Popular Beer in the 80s – Explore the Brewing Landscape

The 1980s was an exciting period for beer lovers in the US.

Although the major mainstream commercial brands like Budweiser, Miller, and Coors continued to dominate the market in overall sales of beers, the craft beer scene was starting to gather pace with more and more microbreweries opening every year and imported beers such as Corona gaining popularity.

By the end of the 80s, the major three nationals controlled over 80% of the beer market, but there were more than 100 microbreweries that had opened in this decade giving the craft beer lover more choices than ever.

And fortunately, many of those craft ales we were introduced to in the 80s are still available today.

It may feel like every small town from Portland to St Petersburg nowadays has a plethora of craft breweries, and that’s probably because they do.

There are currently over 9000 independent breweries in the US today, amazing when you think at the turn of the century there were only about 400 independent microbreweries operating in the US.

Much of the foundations for the craft beer revolution in America can be traced back to those, now legendary, beers of the 80s.

We’re talking about beers like the Pale Ale from Sierra Nevada and Boston lager from Sam Adams, which paved the way forward for many of today’s craft brewers.

But it’s not just about the Pale Ales and IPA. The 80s also saw the USA’s first Brown Ales, Amber Ales, Wheat Beers, and pilsners that have all stood the test of time.

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular old-school beers of the 80s, and how it became the decade that changed the American beer scene forever.

The Top Ten Brewers in the US in 1980

yellow beer neon sign
Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

By 1980, Anheuser-Busch had firmly cemented its place as America’s largest brewery with an annual barrelage of over 50 million barrels and nearly one-third of the entire market.

With Miller in second place, the top two brewers in the land now controlled over 50% of the entire US beer production.

The popularity of the “Light” beers pioneered by both brewers, and the wide distribution networks both enjoyed, domestic and internationally, meant their positions would be unchallenged as giants of the beer scene, even to this very day.

A few hangers-on from the glory days of the 1960s were still hanging on in there, but, as the nationals looked to consolidate their positions, these would be either subject to takeovers or mergers with larger brewing interests.

Failing to register in the top 10 brewers would be the many smaller independent breweries that were springing up almost every month across the states. Where you were in the country would change what your favorite craft beer was, as many were still years away from nationwide distribution deals.

Certain towns and states like San Diego in California or Boulder in Colorado would become a Mecca for craft beer lovers, who were on the increase.

But there were new craft breweries and craft brewpubs opening everywhere from New York to Pittsburgh, just not quite at the rate of the 90s and the new millennium yet.

#1Anheuser-Busch, Inc.50,200,000
#2Miller Brewing Co.37,300,000
#3Pabst Brewing Co15,091,000
#4Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co14,900,000
#5Adolph Coors Co13,800,000
#6G. Heileman Brewing Co13,270,000
#7Stroh Brewery Co6,161,255
#8Olympia Brewing Co6,091,000
#9Falstaff Brewing Co3,901,000
#10C Schmidt & Sons3,625,000

Why the Sudden Interest in Craft Beers?

Although beer drinkers have always been keen to hunt for new drinks, in the past the majority of American beers had followed the pattern of being an adjunct-based lager verging on a Pale Ale, with very few added flavors and aromas such as hops or different specialty malts.

In the late 1960s, Fritz Maytag was considered a revolutionary when he bought the Anchor Steam Brewery and introduced a new way of brewing beer to the traditional brewing methods, boosting the hop contents of previously blander lager styles.

The next brewer to employ such techniques as dry hopping and bittering was Jack McAuliffe at the New Albion Brewery in California in 1978. Although the brewery only lasted six years it did inspire many of the nearby brewers to experiment with hops and form their own brew houses.

The most noticeable of which, and the one that was definitely the kickstart for the American Craft beer explosion, was Sierra Nevada and their ultra-hoppy West Coast Pale Ale.

A revived interest in home brewing in the early 70s, along with a reduction in taxation for smaller brewers and the eventual legalization of home brewing across the states, meant there was an ever-growing interest in different styles of ales and lagers.

In 1977, the acclaimed drink writer Michael Jackson published his now-authoritative book, The World of Beer, which ignited the interest of the American beer-drinking public in different beer styles from around the world which could be recreated here in the US.

By 1980, American beer consumers were just waiting for the next big craze, and then along came Sierra Nevada and their California-Made Pale Ale.

Popular Beers of the 80s:

#1 Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (1981)

Sierra Nevada - Pale Ale
image by Wiki Commons

This is arguably the beer that kicked off the whole American craft beer revolution.

Although New Albion Ale by Jack McAuliffe’s short-lived New Albion Brewing Co is acknowledged to be the first craft beer of the modern era, people didn’t really sit up and take notice until Ken Grossman, inspired by the new Albion flagship ale, produced his first Pale Ale at Sierra Nevada in Chico, California.

