the culture. So it was easy to pick this book up. It proved much harder to put down. I ended up devouring it, along with a few cold ones and a bowl of pretzels, last Saturday night.

Great American Beer is divided into two parts. The first is a short history of the brewing industry. O'Hara's breezy version hits the right notes. Milwaukee became famous for beer because the local market was so small that brewers had to "export" their product. Temperance forces shrewdly targeted saloons because many of them were owned by the breweries. Prohibition forced breweries into different product lines, where they learned new production and packaging techniques. And the humble beer can was a major contributor to brewing industry consolidation.

O'Hara reminds us that in the late 1940s, television sets were so expensive that the average family couldn't afford one. But the corner tavern could. And the breweries, knowing their audience–men who lived and died with their favorite baseball team–targeted them.

Since beer was a commodity product, breweries used catchy slogans, animated characters, and jingles that remain hard-wired in the brains of most American males over 50. Beer, baseball, and advertising combined to make drinkers ferociously loyal to their local brew. So loyal, in fact, that many of these brands never died.

Which brings us to the second part of Great American Beer: a roll call of 50 beers (selected out of O'Hara's "short list" of 120). The beers had to meet three criteria: they were American, existed before 1975, and were brewed on a fairly large scale. It's hard to fault his final list; my only quibble involved the Texas-brewed version of Löwenbräu which, competitors argued, was being passed off as the real deal from Munich.

After paying homage to pioneering brands such as Budweiser and Miller, O'Hara dives into the fun part: the regional beers whose jingles you heard on the radio during ballgames. Fair warning: he provides the words to those jingles, which might activate the "Play" button in your brain.

Trivia is an absolute must for books like this, and O'Hara delivers. The Hamm's bear, who debuted in 1953, was one of the first animal mascots and a possible inspiration for Spuds McKenzie and the Budweiser frogs. Iron City was first to offer cans with a snap-top opener and later, the sports collectible can featuring the Super Bowl Steelers. An amazing 22 million votes were cast in the Miss Rheingold competition, second only to the presidential election. And then there's Michelob's gold "lava lamp" can. Enough said.

O'Hara reminds us that what we think are innovations have been around much longer than we realize. I'd forgotten that 60 years before Budweiser advertised its "Born On" date, San Francisco's General Brewing Company stamped on every keg of Lucky Lager the date it left the factory. Or that one of my summer-vacation favorites, Piels Draft, was filtered and non-pasteurized, and was on the shelves long before Miller Genuine Draft appeared.

Ahethea Wojcik's photography gives Great American Beer extra pizzazz. Her photos of retro ads bring back the days when, in O'Hara's words, you ate a steak without fear of cholesterol, ordered "a cup of Joe," and drank beer. That said, my favorite photo was of a 1936 can of Blatz, which looks like something your father fed to his DeSoto and never bothered to clear out of the garage.

The author pointedly says that his book is not about craft beer. But wait. At this year's Great American Beer Festival, the Large Brewery of the Year award went to none other than Pabst Brewing, which owns many of the brands featured in Great American Beer. In a way, we've come full circle.

Great American Beers: 50 Brands that Shaped the Twentieth Century. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2006. 128 pages, hardcover.