Popular Beer in the 50s – A Cultural History Story!

Drinking beer in the 1950s was a very different experience from what we enjoy today. American beers had often been accused of lacking in variety and the craft beer revolution, offering beer lovers a plethora of many different beer styles, was still another 20 to 30 years away.

The chances were that you would be drinking a different beer from somebody two states down from you as the era of multi-national conglomerates was yet to kick in. (Anheuser-Busch was however growing and by the end of the 1960s would be the largest supplier of beer in the US, a position they have maintained since!)

It was more likely you would be drinking beers from your local brewery or one in a nearby state. Only a handful of beers were popular enough to have been distributed nationwide.

So what beers would your dad, or more likely your grandfather, be drinking in the 1950s? Are any of them still brewed? What happened to the rest of these once much-beloved beers? Let’s take a look at some of the most popular beers of the 1950s.

The Top Selling Breweries of 1950

Ballantine party tip. . . you may prefer one, your friends may prefer the other, buy both! Ballantine Ale & Beer
image by Wiki Commons

The range of beers available to American beer lovers has exploded since the early 1980s, both with styles brewed by American craft beer breweries and imports from abroad. But while beer drinkers today may have a much wider choice, beer in the 1950s was much more of a regional affair.

Although there may be a wider choice, more of the beer market today is controlled by the top three brewers. In 1950 American brewers produced 83 million barrels of beer a year with 68 million barrels produced by companies other than the top four brewers.

Compare this with the early 21st Century when American brewers were producing over 180 million barrels of beer a year but only 8 million barrels were produced by companies outside the top three brewers.

In 1950 the top brewer in the US was Schlitz who brewed 5 million barrels of beer and had a 6% market share. In 2017, Anheuser-Busch had firmly cemented its position as America’s largest brewing company with a 50% share of the market and producing a staggering 90 million barrels a year.

The top three brewers now control over 90% of the market.

What’s even more staggering is the difference in barrelage between the number one brewer and the brewing companies in 10th place. In 1950 the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co, America’s top brewer, produced only 3.4 million barrels more than the now-defunct Pfieffer Brewing Co. produced.

By 2017 the top beer producer, the giant that is Anheuser-Bush, was producing over 87.5 million barrels more than the 10th-placed biggest brewer in the USA, Mike’s Hard Lemonade Co.

America’s Biggest Breweries in 1950

1Jos.Schlitz Brewing Co.5.09
3Ballentine, Inc4.37
4Pabst Brewing Co.3.41
5F&M Schaefer Brewing Co2.72
6Liebmann Bros.2.66
7Falstaff Brewing Co.2.28
8Miller Brewing Co.2.10
9Blatz Brewing Co.1.75
10Pfeiffer Brewing Co.1.61

With only four of those brewers still ranking in the top 10 beer producers in 2017 and most now defunct, it does make you wonder – if it wasn’t for the mass corporatization of the brewing industry would some of your dad’s favorite beers of the past still be available.

Or were they just cheap beers of the time and we are better off with the beers we have today?

Some of the brands of the 1950s still live on even though the breweries may have closed their doors a long time ago. Although we may never truly know what the Ballentine IPA, Old Style, or even Schlitz beers of the 50s tasted like, they are now nostalgically brewed often by breweries owned by the Miller Coors Corporation in plants far away from their original homes.

Is it just nostalgia or do some of these beers need reviving (if they haven’t already)?

Popular Beers in the 1950s

A collection of rare beer cans
Image by Wiki Commons

Schlitz Beer

“The beer that made Milwaukee famous”, as the slogan on every can used to boast. We can’t look at the most popular beers of the 1950s without starting with Schlitz and their namesake beer.

Schlitz had been producing this pale ale-style lager since 1849 and quickly resumed producing beer after the days of prohibition (Some would say suspiciously quickly!). Within a year of prohibition ending the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company was the top-selling brewery in the world and in 1950 was the biggest beer brand in the US.

As the ’50s went on Anheuser Busch would aggressively expand its empire and vie with Schlitz beer for the title of top beer in America.

