While the 1960s was a time of peace and flower power, America went on to experience one of the most revolutionary decades of modern times in the 1970s.
The Vietnam War, Watergate, the Recession, and the hangover from the swinging sixties all went on to change the consumer society of the US.
This was also evident in the US beer market, with smaller regional breweries either closing down or being swallowed by the larger national breweries throughout the seventies.
The recession also meant that this was the decade when people wanted cheaper beers, leading to the rise of more generic beer brands.
Although Anchor brewing was to launch America’s first nationally available Porter in 1973 and the first dry-hopped IPA in 1975, the US’s first microbrewery didn’t open until 1978, the short-lived New Albion Brewing Company.
However, it paved the way for the likes of Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, and others who led the way in the craft beer revolution about to explode in the ’80s.
The ’70s, however, were dominated by national brands like Budweiser, Miller, and Coors (there was even a black market for Coors!), and was the era that saw the rise of the Light or Lite Beers.
The Top 10 Brewing Companies in 1970
If you have read any of my previous posts on the popular beer brands of the 1950s or the most popular beers of the 1960s you will know we like to start with a quick look at the statistics for the largest brewers in the US at the start of each decade.
|2||JOSEPH SCHLITZ BREWING CO||15,129,000|
|3||PABST BREWING CO||10,517,000|
|4||ADOLPH COORS CO||7,277,076|
|5||F & M SCHAEFFER BREWING CO||5,749,000|
|6||FALSTAFF BREWING CO||5,386,133|
|7||MILLER BREWING CO||5,150,000|
|8||CARLING BREWING CO||4,819,000|
|9||THEO HAMM BREWING CO||4,470,000|
|10||ASSOCIATED BREWING CO||3,750,000|
|TOTAL US BARRELAGE IN 1970||121,861,000|
Although there wasn’t too much change in the top 10 breweries list in the US since the start of the previous decade, the 1960s, global corporatization of the US brewing industry had already started, and some beloved breweries were already being bought out or merged with larger national brewers.
In 1968, Anheuser-Busch, through their many acquisitions, had become the first brewer to hit an annual beer sales of over 10 million barrels.
By 1970, the giant Anheuser-Busch breweries were producing over double the barrelage of the third-placed brewing company, Pabst Brewing Company.
By the late 1970s, according to Smithsonian magazine, the number of American breweries hit a post-prohibition low point of only 89 breweries controlled by 42 companies.
By 1980, the top 10 brewing companies list in the US would look very different, with the rise of national brewers like Millers and Coors climbing up the charts, mainly thanks to two distinct beers which became very popular in the 70s.
Budweiser, of course, would continue their dominance with a series of sporting advertisements and an impressive 100 million dollar advertising budget, meaning the “King of Beers” now appealed to even more Americans and was also shipped further afield.
Although Budweiser would start the decade as the best-selling beer in the US, there was a silent revolution slowly starting which could be traced back to the takeover of Anchor Brewing in San Francisco in 1969 by Frederick Louis “Fritz” Maytag III.
What Beers Were Widely Available in the Supermarkets in 1970?
National brands like Budweiser and Miller were, without doubt, the most widely seen beers on supermarket shelves and in the coolers of bars nationwide. Schlitz was still hanging in there, although its popularity seemed to be waning.
Regional beers were also still popular, for example in New England Schaefer and Narraganset continued to outsell many national brands.
Lite beers like Miller Lite and Natural Lite (a Budweiser product) became popular midway through the ’70s, and malt liquor, a beer variant, was popular, especially amongst the Black community with brands like Colt 45 and Private Stock (no longer produced) selling well.
Although we like our American beers, imports such as Heineken, Lowenbrau, and Labatt were also widely available but there was yet to be the surge of the more exotic imports like Mexican lagers or Belgian beers.
Key Beers of the 1970s
Let’s take a look at a few of the beers which helped define the seventies, maybe some are beers your dad would have drunk, or even yourself if you started at an early age.
Budweiser – King of Beers
Okay, I can’t avoid it anymore but we have to mention the elephant in the room that is Budweiser, the self-proclaimed “King of Beers”.
You can’t deny the importance of Budweiser to the American beer market, with many seeing Budweiser as a proud symbol of American influence around the world.
