A Historical Look at the Price of Beer

A colorful beer flight is illuminated against a bright sunset

A lot has gone into the price of beer. | iStock.com/BristolDen

The price of beer is an easy thing to take for granted. Since the end of Prohibition, the beer market has transformed itself multiple times. Major and independent breweries alike have collapsed, expanded, and consolidated power.

All the while, the price of a pint of beer followed a similarly chaotic path. And it’s only begun to stabilize in the past few years. Here’s the story of the price of beer, told alongside the market trends that eventually make their way down to the drink menu every American sees before ordering a pint at their favorite bar.

1. 1952-1955

Man drinking beer

A man drinks beer. | George Marks/Getty Images

1952: $0.65
Adjusted for inflation: $5.93

1953: $0.65
Adjusted for inflation: $5.80

1954: $0.67
Adjusted for inflation: $5.93

1955: $0.67
Adjusted for inflation: $5.91

In the early 1950s, the American beer market was still dealing with the uncertainties and chaos that came in the wake of Prohibition. Some counties — and even entire states — continued to enforce temperance laws. That’s even after they were repealed on a national level. The temperance movement didn’t falter after Prohibition and sought to paint the brewing of beer as a waste of resources during World War II.

In the midst of the industry’s public relations crisis, breweries sought to reinvent themselves in the eyes of the American public. They pointed to the high thiamine and other vitamin B levels in brewer’s yeast, claiming they would make soldiers stronger. The U.S. military eventually agreed and mandated that breweries allocate 15% of their beer production for soldiers.

2. 1956-1959

The regulars and bar staff at a public house in Windlesham, Surrey

The regulars and bar staff gather at a public house in Windlesham, Surrey. | Fox Photos/Getty Images

1956: $0.68
Adjusted for inflation: $6.01

1957: $0.69
Adjusted for inflation: $6.01

1958: $0.69
Adjusted for inflation: $5.82

1959: $0.70
Adjusted for inflation: $5.74

The landscape of beer consumption in post-World War II America looks strikingly different from the consumption patterns today. Most of us think of the huge expansion of craft beers when we think about what America brews (and drinks). But the craft movement that’s defined the beer market in the United States was virtually nonexistent, thanks to the dominance of a few major companies. Anheuser-Busch, in particular, dominated the American market. The company created a standard “American” pilsner beer that defined the country’s taste.

3. 1960-1964

Three men drinking from a large glass of beer

Three men drink from a large glass of beer. | Keystone/Getty Images

1960: $0.71
Adjusted for inflation: $5.77

1961: $0.71
Adjusted for inflation: $5.68

1962: $0.71
Adjusted for inflation: $5.62

1963: $0.72
Adjusted for inflation: $5.64

1964: $0.73
Adjusted for inflation: $5.64

By the time 1960 rolled around, the number of breweries had shrunk even further. In 1934, 756 active breweries were located in the United States. Yet the dominance of the massive macrobreweries controlled the market, and independent breweries continued to decline. By 1960, 230 breweries remained. That count included only 140 independent operations. While the overall diversity and — some would argue — quality of American beer spiraled downward, prices became more and more manageable for consumers.

4. 1965-1969

A hairdresser styling a woman's hair using beer cans as curlers

A hairdresser styles a woman’s hair using beer cans as curlers. | F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images

1965: $0.74
Adjusted for inflation: $5.65

1966: $0.75
Adjusted for inflation: $5.63

1967: $0.76
Adjusted for inflation: $5.54

1968: $0.79
Adjusted for inflation: $5.61

1969: $0.82
Adjusted for inflation: $5.58

It could be argued that the production of “steam” beer in 19th century San Francisco marked the first distinctly American beer. The style originated with brewers who were trying to craft a beer that didn’t require refrigeration. For decades, the Anchor Brewing Company kept steam beer alive until it faced bankruptcy in 1965. Fritz Maytag stepped in and bought the brewery, saving America’s first unique beer along with it. Maytag inadvertently started one of the first craft beer movements, brewing a premium product outside of the norm created by the massively brewed pilsners.

5. 1970-1974

Linda Coulter-Brown, the barmaid of the Railway pub in West Hampstead with her bar staff

Linda Coulter-Brown, the barmaid of the Railway Pub in West Hampstead, poses with her bar staff. | Douglas Miller/Getty Images

1970: $0.86
Adjusted for inflation: $5.55

1971: $0.89
Adjusted for inflation: $5.43

1972: $0.91
Adjusted for inflation: $5.32

1973: $0.94
Adjusted for inflation: $5.32

1974: $1.01
Adjusted for inflation: $5.38

In 1968, a chemist by the name of Joseph L. Owades made a discovery that would forever change the history of beer consumption in America and throughout the world. Working for the Rheingold Brewery in New York, Owades developed the first light beer, designed to cut out extraneous carbohydrates and calories. The Chicago brewery Meister Brau attempted to package and sell this new kind of beer, but it ultimately failed to turn a significant profit. So the Miller Brewing Company bought its recipe.

