If the 1980s was the start of the craft beer explosion in the US and hoppier American Pale Ales, the 1990s belonged to the rise of the craft brew pubs and the challenging ultra-hoppy IPAs.
Although brewpubs were legalized in many states during the 1980s, it wasn’t until 1999 that Montana became the last of the 50 mainland states to legalize brewpubs by State orders.
Craft breweries had continued to open across the US at an ever-increasing rate and by the mid-90 there were over 1000 independent micro-breweries in comparison to the mere 100 ten years earlier in 1986.
Many of the breweries which opened in the 1990s are still with us over 30 years later, but for some, it was a struggle to stay open – for example, Cardinal Brewing, West Virginia’s first craft brewery, struggled to remain open for just over 3 years.
Although Government incentives, such as a lower excise tax rate for smaller brewers under 2 million barrels, were to help many survive, other restrictive laws which were introduced, including regulations on the packaging of beers, meant many were unable to compete with the larger, now international, conglomerates.
The State of the US Beer Industry in the 1990s
The big three breweries at the top of the market now controlled over 70% of the domestic beer market and were making inroads internationally, making it hard for micro-breweries to compete.
Craft beers, on the whole, were seen as more expensive, unless you were drinking in a local tap room or brewpub, and limited marketing budgets meant the major national domestic beers got more shelf space.
Never one to rest on their laurels, the major national brands were constantly innovating in an attempt to maintain their market share and try to stop the casual beer drinker from moving over to craft beers too much.
The light or “lite” beers, such as household names Bud Lite or the original Miller Lite, had proved a big hit with the more health-conscious American public of the 80s, and, in a further attempt to innovate and maintain their high beer sales, new styles like the dry beer were introduced leading to the war of the “ice” beers in the mid-’90s.
Imported beers also continued to rise as competition for the major national breweries, with beer styles being imported from traditional European markets such as the UK or Belgium in addition to the ever-growing list of imported German lagers.
New world beers such as Fosters, Castlemaine XXXX, Coopers, and other larger Australian brands were also to appear on the market.
And beers from newer territories such as Japan, Korea, and even Africa rose in popularity as the “foodie” culture and intertwined beer scene continued to grow in the US.
Let’s take a look at some of our favorite beers of the 90s, both the emerging craft beers and the old-school beers that were produced by the likes of Anheuser-Busch and Coors.
The Largest Brewers of 1990
As is traditional with these guides to the American beers of yesteryear, we start by looking at the largest producing breweries in the United States.
Although it tells only half of the story of beers in the 1990s, it can help us to understand why so many of the independent regional breweries often get forgotten about.
|#2||Miller Brewing Co.||43,500,000|
|#3||Adolph Coors Co.||19,300,000|
|#4||Stroh Brewery Co.||16,200,000|
|#5||G. Heileman Brewing Co.||10,915,000|
|#6||Pabst Brewing Co.||6,700,000|
|7#||Heineken USA, Inc||2,630,000|
|#8||High Falls Brewing Co, LLC.||2,200,000|
|#10||Barton Beers Ltd||1,020,000|
At the top of the table, there was very little change in the status of the top brewers from the beginning of the 1980s.
Anheuser Busch continued to dominate the domestic market (although the 90s would see a rare Bud ‘failure” in Bud Dry) and they would produce over 4 times the barrelage of the third-place brewery, Coors.
Coors Brewing Co. had risen to the third largest brewer in the US and would consolidate that position later in the decade in a merger with the Canadian brewer Molson.
The imported beer market was continuing to expand and, for the first time, we saw foreign brewing conglomerates like Heineken and Molson become one of the largest breweries in the US with Barton Beers, a popular importer of brands like Corona, now also sneaking into the top 10.
Although Heineken was one of the first post-prohibition imports into the US in 1933 (and very successful too), it wasn’t until the mid-80s and early 1990s they became one of the largest beer producers in the US with mergers or takeovers with many regional brewers helping them to grow into the beer giant they are today.
