30 Beers That Changed America
From trendsetters to game-changers to shotgun pioneers.
Every beer has the potential to have a huge impact. But the beers on this list go further than just helping you get the courage to hit on somebody out of your league. These American beers have had a huge impact on beer itself, and in turn, our pot-bellied nation. From trend-setters to game-changers, micro to macro, here are 30 beers that changed America. Each sip is a little bit of beer history.
Editor's Note: We opted with this list to include only beers that are currently brewed. With respect to John Wagner's lager, Ballantine, Red Dog, and whatever beers the revolutionaries were drinking while planning a war in historic bars, we want you to be able to find these beers if you so desire.
What it changed: Yuengling has survived a lot, including the Civil War and Prohibition. It is, in fact, the oldest brewery in America. And, five generations later, it’s still in the family. It's helped shape the very fabric of Pennsylvania through industry and influence. It’s America's first example of a beer dynasty, and basically part of America’s blood.
What it changed: Hipsters love craft everything. They eat honey produced by bees in their neighborhood. They fawn over knowledge of knowing exactly where their food came from. And, for a while, they were champions of craft beer. But craft beer is expensive. And it’s hard to make a living working part-time at a record store that only sells original 7-inchers. And so they turned to PBR, a beer whose low price point and high irony level fit the mentality perfectly. The resurgence -- which, of course, can be traced to a Portland dive bar -- took PBR out of a slump and skyrocketed sales. And with that, the turncoat hipsters transformed PBR into a symbol around which a whole generation rallied.
What it changed: Hop enthusiasts may obsess over the freshness of their beers these days, but (perhaps all too appropriately), they’re just harkening back to the turn of the century. In 1911 Schlitz was the first beer to be distributed in brown bottles, shielding the suds from harmful sunlight and ensuring better taste. In case you couldn’t tell by the overwhelming number of brown glass bottles populating the beer section at your local liquor store, the idea caught hold.
What it changed: While it inarguably changed the physiques of generations of Pennsylvanians in the century between its debut and the 1960s, Iron City's national influence didn't become apparent until 1962. It had nothing to do with the yellow lager inside the can, either. Quick! Close your eyes. Think of that tsssssk noise a beer can makes when it's opened. That first happened in 1962, when Iron City fired the first shot in a quick and brutal war against the churchkey by becoming the first brewery to offer the pull-tab can. According to a history of the pull-tab on Complex, within a year, 40 breweries had followed suit. And within a decade, the pull tab gave birth to its much more efficient offspring, the stay-tab. Needless to say, said tab had (sigh) staying power.
What it changed: Coors wasn’t the first beer to use the aluminum can. Hawaii’s Primo beat them to the punch a year prior in 1958. But Coors did pioneer the idea of the seamless, recyclable can. And the company also instituted the “Cash for Cans” program, which rewarded each empty receptacle with a penny. These days, bottle returns are the norm and tin cans are obsolete, meaning the arts of shotgunning and can-collecting owe Golden, Colorado a debt of gratitude.
What it changed: It could be argued that no other American beer has had an impact greater than Budweiser’s. It’s basically the Ford Motor Company of beer. Its bottles used to wage gridiron battles every year. Twenty years on, you still have that goddamned “doobie doobie doo” song in your head from the penguin ad. The parent company, Anheuser-Busch, is the biggest brewer in the world. But it all started with one simple innovation: Budweiser was the first American beer to be pasteurized, giving it a longer shelf life and allowing it to be transported greater distances. Big Beer was born as a result of a French chemist’s passions. Louis Pasteur is to blame every time your friend falls back on a “whazzzzzup” joke.
What it changed: Besides improving the collective mood of Baltimore residents for generation upon generation, Natty Boh forever altered the beer landscape in 1943 when it became the first brewer to make its suds available in canned six-packs. Was this nod to convenience and American ingenuity singlehandedly responsible for inspiring guests at your house parties to bring six-packs? Probably.
What it changed: In 1944, Narragansett became a corporate sponsor for the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Braves, which included the telecasts of this newfangled invention called television. Considering using televised sports to sell beer to people now represents approximately 57% of US economic activity, it proved to be an astute business move.