It’s such an iconic ale that is still widely available today, that even the yeast strain used to produce similar beers is named after Chico.

Industry legends such as Grossman at Sierra Nevada, Jim Koch of Samuel Adams, and Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head are all said to have been inspired by a legendary visit to the new Albion Brewery.

Ken’s first brew at Sierra Nevada was actually a stout that was hoppier than most other stouts and known as a West Coast Stout, but it was in November 1980 that Sierra Nevada started experimenting with Pale Ales using the Cascade hop, which was not too common at the time.

After 10 batches of beer, Grossman finally cracked it and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was released.

The Cascade hops gave the Pale Ale an intense aroma of pine and citrus, a signature feature of what was to become known as the West Coast style.

SNPA is known for its bright, piney, and floral flavors with a pleasing bitter bite – it tastes as good today as it did way back in 1981 and is the benchmark by which all other American Pale Ales are measured.

Without this trailblazing beer from Sierra Nevada, we may never have discovered the Pale Ales and IPAs which were soon to follow from beer microbreweries all over the nation.

#2. Redhook ESB (1987)

Not as iconic as Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, Redhook produced some excellent old-school beers in the 1980s, and one of my favorites, which you can still find today, is their Extra Special Bitter.

First brewed as a seasonal beer in the 80s, ESB earned a reputation as “banana beer” due to its caramel fruit sweetness, subtle spice, and fruit hop flavors.

Using Williamette hops for that fruity ester finish with hints of stone fruit, it quickly defined the style of an American ESB and became Seattle’s definitive craft beer alongside the brewery’s also popular Ballard Bitter (released in 1985 and known for its hoppy profile).

It wasn’t until the 90s that Redhook would venture into the IPA market with their Long Hammer IPA, tracing its heritage back to Ballard Bitter.

They even now produce an Imperial IPA at 8.6% ABV called Big Ballard, still paying tribute to the Scandinavian history of Seattle’s Ballard Neighbourhood.

The ESB is a malty, fruity slightly bitter beer that still has plenty of fans today!

#3 Bell’s Best Brown Ale

Although Bell’s may be better known nowadays in the craft beer industry for its Two Hearted Pale Ale, the Michigan-based brewer was known for its innovative reproduction of classic UK-based beer styles in the 1980s, like Porters, Stouts, and Brown Ales.

Formed in 1985, the very first beer produced by Larry Bell at Kalamazoo Brewing Co, later to be known as Bell’s, was the Great Lakes Amber Ale (which is now simply known as Amber Ale).

For many of the local beer drinkers, this was the first craft ale they had experienced and it became known as the beer that built the brewery.

As the craft beer boom was just starting to take hold in the mid-80s, Bell, in 1986, introduced the now infamous “Third Coast Beer” in homage to the Great Lakes Coast Line, which, although it was technically a Pale Ale, was dubbed beer due to the reluctance by some wary drinkers to drink ales yet.

A porter and a couple of stouts followed and seemed to take the beers down a darker path more suited for those cold winter months of the Great Lakes area.

One of my favorites, still produced to this day, was the Bell’s Cherry Stout. Although beers with adjuncts (non-malt sources of unfermentable sugars) were uncommon in the 80s, Bell added 100% Michigan-grown Montmorency cherries to their whisky barrel-aged stout for a lightly hopped yet tart flavored, ruby-tinted black stout.

In 1988 Bell’s produced their very first Best Brown Ale which, with its deep malt body and American hop profile, helped to bridge the gap between the lighter-bodied beers and heavier malty stouts.

Produced seasonally, it is one of Bell’s most sought-after beers, and this award-winning Brown Ale has a malty backbone with hints of chocolate, caramel, and subtle dried fruits.

#4 Samuel Adams Boston Lager (1984)

Bierdose (0.33 Liter)
Image by Wiki Commons

First brewed by founder Jim Koch in his home kitchen, Boston Lager is the beer that built the Sam Adams brand and is still one of the most popular beers on the market today. It’s hard to imagine a time when Samuel Adams beers were not on the shelves of your local store.

Using a recipe that belonged to his Great Grandfather and which he found in his father’s attic in the early 1980s, Jim believed that beer drinkers deserved a better American beer than the limited options which were available at the time.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager uses the recipe that his great-grandfather used to produce Louis Kock lager in Missouri back in 1860, and is a Vienna-style lager.

Amber in color, it tastes sharp as well as sweet, with roasted malts and aromas of caramel and the floral hops used.

The hops used in Boston Lager are even today transported by ships and trains from Austria, as the Boston Brewing Company argues these are still the best quality hops.

