Annual EBHS Conference, 39th Annual Economic and Business History Society Conference

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A Taste for Temperance: Economic and Historical Influences on Belgian and American Beer Consumption
Ranjit S Dighe, Eline Poelmans

Last modified: 2014-05-19


This paper offers a comparative perspective on Belgian and American beer tastes and the historical forces that have shaped them. Belgian beer is among the world’s strongest in terms of alcohol by volume (ABV) and is also known for its rich flavor. The expression “Belgian beer culture” refers to both the huge variety of beer types and brands available, as well as the highly acclaimed quality and method of brewing in Belgium. American beer is famously bland and currently dominated by “light” beers. While cultural factors such as Belgium’s tradition of abbey-brewed strong beer and the massive immigration lager-drinking Germans in the nineteenth-century US are not to be discounted, we identify the temperance movement as a profound influence on beer tastes in the two countries. The American temperance movement was among the world’s strongest, and brewers constantly tried to defend and market their product as a “temperance beverage,” as opposed to rum, whiskey, and other ardent spirits. While it was not uncommon for American workers to eat lunch at a saloon, they worked longer hours, were held to a faster pace, and had fewer protections than their European counterparts, so strong drink would have been in low demand. Strong English ales (the original malt beverage in British America and the USA) and full-bodied German lagers gave way to weaker, blander pilsners. Thus the temperance movement and the demands of American employers were mutually reinforcing. When the temperance movement reached its apex in the 1920s with national prohibition, brewers called for the modification of the Volstead Act to allow beer of up to 3.2% ABV, a level even lower than before Prohibition, and finally achieved the legalization of 3.2% beer in early 1933. Average ABV stayed low even after the full repeal of Prohibition, and brewers resisted calls for ABV labeling, fearing that it would lead to a race toward stronger beer. Upon repeal, the beer industry was far more concentrated than before, and improved refrigeration and trucking (not to mention the National Recovery Administration’s promotion of cartels) helped it become even more concentrated, with relatively few choices for consumers. States, fearing the return of the “saloon,” established a three-tiered distribution system that further stifled variety by separating brewers from retailing and inhibiting the formation of brewpubs for half a century. Articles and editorials in trade publications make clear that the brewers remained fearful for decades that Prohibition might make a comeback. Even in the past few decades, trade publications are rife with warnings about “neoprohibitionist” efforts to restrict the beer industry. The ongoing dieting craze and the anti-drunk-driving campaign provide additional reasons for Americans to demand lighter, less intoxicating beers.

In Belgium, the need to water down beer into a “temperance beverage” was not really felt until WWI. Grains were scarce and expensive, which increased the creative use of ingredients. Moreover, the Belgians drank less alcohol, caused by shortages and high prices. This was the moment for the government to act if it wanted to issue a general ban on alcohol. In the Vandervelde law (VDV law) of 1918, Belgium chose to ban distilled spirits, but permit beer up to 5% ABV and wine up to 15% ABV. Although these restrictions were a wartime expedient, after the war the parliament continued to treat beer and wine as temperance beverages by favoring them over spirits: the ABV cap on beer was removed in the 1919 revision and the ABV cap for wine was raised to 18%, but the sale of spirits remained restricted. This law is at the base of the “Belgian beer culture”, as consumers were searching for - and producers were actually brewing - higher-alcohol beers to replace the liquor. In this respect, national policy favored moderation (or what some anti-prohibitionists called “true temperance” as opposed to abstinence) all along and distinguished between mild and strong alcoholic beverages. By setting the standard for intoxicating as hard liquor, as opposed to 0.5% ABV (Volstead Act) or 3.2% ABV (1933 modification), Belgian Parliament allowed the brewers to market to all tastes. The VDV law would only be changed in 1983, when it became legal to buy all kinds of alcoholic beverages. During the 60-years existence of this law, the already existing “Belgian beer culture” was strengthened. In the interwar period, the production of lager was introduced. During WWII, English ‘ales’ became rather popular. Although the 1950–80 period was characterized by strong growth in consumption, the Belgian taste for beer changed. In the 1950s, the Belgians remained loyal to their local brews, and to the ale-like beer. Lager, not considered as real beer, remained less popular. In the 1960s, however, the ‘ales’, poured in larger glasses than lager, became the drink of the lower classes, which led to an increase in the consumption of lager, the ‘brew of progress’. In the 1970s, when the belief in progress had altered, an increase in ‘nostalgic consumption’ became visible. Hence, the demand for abbey and old-type beers increased. Since the 1980s, the emergence of microbreweries was visible as well as drink and driving laws. All the changes between 1919 and 1983, that have laid the foundation of Belgium as ‘beer paradise’ today, have been influenced by the existence of the VDV law and other lax actions of the government. Instead of lowering beer drinking volumes, and the beers’ alcohol percentage, the government did the opposite by intervening in favor of the brewers or by not intervening at all. By the end of the VDV law, Belgium was characterized by two types of beer: the mass-produced lager and the Belgian specialty brews.