It would be another couple of decades before any of the “craft” brewers would break into the list of the top brewers, many being bought out by larger distributors along the way.
The nearest there was to a “craft” brewery challenging the dominance of the domestic lager producers was High Falls Brewing Company, which produced brands such as JW Dundee’s Honey Brown Lager and Michael Shea’s Irish Amber Ale for the beer geeks looking for new styles of beers.
High Falls’s output was also made up of brewing for other companies including the darling of the “craft” lager scene, the Boston Beer Company, and their Boston Lager.
Popular Old-School Beers of the 1990s
Lagunitas IPA by Lagunitas Brewing Company, California
- ABV 6.2%
When does a “craft” beer stop being a craft beer?
When it is bought out by an international brewing giant like Heineken (although Lagunitas definitely started life as a craft beer brewed on a kitchen stovetop in Northern California in 1993).
When the Heineken company arranged to buy a 50% stake in the Lagunitas company in 2015, under the Brewers Association definition of the “craft” beer category, Lagunitas no longer qualified as such, as the major brewer Heineken owned more than 25%.
Two years later Heineken purchased the remaining shares of Lagunitas and it became a subsidiary of the Dutch brewing conglomerate.
Originally founded by Tony Magee in 1993 in Lagunitas, California, Tony started off crafting his beers with a 5-gallon homebrew kit, and, one thanksgiving, moved his hobby to a rented room behind his old house where he started slinging beers out to the local beer-drinking holes.
To stand out from the many West Coast pale ales which were about in the mid-90s, Magee developed a new twist on the old-world style of India Pale Ale and abbreviated the moniker on the labels to IPA.
Incidentally, in 2012, Lagunitas even tried to sue the acclaimed Sierra Nevada Brewing Company over the use and style of the letters IPA on their labels.
Fortunately, the lawsuit was dropped after public outcry from American beer drinkers!
A well-rounded, highly drinkable India Pale Ale, Lagunitas uses a caramel malt barley for that touch of caramel malt sweetness that mellows out the twang of the “C” hops used including Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, and the honorary “C” hop, Simcoe.
With an IBU of 51, it isn’t the most bitter of IPAs, as much more challenging levels of bitterness were to come later from other craft brewers.
Lagunitas IPA remains one of the classic beers of the 90s which is still available and loved by many today.
Looking at online retailers you will find some classic Lagunitas merchandise like bar signs or t-shirts which demonstrate the fond memories many people hold this beer in.
Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale by Stone Brewing Company, San Diego County
- ABV 7.2%
Another craft brewer success story of the 90s was Stone Brewery, first set up in San Diego in 1996 by Greg Koch and Steve Wagner, a couple of buddies from the downtown music scene who shared an appreciation of craft beers.
Their mission was to brew bold challenging beer alternatives for those beer drinkers fed up with the industrialized beers which still dominated the market.
One of my favorite beers of all time, Arrogant Bastard Ale certainly lives up to that mission statement.
Although success didn’t happen overnight for the duo.
Their first ale was a Stone Pale ALewhich used Ahtanum hops, a little-known hop at the time, which made the Pale Ale stand out from other APAs which used primarily the C hops and carved an identity for the beers going forward.
IPAs were proving popular since the category was first introduced at the 1989 Great American Beer Festival, but there were very few big, hoppy IPAs being brewed in San Diego in the mid-90s, unlike today.
IPAs seemed to be in the realm of the extreme beer enthusiast and, although Arrogant Bastard Ale wasn’t their first IPA (that honor goes to Stone IPA, a 6.9% ABV IPA using a selection of Magnum, Chinook, Centennial, Azacca, Calypso, Ella & Vic Secret hops for an intense citrussy, tropical, piney ale), Arrogant Bastard was the beer which made people stand up and take notice of this fledgling small craft brewer.
