A Perfect Pint's Beer Guide to the Heartland

A Perfect Pint's Beer Guide to the Heartland

by Michael Agnew

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Once dominated by megabreweries like Miller and G. Heilemann, the Midwest has in recent years become home to a dynamic craft beer industry at the core of America's current brewing renaissance.
Beer writer and Certified Cicerone® Michael Agnew crisscrossed Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin sampling the astonishing variety of beers on offer

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Once dominated by megabreweries like Miller and G. Heilemann, the Midwest has in recent years become home to a dynamic craft beer industry at the core of America's current brewing renaissance.
Beer writer and Certified Cicerone® Michael Agnew crisscrossed Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin sampling the astonishing variety of beers on offer at breweries and brewpubs. The result is a region-wide survey of the Midwestern craft beer scene. Packed with details on more than 200 breweries, A Perfect Pint's Beer Guide to the Heartland offers actual and armchair travelers alike a handbook that includes:
Agnew's exclusive choices on which beers to try at each location
Entries on every brewery's history and philosophy
Information on tours, tasting rooms and attached pubs, and dining options and other amenities
A survey of each brewery's brands, including its flagship beer plus seasonal brews and special releases
Brewery equipment and capacity
Nearby attractions
In addition, Agnew sets the stage with a history of Midwestern beer spanning the origins of the immigrant brewers who arrived in the 1800s to the homebrewers-made-good who have built a new kind of brewing culture founded on creativity, dedication to quality, and attention to customer feedback.
Informed and unique, A Perfect Pint's Beer Guide to the Heartland is the essential companion for beer aficionados and curious others determined to drink the best the Midwest has to offer.
Includes more than 150 full color images, including the region's most distinctive beer labels, trademarks, and company logos.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"As someone who has written about beer for over thirty years I can tell you that it is almost impossible to write a book like this without falling into jargon or repetition of descriptions, and this author fell victim to neither. . . . This is research at its best."—Peter LaFrance, author of Cooking & Eating with Beer

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Heartland Foodways Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 9.80(h) x 0.60(d)

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Perfect Pint's Beer Guide to the Heartland

By Michael Agnew


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09358-6



The middle part of the twentieth century was a difficult time for the American beer industry. The period saw the number of companies making beer in the United States fall from 1,345 in 1915 to only forty-four in 1980. Industry experts at the time predicted that by the end of the century there would be only five. Closings and consolidation led to increasing concentration of market share to just a few large firms. By 1980, the top ten breweries controlled 94 percent of the U.S. beer market; 75 percent of the market was controlled by the top five.

The root causes of this concentration are complex. By the end of the nineteenth century, a few of the larger regional breweries had begun using the railroad lines to expand their distribution areas. They took advantage of economies of scale to produce beer at lower cost than their smaller, local competitors. When the Volstead Act outlawed the production of alcoholic beverages in 1919, it dealt a devastating blow to those smaller producers. Only 331 breweries reopened when Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Facing a vastly diminished competition, the large breweries emerged strong, but regulatory pressures and the continued threat of prohibition restrained them from pursuing aggressive competitive practices. They turned instead to capacity building and investments in greater efficiency to further lower costs. When regulatory threats were lifted during and after World War II, they expanded their market areas to take advantage of excess capacity. Continued low demand after the war left vast amounts of unused capacity, which in turn led to the resumption of aggressive marketing practices that the smaller breweries were unable to counter. Most of them either succumbed to the pressure or were swallowed up by their bigger counterparts.


To understand how this came about, it is helpful to know a bit about the beer industry before Prohibition. By the 1860s, beer in the United States was big business, and it was experiencing unprecedented growth. An influx of immigrants from beer-drinking nations like Germany, Ireland, and Britain, along with increasing urbanization and industrialization and the higher wages that accompanied it, led to a rapid rise in beer consumption. Between 1865 and 1915, per capita consumption increased from just over three gallons to nearly nineteen gallons annually. During the same period, the industry saw annual production rise from 3.7 million barrels to nearly sixty million barrels. By 1910, brewing had become one of the leading manufacturing industries in the country.

The industry was split into small geographic regions that were dominated by a few larger regional players. The consolidation that would accelerate after Prohibition was already under way. Despite the increase in consumption, the number of breweries declined from 3,286 in 1870 to 1,345 in 1915. As technological advances in brewing allowed for greater efficiency, a smaller number of brewers were able to produce ever greater volumes of beer. Those breweries that could afford to invest in equipment upgrades were able to achieve economies of scale to lower costs, making them significantly more competitive. This forced many smaller producers to exit the industry.

Beer consumption at the time was primarily centered in saloons. The "tied-house" system, in which breweries owned or controlled the saloons, allowed breweries with sufficient capital to invest in large saloon holdings, thereby insuring control of the market in particular areas. Some smaller breweries consolidated and combined their saloon holdings in an effort to remain competitive.

