Was it Oscar Wilde who once said that “I find American beer a bit like having sex in a canoe. It's f—king close to water”? Never mind if Wilde actually said that. American mainstream beers are bad. Adolphus Busch, co-founder with his father-in-law of Anheuser-Busch, had no illusions his signature product, Budweiser, was any good. He called it 'dot schlop' and drank wine instead.
In the early part of the twentieth century, American beers had more of a regional character, and there were more styles. But then, after the Second World War, industrial brewers began to rule the roost and wipe out the smaller brewers and the more unusual styles to the point that inoffensive bland watery lagers became the norm. In 1960, there were 175 traditional brewers in the United States. Forty-five years later, there were just 21. 80% of the beer sold in taverns and party stores is sold by just three of them: Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors.
You needn't feel sorrow for those 150+ breweries that got trampled on or bought out. Nearly all of them were producing the same watery garbage, albeit regionally, that the three big brewers were pushing. Falstaff Beer from St. Louis, Missouri? Hamm's from St. Paul, Minnesota? These weren't exactly precursors to the craft beers sprouting up like mushrooms after the new millennium.
My first taste of this sort of brew was when I was 10. My father gave me a small sip of the Budweiser he usually drank, and I hated it. I thought it due to age. A kid just hadn't any experience in drinking alcohol to appreciate beer. A decade later, after having sipped a little more alcohol in the form of wine or spirits, I tried Budweiser again. It was just as bad as I remembered it.
The year I turned 19, the state in which I grew up and possessed an ID, Ohio, raised its drinking age from 19 to 21. In Ohio that year, anyone who turned 19 before August 1 was legal to buy beer and other lower percentage alcoholic beverages. Anyone turning 19 after August 1 had to wait until age 21. And 21 it's been ever since – for every US state and territory.
I wasn't legal in the state of New York where I went to university. New York had raised its drinking age to 21 two years earlier, but that was a small point because on breaks back to Ohio, I could legally buy if I so chose. And at age 20, I went abroad to Europe for a year, where I was legal to buy alcohol anywhere. By the time I returned to the US, I was already 21.
Being legal earlier and having tried Budweiser at an early age made a big difference in my mentality. Beer wasn't legally forbidden for me by 19, so I felt no impulse to consume garbage quality in large quantities when available. At the time, I thought all beer tasted like this and concluded I just wasn't fond of the beverage. Meanwhile, the underaged kids figured they were being cool chugging down the watery alcohol at college fraternity parties. Just drinking beer, any beer, was enough for these kids to consummate an act of “rebellion.” Fine triple-filtered ales and porters weren't required and probably wouldn't have been appreciated or affordable. Once accustomed to these watery brews, most continued to buy them as their mainstream drinks of choice after turning 21, particularly when there wasn't much other choice readily available at the time.
Compare this to Europe, where the legal drinking age is no older than 18 and, in some countries, as low as 16. In Germany, a kid can be as young as 14 to buy beer as long as he has permission and is in the presence of a legal guardian. You can imagine that if a Belgian or Danish kid can drink legally at 16, he's probably sampling beer in the company of his parents a year or two before that. When beer is not viewed as a forbidden fruit at such a young age, a person is more likely to treat it like any other consumer product and partake only if enjoyable. Exposure to beer at a younger age accustoms Europeans, in general, to better quality in the mainstream arena. [Craft beers are a newer phenomenon and not relevant to this discussion].
Of course, very young European kids will drink whatever is available, too, to act like grownups, just like the 18-20 year olds at my university. When I was 23 and traveling from Sweden to Finland on a passenger liner, 16-year old Finns were giving me cash to buy them beers and, as reward for my services, included enough of a bonus for me to get myself a beer as well. These kids wouldn't have cared if the beer I got them was a Pabst Blue Ribbon or a dunkel brewed to German purity law standards.
There may be a plethora of craft breweries in the United States today, but their share of the American beer market is still less than 10% by volume. The typical underaged American college kid continues “breaking the rules” by drinking from kegs of crappy industrial brews just like he did when I was in college. The only difference is that these kids will have ample chances to upgrade their tastes soon after turning 21. Even if a kid is content with a Coors, he'll cross paths with a number of better craft beers in his early 20's without having to make any considerable effort– there are now over 1,300 craft breweries presently in the United States. My generation would not have been blessed with a taste elevation opportunities until our early 30's. Because I had spent a year abroad in Europe and sampled quality Belgian and German beers just after I became legal, I made it a point to actively seek out better quality stuff when I got back. This was certainly not the norm back then for the typical 21-year old.
During the Prohibition from 1920-33, Americans were desperate enough to purchase toxic moonshine made in someone's bathtub. Being stamped as underaged for longer also makes you desperate, and the desperate, everyone knows, are rarely very picky.