However, most craft beer lovers would probably see it as all that is wrong with American beer – a mass-produced, bland, rice-based lager with very little taste. (Just a personal opinion but I’m sure many of you hopheads out there will agree!)
Nearly everybody of drinking age in the US (and even globally, some would argue) has sampled and maybe even enjoyed a Budweiser at some stage of their life. August A. Busch III, the great-grandson of the company’s founder and CEO from 1975, even claims he enjoyed his first sip of Budweiser shortly after he was born.
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, August said “The first thing I ever tasted, before my mother’s milk even, was beer. It was five drops of Budweiser from an eyedropper when I was five hours old!”. Wow, that’s dedication!
On a hot summer day, an Ice cold Bud can be a perfect thirst quencher, and it is still recognized as the biggest-selling beer in the world.
Over in the UK Budweiser is now the official beer of the Premier League, a uniquely English soccer league!! (An American beer with English football – Crazy!!)
Although the sudden implosion of the Schlitz breweries enabled Anheuser Busch to snap up many smaller regional breweries at bargain prices, by 1970 their profits were falling.
It wasn’t until the 1975 appointment of the aforementioned August A. Busch III that their marketing and distribution got serious.
Spurred on by rising competition from Miller Brewing which had been bought out by the Philip Morris Company, August hired a leading team of MBA marketing experts and increased the marketing spend to 100 million dollars a year, a figure unheard of at the time.
In 1975 Budweiser began its continued 47-year sponsorship of the Super Bowl, and advertising campaigns featured the American sportsman and blue-collar workers.
Combined with a superior transportation network (Budweiser were the first to pasteurize their beer in the US, some would say before milk and to use refrigerated trucks) you couldn’t avoid Budweiser, and they fought off the challenges from Coors and Miller to remain the number one selling beer in the US.
If a major transportation and shipping network helped Budweiser to become the best-selling beer in the US, it was a lack of shipping facilities and a smaller production capability that helped Coors Banquet become one of the most popular beers in the US in the 1970s.
It’s hard to believe nowadays but Coors Banquet beer actually created a black market for beer, with American beer drinkers lusting after cans of Coors Banquet beer in much the same way craft beer lovers now crave the rarer IPAs like cans of Heady Topper or limited supply Trappist beers from Belgium.
It wasn’t that the beer was particularly better than many of the other rice adjunct-based lagers and 70s beer classics, it was just much rarer, only being distributed in 13 of the western US states.
Despite having the largest brewery, (the first Coors Brewery in Golden, Colorado is the largest single brewing facility still operating in the world) Coors claimed they could not produce enough beer to meet the demand.
In addition, their brew was unpasteurized meaning it needed to be distributed exclusively using refrigerated trucks.
The lack of Coors meant a mystique was born, and folks from the East Coast were soon smuggling cases of canned beers and bottled beer back home after a visit to the Rockies and similar areas.
In 1977, Coors even placed an advert in the Washington Post urging customers not to buy their beers in the area, as they clearly came from a black market supplier. The fear was the beer would have been mishandled and could be prone to become “watery”, which anybody who has tasted Coors nowadays will just scoff at.
This crazy surge of interest in a beer like Coors Banquet hit its peak with the 1977 release of Smokey and The Bandit, the legendary film which featured a trucker (Burt Reynolds) risking life and limb to avoid the law and smuggle crates of Coors back to Georgia.
By the mid-1980s, a nationwide distribution deal was signed and Coors finally got shipped outside those western US states, reaching all 50 of the US states by 1991.
Never shy of innovation, Coors also released a light version of their Banquet Beer in 1978, otherwise known as Coors Light, or by many fans as the “silver bullet” in reference to the silver cans it came in.
Coors Light eventually overtook the original Coors “full-fat” beer to become one of the best-selling beers in the US.
NOTE: Although many people think Miller Lite was the first “light” beer, Coor was actually the first to sell light beer in the 1940s when they first introduced Coors Light.
This was lighter in body and calories than their regular premium lager brand. It was discontinued at the start of WWII only to be successfully reintroduced in 1978.