A series of bad decisions, including changing the formula for the beer for cheaper ingredients and a disastrous ad campaign in the 70s, meant Schlitz closed their Milwaukee brewery in the early 80s and the company was sold to Stroh Brewery Co. and later acquired by Pabst Brewing Company.

Although Schlitz beer is still alive today (brewed by Pabst), many would argue it’s just a cheap nostalgic imitation, but it remains a sentimental favorite among the Midwest.

The original vintage recipe of Schlitz beer isn’t remembered too fondly if you look at some of the online reviews (I doubt any of you have ever tasted a 1950s Schlitz!).

It may sound quite nice in the tasting notes, a crisp yet light beer with a slight sweetness and finished with a blend of Cascade, Mt Hood and Williamette hops, but in reality, it was like many of the beers of the time which used corn adjuncts giving it an overpowering sickly sweetness and a skunk smell from the hops.

A basic beer in its simplest form!

Ballentine IPA

IPAs may be the current darling of the craft beer scene, but it hasn’t always been that way and there were times, especially in the 1950s when an IPA was seen as a novelty.

Originally hailing from Newark in New York, Ballantine is cited as America’s first IPA and became extremely popular in the mid-1950s. Clever advertising saw Ballentine Beer as the first television sponsor of the New York Yankees, and during this period the beer was elevated to the number three position in the top beers of the US.

Perhaps it was also the 7.9 % ABV of the beer, which, although only fairly alcoholic now, was considered a complete booze bomb at the time, or perhaps it was the fact that it was more bitter than most other beers of the day ( a unique hop oil was used during the brewing process), but Ballantines is a fondly remembered beer by many beer lovers of the 1950s.

As the country’s palate adapted more to light lagers in the 1960s and 70’s the sales of Ballantine began to fall and by 1996 the beer was dead in the water, only remembered nostalgically by older guys who lived through the late 50s and early 60s.

Pabst Brewing Company released a recreation of the original Ballantine IPA in 2014, which those who have tasted it say it’s not too bad actually.

Pabst Blue Ribbon or Pabst Select

An advertisement for PBR that appeared in the August 4, 1910 Boston Globe
Image by Wiki Commons

Another beer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Pabst Brewing Company was originally established there in 1844 but is currently based in San Antonio.

In the late 1940s, Pabst purchased the Hoffman Beverage Company in Newark and, in 1948, the Los Angles Brewing Company. The production and sales of Pabst beers soared in the early 1950s but sales started to decline after the retirement of Fred Pabst, the CEO.

Lowering their prices worked in the short term and their most famous brand, a fizzy, pale lager, Blue Ribbon was known as “The Premium beer at a Popular Price”.

Pabst proudly boasted of their win of “America’s Best” as far back as the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, although whether they actually won an award in 1893 is unclear.

The beer had however won many awards at other fairs, so many that Pabst had started tying silk ribbons around the neck of every bottle with many patrons asking their bartender for “a bottle of that “blue-ribbon beer”.

Pabst as a brand still exists today, although, through a series of acquisitions, mergers, and takeovers, Pabst is now more of a beer marketing company than a brewer. Most of the beers it sells are actually contract-brewed for Pabst by companies like MillerCoors.

In 2020, many of the beers of the 1950s which had been brewed under a 20-year agreement with MillerCoors were given a reprieve when MillerCoors agreed to continue brewing such heritage brands as Schlitz, Old Milwaukee (a budget Schlitz brand), Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR), Ballantine and Lonestar from Texas.

Lone Star Beer

“The National Beer of Texas”

Beer sign ("Lone Star Beer, The National Beer of Texas") inside Lil' Red's Longhorn Saloon in the Stockyards District of Fort Worth, Texas
Image by Wiki Commons

Chances are that if you were living in Texas in the 1950s you would be sipping on a Lone Star Beer.

The first large mechanized brewery in Texas, the Lone Star Brewery was founded by Adolphus Busch of Anheuser-Busch along with a group of fellow San Antonio businessmen. Lone Star beer was the primary brand of this new company.