Named after Samuel Adams, the revolutionary son of Boston who founded the Sons of Liberty, Jim Koch was seeking independence from the major beer labels such as Anheuser-Busch of the 1980s in much the same way Sam Adams was fighting for independence from Britain.

The new technology used by the municipal breweries, the introduction of large interstate highways, cheap aluminum cans, and major TV commercial campaigns made it nigh on impossible for new beer companies to compete with the established beer giants.

Koch, however, made a beer that had more flavor, used quality ingredients, and could appeal to many people.

Although Samuel Adams only represents 1% of the beer market, it has won multiple awards and managed to rustle the feathers of larger imported beer brands such as Becks and Heineken.

Many of the regional breweries produced craft beers in the 1980s which were of a hazy nature and often had sediment that fell to the bottom of the glass, which many US beer drinkers were unaccustomed to.

Instead, Boston Lager offered a crystal clear lager-style beer that your average beer drinker would be more familiar with.

After brewing the first batch of Boston Lager in his kitchen, Jim Koch released Boston Beer to the local restaurants of Boston in November 1984 and, using his Harvard Business degree, grew the business to become one of the key players in the craft beer scene of America.

Today the Boston Beer Company also produces beer and other alcoholic beverages under the company names Angel City Brewery, Coney Island Brewery, Dogfish Head, Truly Hard Seltzer, Twisted Tea, and Angry Orchard Hard Cider Company.

The Samuel Adams Boston Lager, however, remains Jim Koch’s source of pride and he still travels to Germany and Austria every year to pick out the. Hops for his “golden child” beer.

#5 Deschutes Mirror Pond (1988)

Deschutes Brewery 2020 Logo
Image by Wiki Commons

Founded as a small brewpub in 1988 by Gary Fish in Downtown Bend, Oregon, Deschutes is now a major national craft brewer whose beers are shipped to over 43 of the mainland states and can even be found exported abroad.

In the late 1980s, the vast majority of craft breweries carried at least one Pale Ale in their beer portfolio. Although the explosion of IPAs as a style was just around the corner in the 1990s, the 1980s belonged to the American Pale Ale.

A Pale Ale that paved the way for other Pales and IPAs in a similar way to the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was Mirror Pond from Deschutes, which is another household name you can still enjoy today.

Widely recognized to be one of the most balanced Pale Ales on the market, Mirror Pond was brewed with 2-row, Crystal, Carapils, and Munich malts balanced with those now familiar cascade hops as used in the Sierra Nevada beer.

The result was a satisfying combination of sweet malts and resinous, piney hops.

Mirror Pond has won multiple international beer awards and domestic medals over the years, including the gold medal in the Pale Ale category at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival, and the World’s Best Premium Ale in 2010.

Although their Freshly Squeezed IPA may be more popular in recent years, Mirror Pond Pale Ale is still the original throwback beer from the 80s loved by many beer drinkers.

#6 Brooklyn Lager (1988)

If the 80s seem to be all about craft beers and Pale Ales, don’t worry, there were still some very popular craft lagers released to the market.

Even in a market dominated by Hazy Pale Ales and barrel-aged stouts/porters, this 5.2 % award-winning amber lager remains one of the favorite brews of the 80s which you can still find today.

Brooklyn was once a powerhouse of American beer brewing, especially in the mid-70s, but the closure of the Schaeffer and Rheingold breweries had left Brooklyn with a barren landscape for craft beers.

Brooklyn had previously been a hub of industry, shipbuilding, and farming, with many of the Dutch immigrants and waves of brewers from Germany and Austria playing a key part in shaping Brooklyn’s brewing scene – at one point they had produced 10% of all the beer in America.

Co-founder of the Brooklyn brewery, Steve Hindy had discovered home brewing upon his return from the Middle East and teamed up with Garret Oliver, who was developing home brews based on his time in London.

Hindy and his later business partner delivered their first batch of Brooklyn Lager to Teddy’s restaurant in Williamsburg in 1988.

With flavors of toffee, toast, and caramel, Brooklyn Lager was dry-hopped for aromas of grapefruit, flowers, and pine to produce one of the most well-balanced lagers of the 80s, and one that seemed to cross the divide between standard American lagers and the developing craft beer scene.

First exported to Japan in 1989 by an enterprising beer fan, the international market for this 80s lager quickly grew, and Brooklyn Lager is now available in over 30 countries on 5 continents.

The mix of tart citrus, slightly bitter hops, and caramel malts makes this one of the world’s most popular Amber lagers.

#7 The Emergence of Bud Light

Although we have mainly focussed on the burgeoning craft beers of the 80s, it’s impossible to look at the most popular beers of the 1980s without talking about the now huge Bud Light, which first appeared in 1982.