Although many people may think of Lite beers as an 80s beer, they were originally introduced in the mid-1970s. While today’s craft brewers tend to compete on who can put more into their beers – more hops, more malt, or more strength – in the ’70s, brewers seemed to compete with who could put less into their lagers.
Miller Lite may not have been the first light beer (that credit goes to Coors, see the note above) and they certainly didn’t invent the “Lite” beer, but Miller Light was the world’s first successful mainstream Lite beer.
It was originally developed by Joseph L. Owades, who turned centuries of brewing tradition upside down when he developed a process for brewing a full-flavored beer with fewer calories and fewer carbohydrates.
Rheingold Brewery was the first to use this new inventive process and produce a beer called Gablinger’s Diet Beer, which was aimed at the dieting public. However, the beer was soon discontinued.
The next brewer to attempt the formula was Meister Brau, who debuted their first light beer as Meister Brau Lite.
When Meister Brau hit financial problems, the Miller Brewing Company bought out the franchise and reformulated Meister Brau Lite to become the beer we now know as Miller Lite.
Although originally a regional beer like Coors, in 1975 it went nationwide with a successful advertising campaign famously claiming “Tastes great, less filling”.
A connection with the tough guy sports culture via Joe Frazier made it ok for those cooler dudes to drink a lower ABV watery lager, and it soon became the second best-selling beer in America.
In 1978, Anheuser-Busch eventually weighed into the competition with Natural Light ( to be renamed as Bud Lite in the 80s), a beer that would eventually usurp its big brother, the original Budweiser, to become the best-selling beer in America to this day.
The importance of the release of Miller Lite can’t be underestimated, with most brewing conglomerates now producing a bevy of light beers, and the top 3 selling beers in the US being made up exclusively of light beers.
The high-interest rates and resulting inflation of the mid-70s meant beer lovers were on the lookout for cheaper beers. Generic products had already proved very popular with consumers, including supermarket own brands of staples such as beans, pasta, and other dried goods.
These were seen as a good way of helping to balance the household budget of many American households. So why not a generic beer?
Although many supermarkets were soon to produce their own label beer brands, perhaps the most famous generic beer was one produced by the S & P group simply called “BEER”.
It was brewed by Falstaff Breweries, which had recently been bought out by the S & P parent company and was undergoing a phase of cost-cutting.
The idea of a beer that sold for a cheaper price with just a plain can devoid of any expensive marketing costs, and that was simply labeled with the name “BEER” fitted with this cost-cutting ideal perfectly.
They even produced a “BEER LITE” to keep up with the current trends of the day.
Nobody is quite sure what the formula was for “BEER”, with many consumers guessing it was whatever was leftover from a batch of the many breweries’ beers.
Sometimes you could be getting a Ballentines or maybe even a Falstaff beer due to the large number of breweries that had been bought out by the brewing magnate Paul Kalmanovitz’s S & P group.
Eventually, generic products fell out of favor with consumers, who became, once again, obsessed with labels – particularly in the craft beer scene where a beer bottle label will denote which region or beloved craft brewery the beer comes from.
Although the phrase “craft beer” was still yet to be adopted, the “Fritz” Maytag III era, which had started in the late 1960s, saw the first non-industrial beer post-prohibition bottled in 1971.
It’s often said that the success of Anchor Steam beer lit the fuse of the craft beer explosion and the rise of independent brewers, which was to happen towards the end of the ’70s and the start of the 1980s.
Anchor Steam Beer is believed to be named after an age-old tradition of fermenting the beer on the rooftop of the brewery due to the lack of cooling equipment or ice. The steam refers to the heat or steam of the fermentation rising from the rooftops on chilly San Francisco nights.
Although no longer fermented in outdoor climates, Anchor Steam Beer is still open-fermented in the brewery for a traditional style of ale.
Anchor, in the ’70s, was also responsible for producing many of the first US versions of popular beer styles, including the first American porter (Anchor Porter in 1973), a barleywine (Old Foghorn Ale in 1974), and the first Christmas Ale in 1975.
Fritz was also the first to introduce dry-hopping to the pale ale style with Liberty Ale in 1975.
After reading some old texts about how IPAs were made, Fritz put hops into a mesh bag which was then used during the secondary fermentation to age the beer over hops. At the time this was a revolutionary idea for US brewers.