What it changed: Sure, you applaud and call Anchor out for still producing steam beer... but what the hell does that even mean? No. Anchor’s impact is on craft beer itself. Established in 1896, it was making craft beer before “craft beer” was even a thing. Since then, it's remained an entry point for beer lovers who don’t even realize they’ve got more than a century of brewing history in their mugs.
What it changed: Look at the world before Miller Lite. And now, after. In 1974, every single aspect of American beer changed, from composition to advertising to frat parties. The impact of light beer, and Miller, can't be understated. Prediction: in 2027, craft light beer will become a thing. All because of Miller Lite.
What it changed: The cats at Sierra Nevada didn’t realize they were about to spawn a whole new style of beer back in 1980, when they set out to do a hop-heavy pale ale, blasting it with an unheard of amount of Cascade hops. And thus began the American fascination with excessive hops. It grew to be one of the largest and most beloved indie brewers in the country, but the ripples it sent across the industry can be seen in damn near every tap selection in the now hop-obsessed country.
What it changed: Chances are, you think Sam Adams is run by the Illuminati. Fact is, Jim Koch and co. just came out thumping their chests like they were the biggest brewery in the world. And that led the path for the likes of Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada, and every other big-name craft brewery to do the same. You know Sam Adams because Sam Adams made it a point for you to know it, and it basically duped us all into thinking that a craft producer was one of the big dogs. Now it is. It earned it.
What it changed: Kurt and Bobby Widmer, two OGs of the Portland, Oregon, craft scene, ran into a dilemma early on: they were getting bigger, and were asked to create a third beer to go along with their weizenbier and altbier. Trouble was, they only had two fermenters. The solution? Just don’t filter the weizenbier and serve it cloudy. And just like that, hazy American-style hefeweizen was born, leading Widmer to become one of the biggest craft breweries in the country and inspire brewers across the states to adopt opacity as a badge of honor.
What it changed: 1988 was a banner year for the then-young craft brewery movement, with dozens of influential breweries -- "microbrews," as they're still referred to by your dad -- tapping the metaphorical firkin for the first time. Most of them led with lesser-known styles (see below), likely in an effort to differentiate themselves from the pack. But Brooklyn busted out the gate with its signature lager, a fancier take on the adjunct fizzy yellow beer that was being produced en masse by the big dogs, bridging the gap between blue-collar drinkers and the emerging beer-nerd culture. It proved savvy: Brooklyn Lager -- with its stylized logo and bottle-shop ubiquity -- still manages to stand out amid a sea change that's turning the focus back to craft lagers. Like Great Lakes' Elliot Ness -- another flagship from a stalwart that opened its doors in 1988 -- it remains a paragon of a style that has gone in and out of favor, but is currently white hot. Figuratively, of course. It'd be gross if that was literal.
First brewed: 1988
What it changed: In 1988, Brooklyn led with an upscale take on America's most familiar style of beer. Deschutes went the exact opposite path. In 2019, it sounds safe to launch a brewery with a porter front and center. But in 1988, debuting with a porter was unheard of. Black Butte was a take on a British style. It was dark, not yellow, and it wasn't Guinness. Speaking of, it was launched to an audience that didn't know a stout from a porter from a glass of molasses with a shot in it. Yet as a flagship, it put the brewery -- and its tiny mountain town of Bend, Oregon -- on the map. It also showed that this whole craft beer thing had the ability to completely defy expectations. In the era of wild ales, saisons, and sours, Deschutes' influence is felt with every pour.
What it changed: Nowadays, startup breweries everywhere are scrambling for spent bourbon barrels so they can make a big impression with that first barrel-aged stout release, but when Goose Island first got in the game nearly a quarter century ago, it simply wasn’t a thing. Despite the many imitators that have followed, it remains one of the finest examples of the form anywhere (AB InBev acquisition notwithstanding), which explains why Chicagoans who otherwise disdain Black Friday will cut out of Thanksgiving early to wait in sub-freezing weather for the annual release of BCS and its coveted variants.
