The Death of Beer Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Taking a deeper dive into America's liquid economy
More

570_Brewer_Hops_Beer_Reuters.jpg

REUTERS

It's been a rough decade for beer.

Americans are drinking less brew. Producers are making less, too. Meanwhile, wine has closed a 20-point favorability gap with beer in the just 20 years. Since the mid-1990s, beer volume has declined by nine percent while and spirits have soared (now even hard cider is staging a comeback after a century-and-a-half slump).

Screen Shot 2013-08-06 at 12.47.19 PM.png

But, despite my previous lamentations, maybe beer doesn't deserve out tears. This is still America's booze, goshdarnit, and Uncle Sam is awful proud of that beer gut. In fact, total U.S. spending on all alcoholic beverages -- both at home and at restaurants and bars -- is up 27 percent since 1980 and even more since the mid-century.

Screen Shot 2013-08-06 at 11.46.02 AM.png

Those numbers are inflation-adjusted, but real incomes have grown since the 1950s, too, so maybe the best way to see our boozy growth is measure alcohol's share of the food budget, which has grown steadily since 1994.

Screen Shot 2013-08-06 at 11.58.13 AM.png

Pull back the lens to the late 19th century, and the story changes slightly. Alcohol spending has been about 15 percent of the food budget since the turn of the century, but the rise of cheap beer in the second half of the 20th century helped contribute to a decline in relative booze spending. It's only recently (since 1994, or so) picked up.

Screen Shot 2013-08-06 at 11.57.30 AM.png

Back to the present: If we're spending more on alcohol but drinking much less beer, what's going on? Well, we're spending more for the suds. Beer is getting more expensive on average, due to the rise of craft beers, which account for about 10 percent of the market. In 1980 there were 8 specialty breweries in the United States. Now there are more than 2,000 "Between 1994 and 2011, an average of 97 breweries opened in the United States every year," consultant David Dworin pointed out in an email to me. As a result, beer hasn't lost much ground as a share of total booze-spending at stores.

And it is by far the most popular alcoholic drink by volume. Yes, you point out, it is physically impossible to drink vodka in beer-like quantities. And yes, I'd agree, but on an alcohol basis, holds up well against wine: Beer volume still outsells wine volume by 8.5X despite the fact that a typical beer that's 4% alcohol is only three or four times weaker than a typical wine.

Screen Shot 2013-08-06 at 12.52.10 PM.png

To sum up: The total amount of beer consumed by Americans is in structural decline, and there are more wine-drinkers than there used to be. But beer is still the most popular boozy beverage in America and overall sales are holding up, thanks in part to the emergence of craft beers.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

Just In