Before being offered in bottles, the sale of Anchor Steam beer was limited to thirty local establishments on draft only.
The bottles would initially be sold in four-packs to keep a price close to the traditional mainstream six-packs of domestic beer, and soon production increased from only 800 barrels in 1969 to 2,100 barrels in 1972.
Although a limited supply existed, soon word spread, and by the end of the ’70s, Anchor Steam had achieved national recognition.
New Albion Brewing Company
Often referred to as America’s first craft beer brewery, New Albion is commonly acknowledged as the first United States microbrewery of the modern era.
Although inspired by the ales of the Anchor Brewing Company, many argue that without New Albion brewing, we wouldn’t have companies such as the beloved Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
In fact, as part of their 30th-anniversary celebrations, Sierra Nevada released Jack & Kens Ale as a tribute to the influence of Jack McAuliffe, the founder of New Albion Brewing.
Ironically, as Budweiser was celebrating its 100-year anniversary in 1977, New Albion Brewing was kickstarting the craft beer revolution with the launch of a pale ale, a porter, and a stout.
Unfortunately, with little funds for promotion and no distribution network to lean on, the New Albion Brewing Company soon went out of business in 1982 with their beers remaining a well-kept secret but their influence reaching far and wide.
Brewed using the malt from the other nearby, pioneering brewer Anchor, the original Albion Ale used Cluster and Cascade hops to recreate the flavors of the beers Jack McAuliffe, a former sailor, had encountered on his many trips overseas.
Many argued that New Albion beer’s biggest problem was the inconsistency – when it was good it was wonderful, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t always at its best!
Fortunately, for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to try the New Albion Ale the first time around, the Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) is honoring the man they call the “father of micro brewing” by re-releasing his original New Albion Ale.
They have even managed to coax McAuliffe out of self-imposed obscurity to ensure they follow his original recipe. It’s hoped the revival of New Albion by Boston Beers with all the proceeds going to Jack’s daughter, Rene Deluca, an Ohio resident, will enable her to reestablish the brand on a more long-term basis.
Although I have mainly looked at the nationally available mass-produced beers, there were still a few of the regional smaller brewers’ beers out there. Depending on which state you lived in, your choice of beer in the local bars would be much more varied.
Beers like Rheingold and Schaefars in the New York area were hanging on, with the ever-popular beauty contest Miss Rheingold still being held annually.
Although Brooklyn has once again become a beer epicenter, it’s hard to believe that both of the best-selling beers of New York in the 70s closed up shop pretty close together in the mid-70s, with the emerging dominance of the national brands.
Beers from the Olympia Brewing Company were popular in the Pacific Northwest for most of the ’70s.
Beers I have covered in previous posts, including Hamm’s and Lone Star, had been acquired by the Olympia Brewing Company, which also produced Buckhorn Beer, a rival to Lone Star beer from Texas, and, of course, the ubiquitous Olympia beer.
The popular ’70s daredevil Evel Knieval was sponsored by Olympia beer. In an attempt to take Olympia nationwide, they even stitched “Olympia Beer” patches onto the parachutes attached to his dragster.
Beers like Schlitz, Stroh’s, and Pabst were still available regionally but were finding it harder to compete with the larger marketing and distribution networks of the major national brewing conglomerates, many of who were now going global.
The Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, for example, may have started the decade as the second biggest brewer in the US but ended the ’70s dropping a place and also dropping their barrage by over a million barrels a year, while the top 2 producers continued to increase both their barrelage and their share of the market.
A series of acquisitions and mergers of the smaller breweries meant there were fewer varieties of ales available, and often what you thought of as a “local” beer would be produced often hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.
Popular Beers of the ’70s Final Thoughts
The ’70s was a hard time to be an independent brewing company, as the major national breweries’ dominance continued to grow. Not only did the smaller brewers lose out but so to did the beer lover.
Cost-cutting exercises and mergers meant many of our favorite beers of the past lost the unique qualities we loved so much.
Thankfully companies, like Anchor Brewing and New Albion, gave us hope for what was going to come – the craft beer explosion of the ’80s & ’90s.
Hang onto your pint glasses, the 1980s trip through the beer landscape is gonna be one helluva ride!