The expansion of the railroads facilitated the rise of regional "shipping breweries," which invested in massive expansions of production scale and distribution area to control ever larger percentages of the regional market. These companies, among them Pabst in Milwaukee and Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, became the first nationally oriented breweries. Although this development exerted pressure on smaller producers, all was not lost for them. Despite the big brewers' lower production costs, the expense of shipping led to price equilibrium for delivered goods, which allowed many of the local brewers to remain competitive and profitable.


The start of Prohibition in 1919 brought this vibrant industry to a screeching halt. For many brewers, the only option was to sell off equipment, often at a loss, and get out. Others were able to remain open by converting their businesses to other purposes. Some turned to dairy processing or the production of soft drinks, malt syrup, and "near beer." Miller Brewing Company in Milwaukee went into real estate and leased out its massive refrigerated warehouses for use as cold-storage facilities. Anheuser-Busch even began building trucks.

Many of these alternative industries left the larger breweries well positioned for what was to come after Prohibition's repeal. Some were granted a special license from the federal government to produce alcohol for medicinal purposes. Others turned to the production of malt syrups used in baking and home-brewing or "near beer," often simply a dealcoholized version of their pre-Prohibition product. This allowed them to keep their equipment operational and their brewing staff employed and made it easier for them to get up and running after repeal. Anheuser-Busch's investment in trucks prepared them for the regional expansion that would occur in the 1930s and 1940s. Further, while 85 percent of beer had been kegged for sale in saloons, 80 percent of "near beer" and soft drinks were bottled for consumption at home. This meant a significant investment in high-speed bottling lines—an investment that would pay off as patterns of beer consumption shifted away from saloons following Prohibition.

THE 1930S

On April 7, 1933, President Roosevelt signed a law revising the Volstead Act to allow the sale of beer. In December of that year, the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified, officially ending Prohibition. Beer was flowing once again. But the fourteen-year experiment had taken a toll; only 331 breweries reopened after Prohibition. Those that did survive faced a new set of realities governing the industry. The breweries that were strong before Prohibition were well positioned to come back strong after repeal, and they faced significantly diminished competition. The tied-house system had been replaced by the "three-tier" system that outlawed direct ownership of retail outlets by producers. Lower personal income during the Depression caused a dramatic decrease in beer consumption from pre-Prohibition levels. What consumption did occur was moving from the saloon to the home. And while Prohibition was no longer the law, pro-temperance sentiment and the threat of government regulation continued to loom large, forcing the industry as a whole to adopt a position of restraint that slowed its growth but also allowed many local breweries to stay afloat.

For the first two years after repeal, the price equilibrium that had existed prior to Prohibition continued. The larger brewers could produce their beer at lower cost—on average, $7.61 per barrel versus $9.65 per barrel for those making less than one hundred thousand barrels annually—but the cost of shipping increased the average per-barrel price of delivered goods to $10.87. This premium price at retail initially allowed local breweries to thrive. By 1935 the number of breweries had risen to 766. But that number would never go any higher and would in fact begin a steady decline as new technologies enabled the shippers to close that price gap through the remainder of the 1930s.

On the production side, the shipping breweries invested in mechanization and larger vessels to increase efficiency and achieve greater economies of scale, boosting their cost advantage vis-a-vis the local producers. On the delivery side, the availability of inexpensive refrigerated trucks enabled them to expand their distribution range beyond the railroad lines. Between 1933 and 1939, for instance, Pabst established six hundred new distribution relationships. With each new wholesale relationship, they reached an average of thirteen new retailers. The introduction of cans in 1935 further reduced shipping costs. They were lighter, easier to stack, and better protected the beer from spoilage. Canning lines were too costly an investment for small breweries to afford, leaving them at a competitive disadvantage.

In 1936, St. Louis-based Falstaff overcame a final technological barrier when it opened a second facility for the production of its flagship brand. The brewing process is finicky, and differences in equipment and water can have a dramatic effect on the flavor of the beer. Prior to 1936, breweries would not attach their brand name to beers brewed at other facilities for fear of damaging the brand reputation. When Falstaff proved the technology, others followed suit. By producing beer in multiple locations, they could reduce the distance it had to be transported and thereby lower the cost of shipping.

Social and economic development during the 1930s further advantaged the large brewers. The Depression left Americans with less money in their pockets. While demand for beer spiked immediately after repeal, it followed a steady decline thereafter. Many small producers were simply unable to sell enough beer to stay afloat. Further, the smaller breweries packaged most of their beer in kegs for sale in saloons. But consumption of beer in saloons was decreasing. The negative reputation of saloons prior to Prohibition and the dangers of speakeasy culture during it had driven drinking into the home. This sentiment coincided with the wider availability of refrigerators, making it more convenient to keep beer at home. Unable to afford costly bottling lines, small brewers were faced with the erosion of their primary sales outlet.

That local breweries weren't driven out of the market entirely during the 1930s is due in no small part to moderation exercised by the large firms. The public remembered industry abuses that led to Prohibition and were in no mood to see a return to the aggressive practices of the past. The Twenty-first Amendment gave states the option to remain dry. Twenty-eight states chose to continue Prohibition or to heavily regulate alcohol. The brewers' fear of a return to Prohibition was very real; they also faced the possibility of increased government regulation. Repeal was sold largely as a Depression-relieving jobs program. Large brewers wanted to avoid being seen as eliminating industry jobs by driving smaller competitors out of business.