6. 1975-1979

Smithfield workers looking miserable as they have a pint or two in the public bar

Smithfield workers have a pint or two in the local bar. | Frank Tewkesbury/Getty Images

1975: $1.09
Adjusted for inflation: $5.23

1976: $1.12
Adjusted for inflation: $4.93

1977: $1.15
Adjusted for inflation: $4.78

1978: $1.22
Adjusted for inflation: $4.76

1979: $1.32
Adjusted for inflation: $4.79

As most beer drinkers now know, Miller’s attempt at selling the light beer resulted in massive success. It also brought a new flavor to the American beer lover’s palate. Miller Lite officially launched in 1975. And other brewers, such as Anheuser-Busch, sought to emulate Miller’s success with light beer over the next few decades.

Meanwhile, Fritz Maytag’s bold decision to save the Anchor Brewing Company served as a signal to other craft breweries that it was feasible to turn a profit in a country where macrobreweries reigned supreme. Maytag’s success offered inspiration for a homebrewer named Jack McAullife. In a move that provided an early catalyst to America’s craft brewing market, McAullife started the New Albion Brewing Company located in Sonoma, California. New Albion has been hailed as the first true microbrewery to arise since the death of Prohibition. The brewery introduced new kinds of stouts, pale ales, and porters to a public conditioned to choose between lagers and pilsners.

7. 1980-1984

A customer lifts a mug of beer against the sky

A customer lifts a mug of beer in a beer garden. | Johannes Simon/Getty Images

1980: $1.42
Adjusted for inflation: $4.63

1981: $1.52
Adjusted for inflation: $4.37

1982: $1.59
Adjusted for inflation: $4.14

1983: $1.65
Adjusted for inflation: $4.05

1984: $1.70
Adjusted for inflation: $4.04

Everybody knows about Germany’s Oktoberfest, where quality beer flows free and patrons from all over the world flock to revel in the art and entertainment of brewing. America first held its own version of Oktoberfest in 1982, when the inaugural Great American Beer Festival came to Denver. Since then, the Great American Beer Festival has grown exponentially. In fact, it remains the country’s biggest ticketed beer festival.

The Great American Beer Festival heralded the rise of craft breweries in America. It also helped renew interest in homebrewing as a viable and financially successful hobby. Decreasing prices, no doubt, helped the resurgence in niche beers as beer prices fell (when adjusted for inflation) from the increase in 1978.

8. 1985-1989

Two young women in post-punk fashions drinking beer from cans

Two women in post-punk fashions drink beer from cans. | Keystone/Getty Images

1985: $1.75
Adjusted for inflation: $3.99

1986: $1.83
Adjusted for inflation: $4.03

1987: $1.88
Adjusted for inflation: $4.06

1988: $1.95
Adjusted for inflation: $4.06

1989: $2.03
Adjusted for inflation: $4.06

In addition to homebrewing, another curious trend started to creep up on the margins of the American beer market. In 1982, Bert Grant opened a new kind of bar that would slowly spread across the nation. He founded the Yakima Brewing & Malting Co., which became the first establishment in the United States to not only serve its own beer, but to offer food to its patrons, as well. The new concept of a brewpub gradually gained steam up in the 1980s. By 1986, five brewpubs operated in the United States. Eventually, the brewpub would help to energize the resurgence of craft beers in America.

9. 1990-1994

President Bill Clinton enjoys a pint of beer during his walkabout at the Malthouse

President Bill Clinton enjoys a pint of beer during his walkabout at the Malthouse. | Gerry Penny/Getty Images

1990: $2.13
Adjusted for inflation: $4.07

1991: $2.35
Adjusted for inflation: $4.26

1992: $2.43
Adjusted for inflation: $4.22

1993: $2.47
Adjusted for inflation: $4.17

1994: $2.50
Adjusted for inflation: $4.10

The 1990s marked a few important milestones in the ongoing struggle between macrobreweries and microbreweries. For example, take Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Today, it’s a common beer that has become a staple in countless bars across the country. Back in 1990, the California-based brewing company stood at the forefront of the rise of craft breweries when its production totaled 31,000 barrels of beer. The reason why that number is important? It marks the point when a brewing company can no longer be defined as microbrewery, which produces 25,000 barrels or fewer. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale’s growing production marked the first time a small, startup microbrewery produced outside of its initial classification.

The state of California reached another milestone that served to highlight the dramatic gains by independent and commercial brewing across the country. At the beginning of 1994, California had 84 breweries and brewpubs. But if you look back to just 10 years prior, that number contrasts sharply with the number of breweries across the entire country. In 1984 there were just 83 breweries in the United States.

10. 1995-1999

A member of the Fanatics drinks beer at the Gabba cricket ground

A member of the Fanatics drinks beer at the Gabba cricket ground. | Ian Waldie/Getty Images

1995: $2.54
Adjusted for inflation: $4.06

1996: $2.61
Adjusted for inflation: $4.05

1997: $2.68
Adjusted for inflation: $4.04

1998: $2.73
Adjusted for inflation: $4.03

1999: $2.80
Adjusted for inflation: $4.07

As the ’90s progressed, breweries continued to gain momentum in the country. But the consolidation of the beer market stayed relatively stagnant. Craft breweries might have built a taste for unique beer on the average American’s palate, but they failed to reach production levels that rivaled the macrobreweries.

