19th Century Americans Loved Wine and Liquor, But Their Favorite Alcoholic Beverage Was Beer
I just bought a copy of The Liquor Problem in All Ages by Daniel Dorchester (1884). It’s a fascinating look at the history of alcohol. About half of the book covers the efforts to curb or eliminate alcohol consumption. The other half is an engaging history of the manufacture and use of alcohol throughout history across different cultures from all over the world.
One very interesting chart shows which alcoholic beverages Americans were consuming decade by decade from 1792 – 1882 and it is reproduced below (click to enlarge):
As the U.S. population grew and the 1800’s progressed, we see a steady rise in the consumption of American distilled spirits.
American wine, foreign wine and foreign distilled spirits consumption are proportionately increased to some degree from 1792 – 1882.
The rise of malt liquor (in this context the book is referring to beer) consumption explodes in the 1850s nearly matching American spirit consumption. From 1860-1870 beer doubled its popularity from the previous decade. From 1870-1882 beer consumption had reached over 4 billion gallons, more than four times all other alcohol types combined.
Several things factor into beer’s growing popularity, the two most obvious being the low cost of beer and an increasing immigrant population with different tastes.
Beer and liquor consumption among Americans continued to grow in the late 19th and early 20th century and the fight to curtail that popularity grew as well.
Eventually the temperance movement found success as the Volstead Act (the 18th Amendment) was enacted in 1919 and the sale and consumption of alcohol except for medicinal purposes was outlawed in the United States.
The unsuccessful experiment that became known as Prohibition lasted for over 13 years.
When alcohol consumption legally resumed in 1933 beer was for Americans once again king of all liquors, and remains the number one alcohol choice today.
According to a 2016 Gallup poll Americans preferred beer 43%, to wine (32%) and spirits (20%).
We’ll conclude with one more statistic. You’ll note that the chart has 90 year totals of each type of alcohol. In 90 years Americans consumed a total of just over 7 billion gallons of beer.
The United States currently has about 235 million people above the legal drinking age. Americans now drink about 6.3 billion gallons of beer per year. Take that over the course of 10 years and that’s about 63 billion gallons of beer in a decade.
If he were alive today, what would Daniel Dorchester, author of The Liquor Problem in All Ages think about that?