To head off these dual threats, the industry regulated itself, creating a Brewers Code that specified restrictions on conduct. Aggressive advertising was discouraged, to avoid raising the ire of a suspicious public. Though production and shipping costs had fallen to a point that the price of delivered goods was competitive, the large breweries kept their prices artificially high to relieve pressure on smaller ones.

By the start of World War II, the smaller breweries were in a tenuous position. Unable to match economies of scale of the large breweries, they incurred higher production costs. Meanwhile, their price advantage at the retail level had evaporated even as those bigger competitors lowered shipping costs and expanded their distribution into formerly safe territory away from rail lines. They were being artificially propped up by the reticence of large brewers to aggressively compete.


During the war years, the smaller breweries were granted a reprieve. As the Depression waned, restraints on the public's personal income were eased. Demand for beer rose dramatically as per capita consumption climbed nearly 50 percent from 1939 to 1945. But the larger shipping breweries were unable to capitalize on this increase. Fear of regulation continued as pro-Prohibition factions sought to restrict alcohol from military bases. A rise of anti-German sentiment in the leadup to the war reminded this German-dominated industry of similar attitudes during World War I that had helped tilt the public in favor of Prohibition. Wartime shortages of raw materials like steel, cork, and ingredients kept them from expanding capacity. The large brewers' market share fell 3 percent during this period, while their smaller competitors thrived.

But as the war went on, many of the restraints that had held the shippers back were lifted. To help pay for the war effort, the federal government placed a heavy tax on beer. The industry's importance as a revenue source began to outweigh its stigma as a social ill. The brewers' concerns about a return to Prohibition ended in 1945 when the federal government ordered an end to a Minneapolis teamsters strike against brewers on the grounds that the strike hindered the war effort. While the reason given publicly for ending the strike was troop morale, behind the scenes the strike was interfering with a much-needed revenue stream.


As the war drew to a close, the brewing industry projected a large increase in beer consumption. With wartime shortages and concerns about regulation behind them, the big breweries were looking forward to capitalizing on that growth, and they had the wherewithal to do it. Recent advances in brewing chemistry had allowed for the doubling of capacity without significant investment. But they did invest, building capacity all along the line of the brewing process, from brewhouse to bottling line. They committed to operating breweries of unprecedented size, achieving levels of efficiency and economies of scale that lowered costs significantly.

But the expected expansion of the market failed to materialize. In fact, between 1947 and 1958, per capita beer consumption actually declined by 18 percent. Those optimistic projections had been based on pre-Prohibition models that no longer fit the realities of the marketplace. The old model of growth had been based on sale in saloons. After the war, consumers continued to substitute packaged beer for beer sold on draft. The large breweries were slow to pick up on the shift. Increased consumption of soft drinks was also cutting into beer sales, and higher levels of taxation meant that beer prices rose at a more dramatic rate relative to wine and spirits, causing consumers to switch.

The big brewers were caught by surprise, and they found themselves sitting on huge amounts of excess capacity. Failure to operate at capacity lessened economies of scale and increased production costs. To make matters worse, those chemical-process advances that allowed them to increase production also made it possible for smaller breweries to produce higher-quality, more consistent goods at lower cost, creating unexpected competition. The large breweries responded by expanding distribution areas, ramping up price competition, and launching intensive advertising campaigns.

Brewers sought new consumers in expanded markets in order to raise production to fill capacity. Breweries like Pabst, Miller, and Anheuser-Busch became the first truly national breweries by expanding rapidly outward one region at a time. The tactic backfired at first, as expansion required the purchase or construction of breweries in the new regions, further increasing unexploited capacity. Additionally, they faced stiff competition not only from each other but also from midsized breweries with greater brand recognition in the new regions.

To rectify this situation, these newly national players launched massive advertising campaigns to build their brands. While advertising had accounted for a negligible portion of brewery outlays in the 1930s, it increased steadily in the postwar years. Between 1946 and 1951, advertising costs nearly doubled from an industry average of 2.6 percent to 5.1 percent. And they continued to rise through the 1950s, as the large producers engaged in advertising wars against each other. Unable to compete on this scale, the smaller players gradually lost ground. This, combined with stiff price competition, created a one-two punch that put many of them out of business or forced consolidation. The number of breweries dropped 46 percent, from 465 in 1947 to 252 in 1958, and the combined market share of the top five increased from 21.1 percent in 1947 to 30.6 percent in 1958.

This process of closure and consolidation continued unabated until the early 1980s, when a new breed of small breweries began to emerge. In the three decades since then, the rise of the craft-beer movement has brought about a revitalization of the American beer industry. There are currently more breweries operating in the United States than at any time since the late nineteenth century.


Excerpted from Perfect Pint's Beer Guide to the Heartland by Michael Agnew. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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