In this booming era of nearly 5,000 American breweries, each seemingly making hundreds of different beers per year, it can be difficult for any one offering to pervade the national consciousness, let alone transform into a household name. Sure, the Bud-Miller-Coors of the world are known by all these days, in the same way McDonald’s and Wal-Mart are—but their ubiquity now isn't necessarily a sign of their cultural cachet.
Likewise, every so often a certain craft beer becomes so revolutionary, so important, so desired, that even your mom will have heard about it. “Have you tried that Heady Topper yet, honey?” she asks you. In reality though, the Headys, Plinys, and Juliuses of the world mostly remain geek obsessions.
Before the craft-beer movement kicked into full gear, and before Sierra Nevada released a pale ale that launched a thousand breweries, the country was mostly lacking in breweries. There were a few national companies, a few regional breweries too, and for any single one of their releases to find a way to dominate the culture would have seemed a minor miracle. Yet it occasionally happened for a variety of reasons—from a lack of availability, to the invention of a one-of-a-kind technology, to the mighty influence of men with ironic mustaches.
These are a few of those stories, including tales of big brands that once generated rabid cult followings. Like when Coors became so damn desired it led to covert smuggling operations and a Hollywood blockbuster; or when Miller Lite became the coolest drink for macho, macho men; and even when the whacky decade of “Corona-mania” convinced one writer to eventually call it nothing more than a “hula hoop, an offbeat fancy that had run its inevitable course.”
Here we look back at some of these beers that spoke to the zeitgeist of their respective eras. From pulling America out of the Prohibition era, to the introduction of a beer black market, here are the brews that came to define America throughout the ages.