What it changed: First brewed at the on-site brewery at Coors Field (America!), Blue Moon represents many things. For some, it was the moment Big Beer went craft (or “crafty,” as some would put it). But for others, it represented an orange-kissed glimpse into the notion that beer could be different, that there was a whole world of beer beyond “light” and “not light,” particularly in markets where a robust local brewing scene had yet to take root. Many hardened beer geeks will (sometimes reluctantly) admit that their first slip of Blue Moon was a major inflection point in their great beer awakening.
First brewed: 1995
What it changed: Lagunitas wasn't the first American brewery to brew an IPA. Hell, it wasn't even the first California brewery to do it. But when the Petaluma-based brewery launched its IPA on shelves in 1995, it -- along with the wares of future Russian River legend Vinnie Cilurzo -- could well have kicked off the hops arms race. Here was a beer that was impossibly bitter and aggressive, with a 6.2% profile that set heads spinning. It was a sensation that spread across the country. Twenty-five years later, Lagunitas is everywhere, thanks in part to its partial ownership by Heineken. It's transitioned from a bold take on a burgeoning style to the elder statesmen that played a tremendous part in planting the seeds for America's IPA obsession. To this day, no matter where you are, Lagunitas is a reliable go-to for hop heads young and old.
What it changed: Pilsners are deceptively simple in their ingredients, but insanely difficult to master in execution. That might explain why, up until Pennsylvania’s Victory burst onto the scene back in 1996, Americans largely left the brewing to the Czechs, relegating the style to the import section. But when Victory debuted its flagship Prima Pils, they unwittingly threw down the gauntlet. Suddenly, craft brewers were trying their hand at the pilsner game, some with more success than others, and as Victory’s footprint expanded, so too did its influence, as evidenced by the emergence of more and more pilsners and kolsches typically reserved for biergartens. It remains the high water mark for American pilsners two decades later.
What it changed: The original pale -- RIP! -- put Stone on the map, but it was the 1997 release of Arrogant Bastard that really set Stone’s destiny into motion. “You are not worthy,” the label lovingly chides. And with that, Stone positioned itself as a brand that basically turned its beers into personalities, and brewer Greg Koch into a rock star of the brewing world, setting the stage for the dudes behind your favorite brews to emerge from the shadows and into the spotlight.
What it changed: The Fort Collins brewery had already garnered a following thanks to its Fat Tire, which debuted in 1991 and established New Belgium as a lifestyle brewery. But in 1997, the brewery did the unthinkable by unleashing La Folie. It's hard, in this day of sours and farmhouses, to really convey how shockingly bizarre this tart, wood-aged Oud Bruin was to an American palate weaned on bitterness over sour, but the beer opened eyes to the Belgian influence across the board. Now, nearly every brewery dabbles in sours or other Belgian influences. Meanwhile, New Belgium is still using the same souring culture to make La Folie it did when it blew minds back 20 years ago, and continuing to expand American tastebuds with new experiments.
What it changed: At nearly 20%, World Wide Stout was named the strongest beer in the world when it was first brewed. Sixteen years later, the ABV arms race rages on, with legions of drinkers looking not at IBU or gravity, but a percentage mark next to the name of a beer. And while WWS has since been dwarfed by beers that are more or less whiskeys, it remains a gold standard of strength and taste.
What it changed: Strictly speaking, Dale’s wasn’t the very first craft beer to achieve availability in cans, but it was the first to do so and then subsequently become wildly popular, thanks to a crisp hoppiness that awakens the palate in all the best possible ways. Every year, more brewers are looking toward cans as a cost-effective, environmentally friendly way to get their product in the hands of beer drinkers, and they can thank Oskar Blues. Especially if they’re throwing a backyard barbecue, because cans stack way easier than bottles in a cooler.
What it changed: Now synonymous with the most legendary release party in craft beer, this Russian imperial stout brewed with coffee started with just a handful of experimental barrels. Additions over the years have included metal bands, impossibly rare guest taps, unfathomably long lines, bottle limits, barrel-aged variants won via scratch-off ticket, and a host of other (sometimes necessary) changes that reflect the explosion of interest in craft beer in the last decade or so. Other breweries have followed suit with their own hyped-up release bashes, but there remains only one Dark Lord Day, when an industrial enclave in northwest Indiana becomes the epicenter of the craft beer universe.
