Why Are American Drinkers Turning Against Beer?

Bad news for brews: Among the youngest Americans, beer preference is collapsing.
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Poor beer.

Just 20 years ago, it was America's most popular alcoholic beverage by far. Since then, per capita consumption of beer down 20 percent and despite population growth, annual domestic production has fallen down, too.

Gallup's new alcoholic preferences survey, summed up in the image above, finds that beer's lead over wine has slipped by 20 percentage points since the early 1990s. But the demographic breakdown is even more brutal. Young drinkers and nonwhite drinkers saw the steepest falls in beer preference. In other words, the fastest-growing segments of the country are also running the fastest away from brews.

Here are drink preferences among the youngest generation:

Screen Shot 2013-08-05 at 12.21.32 PM.png

... and among nonwhites:

Screen Shot 2013-08-05 at 12.21.15 PM.png

So what's going on here? From interviews with beverage analysts, I've collected string for a few theories:

(1) Americans care more about our health, now (because we know more about it)

Here's a look at change in drinking volume by beverage in the decade after 2001. Bottled water exploded. Tea is up. Soft drinks, beer and juice, not so much.

Screen Shot 2013-01-14 at 1.09.03 PM.png

One explanation has been that American drinkers are more health-conscious today because there are so many studies and media reports of studies that make it impossible to be less health-conscious. This has hurt high-sugar and empty-calorie drinks that face relentless press criticism. "You're seeing that the consumer is taking a healthier look and having more alternatives [than soda], such as tea, and coconut water," Thomas Mullarkey, an analyst from Morningstar, has told me. "But also, Americans have aged, and soft drinks are most popular among teenagers and twentysomethings."

Still, that does not adequately explain why Americans would turn against light beer, which dominates the market. For that, we need another explanation ...

(2) Lower-class white guys are getting crushed.

Think of of cheap beer sales as a health indicator for blue-collar America, especially for men (they call him Joe Sixpack for a reason). Look at the chart at the top of the story again. Beer dips after the 2000/'1 recession and then begins to recover. Then beer preference falls again after the Great Recession, where the hardest hit industries (construction and manufacturing) were blue-collar-male industries. As the Wall Street Journal reported, light beer sales fell for three years after the recession and only bounced back in 2012 due to the resurgence of craft beer.

(3) Liquor ads work.

TV used to be a little less boozy and a lot more innocent. Liquor ads didn't air on U.S. television until 1996, according to WSJ, "when a local NBC station in Texas agreed to run a commercial for Crown Royal whiskey." It's only very recently that they've started running ads on broadcast networks. Since liquor marketing came out of the cabinet, liquor sales are up.

(4) Wine is delicious and affordable, and many Americans only recently realized that.

California's wine grape crush has grown by 160 percent since the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976. It's not just Americans who are ordering bottles in record numbers. Wine exports are growing every year, too. In this light, it's not that Americans are turning against beer so much as our preferences are turning somewhat more European as our capacity to produce good affordable wine has caught up to the old continent.

(5) Tastes just change.

I really do wish I could tell you that I know exactly what hundreds of millions of people drink every day and also why. I really don't. Maybe young people prefer higher-alcohol drinks nowadays, because they're more efficient? Maybe people decided Bud Light is awful? Tastes aren't always explicable.

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

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