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May 15, 2020

Under Pressure: The Fascinating History of Draft Beer in America

Did you know that beer is the 3rd most-consumed drink in the world? It's probably one of the oldest alcoholic drinks, too!

As we were building up the first civilizations, people were drinking beer. It's not just the U.S. who loves it, either. Beer drinking was going on across the world in ancient times, from China to Germany.

If you love a beer or two, you're actually taking part in one of the oldest practices we still do today. But do you actually know the history of what you're drinking?

To transport you back and make sure that draft beer gets the appreciation it deserves, we've put together a complete history.

What Is Draft Beer?

Picture of Draft Beer Pint

Pint of Beer from Great Notion Brewing.

Just to make sure there's no confusion, draft beer (also known as draught beer) doesn't mean cans or bottles of beer. Draft beer is only ever served out of casks or kegs. Those are just the rules!

Because neither sunlight nor oxygen can get into the cask, it's usually thought to be better quality than other types of beer. It's also the older system for transporting beer, making it a far more historically accurate way of drinking it. So, if you fancy a good old-fashioned pint, make sure it's from a cask.


The Origin of the Name

Pretty much all words we use today have a backstory, and draft beer is no different. 'Draft' (or draught) actually comes from the word 'dragan'—which isn't a fire-breathing beast.

It means to carry or pull, and relates to how the casks of beer were transported across the world in draft beer history.

The Beginnings of Draft Beer 

It's not completely clear where draft beer first popped up. In ancient documents, there is a reference to wine being transported in barrels so it makes sense to think that beer would be moved in the same way. It's also likely the beer was stored in there until it was drunk, making for some very ancient draft beer. 

But, it is known that medieval monks in Europe started using barrels to store beer. There's even a tale dating back to somewhere between AD 550 - 615, involving St. Columbanus and his monk monastery.

Picture of St. Columbanus

The story goes that there was a miracle. A steward in the monastery went to collect beer, where he placed a jug under a barrel, removed the plug, and let the beer flow out. This is a true draft beer! 

But when he was called away on other work, he forgot to plug the barrel up. Expecting to come back to a very messy cellar, he was surprised when the barrel had stopped flowing and the beer was perfectly poured. Whether a miracle or one too many beers, it's a great tale that shows beer being drunk almost 2,000 years ago. 

What About America?

Although beer had been brewed for many years by Native Americans, it was much weaker than the beer we know today and was usually only used for ceremonies. The first shipment of proper draft beer barrels arrived in America in 1607, and the Brits colonized our land. 

After this, the first brewery in colonized America opened in 'New Amsterdam', which is now Manhattan. It was established by Adrian Block & Hans Christiansen and opened by the Dutch West India Company. It definitely wasn't common to commercially brew beer at the time here, although lots of people were brewing their own at home.

As the new settlers moved across the country, more and more breweries opened up offering these casks of beer. It became much more popular to head out for a drink rather than make your own at home, and the new breweries helped boost the economy. 

The Revolution

As most draft beer made in America was pretty weak and not of the highest quality, people usually had to trade with England to get good beer. There's was brewed to a better standard—after all, they'd been doing it for longer! But, as the Revolutionary War approached, this became less of an option.

People didn't want to trade with England anymore, so there was only one option; improve beer in the New World. Some of the founding fathers began their own breweries or supplied materials to companies who were in order to improve draft beer. This was the end of English beer in America at the time, but the drink was here to stay.  

Prohibition - What Happened to Draft Beer?

The popularity of beer really took off in America over the coming years and American draft systems were brought into place. The American draft beer had well and truly arrived. 

But when the early 1900's arrived, everything changed. By 1913, 2 billion gallons of beer were being produced every year, filling America with beer casks. By 1916, there were around 1,300 breweries across the land, providing every man and woman with all the beer they needed.

But come 1920 and the beer world was drastically changed. Prohibition was introduced and the brewing of alcohol was stamped out.

For tips on what to buy for draft beer dispensing, check out our . These have been hand-picked to make sure you always pour a great draft beer.
Picture of people during prohibition wanting beer

Beer was one of the most hard-hit industries. Whilst people could cover up brewing alcohol for other purposes (such as spirits for cleaning and wine for religious purposes), beer had no such story. It was all but stopped.

By the time prohibition was lifted in 1933, only a few of those 1,300 breweries remained. Those that did had often switched their production to other products, making beer very hard to come by.

Almost all beer was pasteurized, too, which reduced the quality, even when drinking from a beer cask—or beer tap, to be more precise. There was a lack of fresh, quality draft beer, hitting its popularity hard. Drinkers were more likely to pick bottles of home-brewed beer over the poor quality draft option.

World War 2 hit shortly after the ban was lifted, stifling the recovery of draft beer. In fact, beer production never truly recovered until the 1970s, making it a very bad century for draft beer.

Draft Beer Systems Today

Fast forward to the present day and, despite all of its hardships, the beer industry has made a brilliant recovery! In fact, beer is a consistent favorite of alcohol drinkers in America. 

When it comes to draft, you can't get much better. Today, consumers favor craft draft beer. This is when the brewery is much smaller than the big brand names and is usually independently run. Small batches of beer are produced, making for a high-quality production that can't really be beaten. 

Goodlife Brewing Logo
Boneyard Beer Logo
Bend Brewing Company logo

Craft beers are often more experimental, too. They play with the flavors to create interesting tastes and refine their beers to perfection. Although they're often sold in bottles and cans too, nothing beats a craft brew from a cask or keg. 

Why Is Draft Better?

When it comes to choosing a beer, why choose draft? There are actually plenty of reasons that make draft the better option over bottled or canned brews. Check them out and make up your own mind.

Stop the Light

Kegs are instantly better than glass bottle because they stop light from getting in. Light can have a huge impact on how a beer tastes; it affects the hops, turning your drink much more bitter than it was brewed. Some glass bottles can be colored to reduce this, but it doesn't work as well as a keg. 

Prevent Oxidization

Exposing a beer to air can lead to quick oxidization. As the carbohydrates and hops are sensitive to this, the flavor of the beer can be affected, making what you taste very different from what the brewers intended. When beer is poured between bottles and cans, it's more likely to experience oxidization than when it's left in the cask. 

Even once it's been poured, oxygen can still leak into glass bottles. Over time, your beer is going to be badly changed because of oxidization, which no one wants! 

Fresher Beer

As the process from brewing to selling is much quicker with draft beer, the drink you get from a keg, is likely to be much fresher than from a bottle or can. After being poured, these tend to sit around for a while, and no one wants an old beer! For a fresh brew, choose draft.

Not Pasteurized

Beer is pasteurized to kill germs, which is necessary when it's being put in bottles. Pasteurization is when it's boiled at very high temperatures and can have a negative effect on the beer. Instead, draft beer is kept refrigerated which makes for a much nicer taste that's closer to what the brewer intended. 

Get Draft Beer Systems for a Proper Brew

If you're planning on starting to make your own beer or start up a craft brew, stick to draft. You'll get a better flavor and a much higher quality beer.

For more tips on draft beer systems, be sure to read some of the other blogs on our website including our Draft Beer Fundamentals: Ultimate Guide For Beginners

 And here's a list of recommended products I suggest.


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About the author

I've been a draft beer technician for 9 years  building, designing, and installing large commercial beer systems. Through the years I've worked on breweries, tap houses, casinos and stadiums around the country.

I enjoy sharing my passion for draft beer dispensing by talking about it, recommending dispensing equipment I've used in commercial installs, or private settings. 


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