What it changed: There was a time, not too long ago, when the idea of a New England IPA would elicit smug smirks from beer snobs weaned on the hop explosions pioneered out west. That changed in 2003, when Stowe, Vermont upstart The Alchemist dropped Heady Topper. Lightly hazy and hoppy as hell, Heady Topper became a pilgrimage-worthy beer, drawing the hordes to the taproom for a taste before it began canning nearly a decade later, sending cans off in the hands of thirsty traders that served as missionaries of East Coast IPA. With that, the pendulum swung back east like some sort of boozy reverse manifest destiny, birthing a trend by brewing a whale that demanded to be drank immediately rather than gathering dust in some nerd’s cellar.
What it changed: Russian River already had considerable notoriety thanks to the mega-hopped Blind Pig. But when triple-hopped Pliny the Younger got a perfect score on Beer Advocate in 2010, the ensuing annual mania surrounding its two-week annual availability showed us just what kind of power the beer sites hold. The Pliny release is now a primary tourism driver for Santa Rosa, with hotels offering special packages and lines forming around the brewery weeks in advance. A bold declaration by a website showed that craft beer can be a viral sensation, creating pilgrims to an unlikely area eager to try a beer style that was, at the time, unlike anything else out there.
What it changed: Wisconsin-based Leinenkugel’s been incorporating European fruit beer techniques since back in 1996 thanks to its Berry Weiss, but it wasn’t until 2007 that it introduced Summer Shandy, a beer that took off nationally a year later and more or less changed the face of the 151-year-old brewery, which now produces a line of shandies that accounts for a whopping 70% of its production. Moreover, though, the brewery introduced the concept of adding a little lemonade to its beer to the masses, finally cluing American drinkers in on what the Europeans have known forever and offering a lower-ABV alternative to the standard lite lager.
What it changed: Founders didn’t make the first session IPA. Breweries had long been dabbling in low-impact hop bombs. But when the Michigan brewery dropped its All Day IPA back in 2012, it was an immediate hit, a readily available, refreshing, hoppy blast that immediately became the lawnmower beer of choice for a generation of craft lovers whose tastes had advanced well beyond the dad beers of yesteryear (the 15-pack cans help). More important, it offered a solution to the eternal quandary often uttered by drinkers in its native midwest: “This is good, but I can’t drink six of them.” It quickly became the one of the highest-grossing IPA on the market, and kicked the door open for the session IPA craze.
What it changed: Heady Topper may have kicked off the New England IPA craze by slowly brewing a cult around Heady Topper, but Charlton, Massachusetts' Tree House took the idea and amped it up to insane levels. Taking a cue from the West Coast, it amped up the fruit flavors to levels previously reserved for juice bars, tossed filters in the trash, set the template for the ultra-jazy, juicy IPAs that are now taking over the country… and the west coast. Julius is the granddaddy of the next wave of hazy New England IPAs. And still one of the torch bearers.
What it changed: For the longest time, O'Doul's was the beer synonymous with non-alcoholic beer, and shorthand for why people were puzzled by the idea of N/A beers to begin with: Why would you even drink that swill when there's perfectly good water on offer? But in 2017, the founders of Athletic Brewing Co. saw an opening, and they ran with it, launching a line of meticulously crafted beers -- among them Run Wild IPA-- that actually tasted like craft beer. And they hit at just the right time, with tastes shifting from ultra-boozy IPAs to sessions, old-school Belgian-style table beers taking stride, and the emergence of a new generation of non-drinkers who love beer but hate the baggage. Athletic Brewing is making N/A beer cool in the US for the first time, with a portfolio that includes stouts, double IPAs, and goses. There's no telling how far its influence will spread, but like a champion marathoner, it's off to a hell of a start.
Matt Lynch is constantly watching beers change his waistline. Offer him some @MLynchChi.