An Early History of Boston Beer

When I first started drinking, craft beer wasn’t even on my radar. All the beer I had consumed was produced by mega corporations and, quite frankly, tasted mostly like stale carbonated water. Flavor aside, the stuff was great; it was cheap, plentiful, easy to swig down, and lent itself to an endless variety of drinking games. I’m not ashamed to admit that Keystone will always have a fond place in my heart even if it never passes my lips again.

Craft beer was something different all together. My first craft experience was a Switchback Ale, consumed at a college function in Middlebury. That changed everything. Beer that had flavor?, An alcohol percentage over 4.2%? I had been tricked by my older peers who funneled keystone down my throat (literally). I had some serious research to do. And so my craft beer obsession began…

So here’s the real question: How did it happen that the mega corporations (AB-InBev, Molson Coors, SABMiller, etc.) come to dominate the industry?

As of 2013, the major non-craft domestic brewers in the US controlled about 78% of the US beer market. This number is even less today – as of 2014, craft brewers have hit 10% market share, which is a huge milestone for the industry. Overall, this may seem like a small percentage, but we’ve seen a drastic shift away from the macrobrewers in the last decade - in the late 90’s, craft’s share was only 2.6%. (Which proves its not my fault I only ever had access to Keystone…) However, even as the non-craft domestic players lose ground today, they still control the lion's share of the market.

This was not always the case. 

In 1634, the very first brewery license in the future United States was given to Robert Sedgewick from Charlestown by the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay (points for Massachusetts!). From that point onward, Boston would become known as “one of the premiere meccas of beer in America throughout the booming industrial age”(Beer Advocate). By 1890, there were 27 breweries in Boston itself, including the first iteration of the Boston Beer Co., running from 1828 to 1957 (and, interestingly, completely unrelated to the current iteration that produces Sam Adams). Beer production was the main industry in Mission Hill, and many breweries lined the Stony Brook.  

This changed dramatically with the coming of prohibition. There were three rounds experienced in Boston; first from 1852-1868, second from 1869-1875 and third, most famously and nationally, from 1918-1933. During prohibition, large and small players were forced to find other ways to survive, and most switched industries altogether.

After the repeal of the eighteenth amendment, conditions were still dire for small brewers. World War II introduced grain rationing, making it difficult for any small brewery to afford raw product. The shortage also led to an increased usage of corn, rice and other adjuncts, which still make up a large chunk of the fermentable sugars used in Budweiser and other macro brews.

The prohibitionists, still a strong political force at the time, also saw the perfect opportunity to strike at the brewing industry during war, and argued that brewing beer was a waste of the nation’s industrial resources, manpower, and grain, ultimately putting immense pressure on the government to make brewing more difficult. Together, these elements swiftly squeezed out the smaller players in the industry, and simultaneously gave huge advantages to the macrobrewer. Big players bought up smaller breweries and consolidated their positions in the industry, putting them in position to dominate the market well into the 1970’s.

Remember those 27 breweries in Boston? By the late 1940’s, all but two were gone; Croft Brewing Co, which produced the Narragansett line until 1976, and Haffenreffer & Co., which brewed until 1964. With their closures, a line of brewing tradition harking back to 1634 ended.

Thanks to prohibition, WW2, and the continuing influence of the prohibitionists even after the repealing of the 18th amendment, the small brewers were forced out, and the mega-brewers came to dominate for decades. (Budweiser reached its peak at 12 billion gallons of beer per year, but have started to lose market share since. Sam Adams, the largest “Craft” brewery, produces less than 6 million. Per year.)

But the tides are turning…beginning with the change in legislation in 1978 that made home brewing legal, the rise of craft breweries is growing at an exponential pace. That’s a story for next time.

Happy holidays to all! 


There are a couple of really good articles that I sourced a bunch of the info for this post from, for those of you who might want to read a bit more:

First, from the Jamaica Plain Historical Society:

And second, from Beer Advocate: {Although the beer advocate post is a bit out of date now.}