After prohibition, a new brewery was set up under the name of Sabinas Brewing Company and it wasn’t until 1940 that the company was rebranded to once again be Lone Star Brewing.

Lone Star beer is best described as a classic adjunct American lager. It has a light golden appearance with a fresh crisp taste and is made with Pacific Northwest hops, malted barley, and corn extract.

Served anywhere in Texas where you could find beer, Lone Star may not have been one of the largest nationwide beers in sales, but was very popular in its home state. References in modern culture to Texas nearly always namedrop Lone Star beer.

In the popular soap opera Dallas JR Ewing was often seen with a bottle of Lone Star in a bar, and George Cooper Snr the father of Shelden Cooper is often seen to be enjoying his favorite beer, Lone Star, in episodes of Young Sheldon.

Like many of the beers which were popular in the 1950s, Lone Star was bought and sold several times before the brand ended up being owned by Pabst Brewing Company through the acquisition of Stroh Brewery and all its acquired beer brands.

Lone Star once again was brewed in San Antonio but only for a short while as the Pearl Brewery was seen as outdated and too expensive to operate if it were to be updated. Lone Star is still produced today but is contracted out to breweries such as Miller Brewing Company in Fort Worth.

Old Style Beer

Newspaper ad for Old Style Lager.
Image by Wiki Commons

This is one of my grandfather’s favorite beers, I often remember him fondly reminiscing about the Old Style beers. I always assumed he was just referring to any beer of the past, but no, there was beer, and still is, called Old Style!

Originally brewed by the G.Heileman Brewing Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, this is another brand of the 1950s which was acquired by Stroh’s Brewery in the 1990s with all G.Heileman’s brands and intellectual properties coming under the ownership of Pabst Brewing Company.

Pabst now oversees the production of several Heileman brands including Old Style under the G.Heileman name.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Old Style is a Chicago beer, there are so many taverns in the town that still sport an “Old Style” sign hanging outside the door in the manner of a civic flag.

Clever marketing, including a sponsorship deal with the Chicago Cubs in 1950, made it the choice beer of not just Wrigley Field but most of Chicago’s taverns.

An uncomplicated, unchallenging lager (it was even called “Old Style Lager” at first), Old Style gives you a solid glass of beer with no extra hops, no added floral aroma, just a lager produced in the “Old Style” – a double fermentation process which was traditionally used in the lagers of Germany gives it extra carbonation and more of a richness in flavor than many American adjunct lagers.

Rheingold Beer & Schaefer Beer

A case of thirty cans of Schaefer Beer
Image by Wiki Commons

The “Brooklyn Beers”

Rheingold Brewery was a New York State brewery that had been selling Rheingold beer since 1883 and held 35% of the state’s beer market at its peak in the 1950s and early 60s.

Schaefer beer was a brand of beer first produced by the F. & M. Schaefer Brewing Company (New York City) in 1842 before relocating to Brooklyn in the early 20th century. Schaefer beer was one of the top-selling beers in the US ranking as high as fifth in the mid-1950s.

Although Brooklyn now seems to be an epicenter for beer, people would have laughed at you 50 years ago for saying that. For most of the latter part of the 20th century, Brooklyn was seen as a cultural wasteland, not the hipster hangout place it is now.

But in the 1950s two Brooklyn breweries in the form of the Rheingold brewery and the smaller Schaefer brewing Company dominated the beers of New York State.

Rheingold beer was the most popular of the two Brooklyn brews and even sponsored the Miss Rheingold beauty pageant that gave way to the Miss America pageant. Schaefer beer was the smaller of the two with the catchy advertising slogan ” the one beer to have when you are having more than one”.

The beer was so popular that the public offering was valued at $108 million when put up for sale in 1968.

As the larger national brands came to dominance in the 1970s, both Rheingold and Schaefer shut up shop and Brooklyn was no longer cool for beer lovers (for a couple of decades anyway!).