It was in 1997 that Greg and Steve decided the world was ready for Arrogant Bastard Ale.
A 7.2% ABV brew with a classified level of IBU (many would argue well over 100), Arrogant Bastard Ale is actually classified as an American Strong Ale for judging purposes.
Originally brewed as a mistake, adding too much hops and malt for a pale ale, the error wasn’t recognised until mid brew.
Upon first sip Steve Wagner, then head brewer, realized the error he had made in his calculations but the beer tasted so good a legend was born.
Pouring a dark brown color with ruby highlights, the ale has a full and creamy ivory-colored head with a strong persistency.
The flavor is aggressively bitter, even arrogant you may say, with a balance of rich, bready toasted malts and pine-resinous hops.
Mostly piney, the challenging hop flavor has some traces of grapefruit pith for extra bitterness, and alcohol notes increase as the beer warms. You’re left with a dry finish with lingering coffee and bitterness.
Not the easiest of beers to drink, but for me and for many other beer aficionados, it’s one of the most important intense beers of the 90s.
To this day it remains one of Stone’s most well-known brews, is available in over 30 countries internationally, and even inspired an Oaked Aged Arrogant Bastard Ale and the slightly milder Lucky Bastard Ale.
Abita Amber Lager by Abita Brewing Company, New Orleans
- ABV 4.5%
The first offering from the Abita Brewing Company of New Orleans in 1996 was this Munich style lager which is still available today and has won numerous “best beer” awards in New Orleans readers polls and is also used in many of the recipes of great Louisana chefs.
Brewed with a combination of pale and caramel malts, it also uses German Perle hops. A smooth, malty caramel flavor features in this German-style lager with a rich Amber color.
It continues to be the breweries best selling beer even today.
If you are looking for an old-school German Amber lager for a reminder of the simpler times of the 90s, try to track down a bottle of Abita Amber which can now be found distributed to over 30 states.
Victory Prima Pils by Victory Brewing Company, Pennsylvania
Another popular German-inspired beer in the 90s which you can still find today was Victory Prima Pils, a German Style pilsner brewed with German hops for vivid notes of floral and spice with hints of citrus and lemon in a crisp easy drinking lager.
Created in Downingtown, Pennsylvania by friends from school days, Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet, Ron actually went to Germany to study and enhance his German brewing knowledge.
Bill, meanwhile, was producing a range of German speciality beers at the Baltimore Brewing Company, many of which went on to win awards at the Great American Beer Festival.
Upon his return from studies in Munich, Ron teamed up again with Bill and they opened the Victory Brewing Company in what was once a Pepperidge Farm factory in Downingtown, PA.
Their first beer was this fine example of a German pilsner lager brewed with pilsner malts and using only the freshest hand-picked German hops of Tettang, Hallertau, Spalt, and Saaz.
The result is a pilsner lager that still tastes as crisp and refreshing loaded with floral and citrus hops as it did 25 years ago when first released – one of the finest American-produced pilsners you will find in most craft beer bars.
Allagash White by Allagash Brewing Company, Maine
- ABV 5.2%
Founded by Rob Todd in 1995, Allagash Brewery was originally a one-man band.
Rob, literally by himself, welded together a 15-barrel brewing system and, after a couple of pilot batches of beer, started brewing in earnest.
He wanted to start with one beer and one beer only, a Belgian wheat-style beer called Allagash White.
At first, much of the American beer-drinking public didn’t know what to make of Allagash White – this was in the days before the surge in popularity of Belgian-style beers.
Instead of the crisp, pale lagers they had been drinking for years, this was a hazy and fruity, almost sweet beer. Brewed with spices like coriander and curate orange peel it was a taste many were not familiar with.
Luckily, once beer fans tried it, they kept coming back for more of the Allagash White, and it won the Gold medal at the World Beer Cup in 1998, the first of many accolades.
