Everybody seems to be making fun of Salon these days, and I think I’m beginning to understand why. Case in point: Marcy Wheeler’s post about the recent GOP debates, responding to some of Rick Santorum’s claims about insurance market consolidation under Obamacare:
Santorum claimed to be a lot less worried about consolidation in the watery beer market because, “There’s no town in American anymore that doesn’t have a brewery.” Given that alcohol is one of the most regulated markets, it’s odd that government involvement hasn’t created dangerous consolidation in bad beer.
Wheeler has this backwards. Government involvement did in fact cause consolidation in bad beer. At the very height of government involvement — the total prohibition of beer or any other kind of booze during the 1920’s — the beer market was consolidated under criminal gang bosses like Al Capone, who literally killed their competition. The beer was of terrible quality, and tainted alcoholic brews produced by criminal gangs are estimated to have killed thousands of people.
Even after prohibition, beer production was limited mostly to a few large companies, and it was hard for new and innovative breweries to get started, in part because of the red tape of regulation, and in part because the only place to learn beer making was the big breweries that were licensed for it. For most of the 20th century, the United States produced only a dreary selection of mass-produced corporate beers. If you wanted good beer in the U.S., you bought something imported.
That all began to change in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter signed the bill making it legal for people to brew beer in their homes. Over the next few decades, thousands of people learned to brew beer, and many of them got good enough at it to make the leap into commercial brewing. This was the start of the microbrewery revolution, and it transformed the United States from a country with famously bland beer to one of the most innovative and diverse brewing cultures in the world.