Today both brands have been revived, mainly out of curiosity value. Drinks America of Wilson Ct. bought the rights to Rheingold Brewing in 2005 and in 2010 introduced a reformulated Rheingold beer to the New York Metropolitan market as well as Cincinnati, Ohio, and Georgia.

Pabst Brewing retained the license for Schaefer when it acquired Stroh Brewery Company and today outsources a reformulated Schaefer beer which it just sells as “Schaefer” to niche markets in the US.

Hamm’s Beer

Hamm's brewery logo
Image by Wiki Commons

Although Hamm’s didn’t quite make the top 10 breweries list of 1950, no look at popular beers in the 1950s would be complete without mentioning Hamm’s beer, or perhaps more importantly the Hamm’s bear (yes, you read that right – bear and not beer).

Although having been brewed since 1865, Hamm’s the “beer refreshing” didn’t start advertising with the now iconic cartoon bear until the early 1950s. A quirky advertising campaign helped keep what was once one of America’s best-loved beers in the spotlight against heavy competition from the emerging beer giants of Miller and Anheuser-Busch.

Ironically, Hamm’s is now produced by Molson Coors after many acquisitions and merger deals including one with MillerCoors under a licensing agreement from Pabst Brewing Company.

It seems the 50s was a time when using an animated children’s cartoon character was considered okay for selling beer. Even though the bear was never seen drinking any beer, in the 1980s the ads were discontinued as controversy arose about the use of animals and cartoons to sell what was seen as an adult product, and about the impact of this on children.

The 1950s was also a time of expansion for the Theodore Hamm Brewing Company which purchased the San Francisco Rainer Brewing Company in 1953. An LA-based brewing outfit, Acme Brewery, followed in 1957 and their final acquisition of the decade was the Gunther brewery of Baltimore, Maryland.

Although some of these expansions were successful, some like the Gunther brewery tarnished the name of the Hamm’s brand and may have been a contributing factor to the family selling the business and leaving the brewing industry in 1965.

Pfieffer’s Famous Beer

The 1950s was unfortunately the era that saw the beginning of the end for one of America’s favorite beers of the past, Pfeiffer’s beer.

Ever since the end of prohibition, and the following WWII, life had been dog eat dog for breweries with over 185 breweries closing down or being bought out by larger brewing companies in the period known as “The Great Shakedown”.

The Pfeiffer Brewing Company survived these tough times by buying Kling Brewery of Flint and the Jacob Schmidt Brewing Company.

In the mid-1950s Pfeiffer had risen to the status of the best-selling beer brand in Michigan. But a workers’ strike in 1958 began to derail their success with the acquisition debts and competition of national brands like Budweiser, Miller, and Pabst also taking their toll.

In the following decade of the 60s, Pfeiffer closed the doors on their original Detroit brewery in an attempt to cut costs. Sale to the Heileman Brewing Company followed in the 70s which was then acquired by the Stroh Brewing Company in 1996.

The Pfeiffer name and beers slipped out of the mainstream until in 2018 Joe Pfeiffer (no relation to the original Pfeiffer family) acquired the rights to the Pfeiffer name and resurrected the German style lagers originally brewed by Conrad Pfeiffer.

Beer of the 1950s – Are they a Thing of Nostalgia or Were They Great Beers?

If you ask your Grandpa about the beers he used to drink, he will no doubt remember them fondly, and if he’s like my grandfather, he’ll start on a tirade against the global dominance of the heavyweight brewing groups.

Your grandpa might even remember a few of the beers of the 1950s that I’ve overlooked, or simply didn’t have enough space to mention. Let me know if there are any beers of the 1950s we totally overlooked that you think should be on our list (We will try to update it over time!).

Beer was very much a regional product in the 1950s but the emergence of dominant national brands was just around the corner.

Soon we would see more of the beer market controlled by just a few major breweries and many of the beers of the past were only produced under license as a nostalgic nod to their legacy.

We are currently going through the second age of regional beers with a record number of craft breweries opening every year, this time with what many would argue is a wider choice of beer styles and, in most cases, better quality beers too.

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