Three beer companies accounted for 81% of the overall market share by 2000. Annheuser-Busch produced 99.2 million barrels. Miller produced 39.8 million. Coors produced 22.7 million. That added up to 161.7 million barrels in a year when domestic sales totaled 199.4 million barrels. So that left just 37.7 million barrels that were produced and sold by other beer companies, including microbreweries.

11. 2000-2004

A technician checks a bottle as other bottles of freshly brewed Pilsner-Urquell lager beer run through the bottling plant at the Prazdroj brewery

A technician checks a bottle as other bottles of freshly brewed Pilsner-Urquell lager beer run through the bottling plant at the Prazdroj brewery. | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

2000: $2.88
Adjusted for inflation: $4.09

2001: $2.95
Adjusted for inflation: $4.06

2002: $3.02
Adjusted for inflation: $4.04

2003: $3.08
Adjusted for inflation: $4.05

2004: $3.17
Adjusted for inflation: $4.08

Although most new breweries started in the 1980s and 1990s stayed small, producing no more than 100,000 barrels per year, the concept of the microbrewery had begun to gain traction. Microbreweries offered a new strategy. Beers didn’t have to compete on the basis of price or advertising. Instead, they competed based on their characteristics. Microbreweries emphasized freshness and experimented with malt and hop flavors.

The craft brewing movement that began to gain traction in the 1990s really blossomed in the early 2000s. Beers from breweries, such as Dogfish Head, Allagash Brewing, Avery Brewing Company, Victory Brewing Company, became more visible and accessible. At the same time, imports of foreign beers began to increase their market share. By the early 2000s, they accounted for 12% of the U.S. market. In 2002, South African Breweries acquired Miller, which seemed to foreshadow a more globally integrated beer market.

12. 2005-2009

beer taps in a row

Beer taps | iStock.com

2005: $3.23
Adjusted for inflation: $4.05

2006: $3.31
Adjusted for inflation: $4.01

2007: $3.41
Adjusted for inflation: $4

2008: $3.53
Adjusted for inflation: $4.03

2009: $3.64
Adjusted for inflation: $4

The 2000s witnessed a stark reversal in the market trends that defined the beer industry following Prohibition. While the stock market crash of 2008 sent countless businesses into bankruptcy, an unexpected sector managed to keep growing. The United States’ consumption of craft beer increased by 10.9% in 2009, while the overall consumption of beer decreased by 2.2%.

Even though companies, including Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors, dominated far more of the market share, these major beer companies’ sales fell, while the craft brewers enjoyed growth. That’s in spite of craft brewers’ tendency to sell more expensive beers. Even though microbrews cost more than the big three’s beers, Anheuser Busch, Miller, and Coors all tried to incorporate ideas from the microbrewery movement into their own lineups.

13. 2010-2013

Beer in glass on wooden surface

Beer | iStock.com/grafvision

2010: $3.68
Adjusted for inflation: $4.06

2011: $3.73
Adjusted for inflation: $4.05

2012: $3.80
Adjusted for inflation: $4

2013: $3.87
Adjusted for inflation: $3.99

Anyone rooting for the little guy liked the look of the beer market in 2010 and onward. Craft brewing continued to gain momentum, and breweries continued to differentiate themselves with experiments in flavor, aging methods, and even packaging. (In 2011, craft breweries made headlines by putting their beers in cans.) By 2012, innovative collaborations between breweries and limited releases of seasonally flavored beers also became staples on the craft brewing scene.

And all of this wasn’t just good news for the Americans drinking the beer. In 2012, the craft brewing industry — made up of more than 2,700 craft breweries — provided an estimated 108,440 jobs in the U.S. Plus, there were more than 1 million American homebrewers in 2012. Homebrewing had just become legal in all 50 states for the first time since Prohibition when Alabama finally legalized the hobby.

14. 2014-2016

A man checks the quality of beer which is stored in barrels

A man checks the quality of beer, which is stored in barrels. | Matt Cardy/Getty Images

2014: $3.91
Adjusted for inflation: $3.97

2015: $3.95
Adjusted for inflation: $3.95

2016: $3.99
Adjusted for inflation: $3.99

Today, the beer market continues to look starkly different than the past 50 years. Those plucky, independent breweries that used to be little anomalies on the beer landscape have now become big business. The Associated Press reported that “craft beer is a $22 billion industry in the U.S., and sales were up last year nearly 13 percent over [2015].” Despite the incredible transformation of the industry, beer policy is still recovering from the impacts of the temperance movement. Many states have caps of the allowed alcohol content of beers, in addition to regulations regarding where and when it can be sold. Some states even forbid breweries from selling their own beer on site.

Additional reporting by Jess Bolluyt.

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