Originally introduced as Budweiser Light in 1982, it became exclusively known as Bud Light by 1984. The ever-changing demands of the American beer consumer meant there was a bigger market for more refreshing beers with less alcohol and, perhaps more importantly, lower levels of bitterness.

Traditionally, Budweiser was a typical American lager that had, and still has, an ABV of 5% alcohol and a bitterness IBU of 18 (although this later dropped to 12).

Bud Light, by comparison, has always had an IBU of just 6, making it much less bitter, and, with a lower ABV of 4.2%, it appealed to the younger consumers who tended to be more health conscious and preferred beers with lower alcohol.

The light version of Miller, Miller Lite, had been introduced in 1975 to much acclaim and had propelled Miller from being a small brewer to the second largest brewer in the US by 1980.

Budweiser owned brands such as Michelob and Natural, which already had Light versions of their beers but didn’t yet have a mid-price American light beer. Bud Light was introduced to fill the gap.

Whereas Michelob was seen as a premium brand, Natural was the low-priced beverage on the market, so Bud Light seemed to naturally slot in the middle and build on the Budweiser name.

When first released, Bud Light immediately took the number three spot in the light beer segment of the market, and sales steadily increased. In 1989 Bud Light sold over 10 million barrels for the first time and the sales have been increasing ever since.

In the entire beer market, it now controls over 18% of the market, in comparison to traditional Budweiser which holds only a 6.5% share.

Light beers have been one of the biggest success stories of the 20th Century and it all came to fruition in the 80s.

#8 Corona and the Rise of Imported Beers

Corona Extra bottle beer on the beach against the Ocean, Portugal
Image by Wiki Commons

Prior to the 1980s, imported beers in the US were something of a novelty.

Although Heineken was, without doubt, the number one player in the American import market, closely followed by Canadian lagers such as Molson, Corona was to steadily expand its distribution in the US throughout the 80s and become the top-selling imported lager by the end of the decade.

A popular Mexican lager that has often been voted one of the most valuable brands in the world, Corona’s manufacturer Grupo Modelo S.A. transformed a once-obscure Mexico City beer into a widely recognized name along the lines of Coca-Cola or Marlboro cigarettes.

Corona’s clever marketing appealed to a core group of Mexicans living in the US while also giving Corona an image that appealed to American college students and the ever-important 20-somethings beer market.

One of Modelo’s two American distributors, Chicago-based Barton Beers Ltd, hit on the clever marketing idea of pitching Corona to the younger American beer drinkers, especially at times like Spring break or the festivals in Cancun and Cabo San Luca.

Images of beach life with young girls adorned in sexy bikinis and bottles of Corona garnished with a cool refreshing piece of lime soon worked, and Corona would, in 1987, be second only to Heineken in the imported beer market.

Corona’s other US-based importer, Gambrinus Co. of San Antonio, targeted the other burgeoning market of millions of Mexicans living in the US.

With the price set slightly above domestic beers but slightly lower than Heineken and other imports, Corona quickly became a regular fixture on many supermarket shelves.

Corona became known for its classic recipe of the finest water, malted barley, hops corn, and yeast while using pils malt and maize to produce a smooth yet crisply refreshing beer.

For beer lovers who were getting bored with many of the US-produced adjunct lagers, and with the sexier image, Corona led the way for many other imports.

At the start of the ’80s, the imported beer market only accounted for a 3 % share of the formal beer market. However, by the end of the 80s, this had risen to over 10% and today now stands at a 19% share.

Corona now rates as the 10th highest-selling premium beer in the US.

Final Thoughts on Beer in The US in the 1980s

Although the 1970s had seen the rise of the major industrial brewing companies such as Anheuser-Busch and Millers at the expense of many of the regional brewers, the interest in home brewing and the many different beer styles of the world was to spark a boom in craft beer, independent microbreweries, and craft beer brewpubs across the USA.

Changes in the beer consumption habits of your average American drinker had seen the growth of the imported beer markets, the emergence of Light beers, (some would say the “war of the Lights” took place in the 80s), and the development of new styles of the craft beer scene.

By 1990, almost every town in America would have at least one brewpub or craft beer microbrewery.

Although the dominance of the major conglomerates was to keep on growing on the domestic and international markets, the growing craft beer scene meant there was more choice than ever before for beer connoisseurs and hopheads alike.

The ’90s and early 2000s would see the craft beer market further explode and would soon see over 1000 craft breweries in the US, with a range of beer styles available to rival even the European beer nations like Germany or Belgium.

If you thought the beers of the 80s were good, just wait for what’s to come in the 1990s and beyond!

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