A hazy, Belgian-style wheat beer, it is brewed with oats, malted wheat, and raw wheat, but gets its truly memorable flavor from the additions of curate orange peel and coriander seed.
Many would argue it’s still the best American-produced craft wheat beer in America, all these years later.
North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout by North Coast Brewing Company, California
- ABV 9%
Originally conceived as a local brewpub in the historic town of Fort Bragg, on the California Mendocino Coast in 1988, North Coast Brewing Company have become known as pioneers in the craft beer boom of the 90s.
Under the leadership of original Brewmaster & Co-Founder, Mark Ruedrich, the brewery has developed a strong reputation for quality, having won more than 110 awards in national and international competitions.
In 1996, North Coast Brewing first released Old Rasputin Russian Imperial stout on the unsuspecting drinkers of North California at a time when craft-produced stouts were rare, let alone Russian Imperial Stouts.
Although more dry and bitter than today’s standard stouts, Old Rasputin is a rich and intense brew with big flavors and a warming alcohol finish.
The original Old Rasputin Stout of the 90s has since been joined by a series of Barrel-Aged Russian Old Rasputin Imperial Stouts aged in oak bourbon barrels for a more complex depth of flavor.
In the 90s, you may have struggled to find Old Rasputin outside of California, but it is now available in over 43 States and even exported to Europe and the Pacific Rim, including those barrel-aged Old Rasputin too.
Pete’s Wicked Ale by Pete’s Brewing Company, Texas
- ABV 5.5%
A much-beloved beer of the 90s which is no longer with us, even Pete’s Brewing Company itself is now defunct, the story of Pete’s reads like a casebook for many of the failed brewers of the 90s.
Nationally, Pete’s Brewing Company was the second largest craft brewer in the land and the Wicked Ale was its flagship ale.
It’s hard to believe at a time when craft beer seemed to be dominated by Pale Ales and upcoming IPAs that a company producing an English-style brown ale would be so popular.
In the 1990s, almost every beer geek in the land was drinking Pete’s Wicked Ale as a Halloween beer, as well as all year round too.
It was the second biggest-selling craft beer of the 90s (after the ever-popular Sierra Nevada Pale Ale).
Named after the co-founder of the brewery, Pete Slosberg, Pete’s Wicked Ale poured a slightly darker brown than the ubiquitous Newcastle Brown Ale but without the viscosity of a porter.
A reliable light tan head tops the beer with aromas of caramel and earthiness.
Although for many at the time it was considered a hoppy brown ale (only a low 20 IBUs by todays standards), it pushed a toasted malt toffee and caramel characteristic which the US drinkers hadn’t experienced before.
Around the mid-90s, for anybody who wasn’t too big a fan of the pale ales and ultra hoppy IPAs, Pete’s was the go-to beer and was seen on just as many shelves as Sam Adams or Sierra Nevada.
Unfortunately, just about the time the Stone Brewing company came on the scene mild and malty seemed to give way to uber-hoppy for the casual beer drinkers of America.
Boston lager and Newcastle Brown seemed to dominate this market in the future and the hop craze may have lost it some other ground too.
Purchased by the Gambrinus Company in 1998, a company that also owned the Spoetzl Brewery in Texas, the Bridgeport Brewery in Oregon, and the Trumer Brauerei in Berkeley, Pete’s Wicked Ale was unfortunately discontinued in 2011, with the Gambrinus Company citing poor sales in letters of apologies sent to their distributors.
Bud Dry by Anheuser-Busch Inc, St Louis
It’s not often we talk about beers from Anheuser-Busch that don’t exist anymore, but Bud Dry had a short lifespan trying to cash in on the dry beer craze of the early 90s.
Following on from beers like the incredibly popular Molson Dry from Canada, Bud Dry was introduced in April 1990 with a slogan of “Why ask why? Try dry”.
It was initially successful in the test market and was expected to be a very popular beer in line with the rise in the popularity of Light lagers.
Using a proprietary DryBrew process originally developed under the leadership of August A. Busch, the longer natural process allows the beer to acquire a unique dry taste with more of the malt and rice converted to fermentable sugars.
The sugars interact with the yeast, and the resulting fermentation brews a beer with that unique “dry” taste sensation. The same DryBrew process was also used to produce the also defunct Michelob Dry beer.
Originally marketed as one of the three premier brands in the Budweiser family alongside Budweiser and Bud Light, the marketing of Bud Dry was curbed with the introduction of Bud Ice in 1994, and the beer was discontinued in 2010.
The War of the Ice Beers
I’m not talking about the flavor intense dark lagers of Germany known as Eisbocks, but rather the domestic ice beer craze which struck across Canada, America, and the rest of the world in the mid-90s.
Whereas a German-style Eisbock removes up to 40% of the water from a beer via a freeze distillation process, a domestic US-style ice beer removes a very small amount of the frozen water and ice crystals after freezing.
Both beers tend to be stronger in alcohol, but the resulting flavors in a German Eisbock are much more intense and create a much darker lager.
Although Eisbocks were introduced to Canada in 1989 by the microbrewery Niagra Falls Brewing Company, these brewers would start with a stronger darker lager (about 6% ABV) and use a traditional method of freezing to concentrate the aroma and flavors of the beer, increasing the ABV to over 8%.
Despite this, Molson, the largest Canadian brewer at the time, claims to have made the first Ice beer in North America when they introduced Canadian Ice in 1993.
However, the main competitor of Molson, Labatts, claims they patented the ice beer process earlier.
When Labatts introduced their Labatts Ice 6 months later it instigated the so-called Ice beer wars.
Miller quickly acquired the US marketing rights and distribution of Molson products, and first released Molson Ice and then introduced the Icehouse brand of beers as well.
Never one to miss the bandwagon for a new craze, Anheuser-Busch introduced Bud Light in 1994, followed by Busch Ice and Natural Ice in 1995.
Natural Ice is still the highest-selling Ice beer across America due to it’s low pricing.
Although clever marketing, with stunning images of ice blocks or icebergs shattering to reveal the beer inside, claimed the lager was cleaner tasting and more balanced due to the ice filtration, in reality, it just produced a lower cost, stronger ABV beer.
All the lager producers seemed to follow suit, with brands such as Old Milwaukee Ice and Brick’s Laker Ice emerging soon after. Labatt Maximum Ice took the award for strongest ice beer at 7.1% ABV.
The ice beers became notorious for their high alcohol-to-price ratio and are often considered the choice beer of street drunks, prohibited for sale in many states.
In Seattle for example most of the products listed as prohibited for sale in the beer and malt liquor category are ice beers.
Although you will occasionally still see Bud Ice drunk at campus parties, fortunately, the craze for ice beers seems to have calmed down in the early 2000s.
Popular Beers of the 90s – Final Thoughts
The 1990s had seen the craft beer boom of the 1980s continue at great pace. Brew pubs and microbreweries were opening every week in every state, even Alaska.
The choice of craft beers and beer styles was wider than ever before with many new-to-our-shores alternatives such as Belgian-style beers or traditional German brews finding favour with the American beer drinking public.
The major brewing giants like Budweiser, Miller and Coors had continued to dominate the domestic market for the casual beer drinkers, but now faced stiff competition from imported brands and the craft beer scene.
The early 2000s would see companies like Heineken slowly capturing more of the US market, and would see craft beer sales rising too.
In an attempt to continue their stronghold on the market, the conglomerates had to innovate with designer brands like the Light beers for the more health-conscious younger drinkers, and crazes like the Ice beer for beer connoisseurs.
In the following decades of the new millennium, some of the larger beer corporations would try to move into the craft beer scene, for example with Heineken’s acquisition of Lagunitas.
But is craft beer still “craft” when it’s produced by a huge international brewing corp?
The Brewer’s Association seems to argue not!