How 15 Iconic American Beers Got Their Names
The United States got serious about beer in the 1800s, when many breweries introduced American lager-style beers to the masses. More than a hundred years later, some of these beers remain iconic, while others—like many newer, American craft beers—have been working on achieving that status. Here are the stories behind how 15 beers that define the U.S. beer scene got their names.
Today, Anheuser-Busch InBev is the largest brewery in the world, but it commenced with humbler beginnings. Adolphus Busch and his father-in-law, Eberhard Anheuser, ran the St. Louis brewery in the mid-1800s. Busch wanted to develop a light lager to contrast the rampant American dark beers. His friend Carl Conrad, a wine and liquor importer, had traveled to Budweis in what is now the Czech Republic and had tasted an incredible beer in a monastery there. Conrad took the idea back to St. Louis, and he and Busch decided on the name "Budweiser." In 1982, Bud Light (which is currently the best-selling beer in America) was introduced to the market.
2. SAM ADAMS BOSTON LAGER
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Labels featuring a man holding a beer have been gracing barrels of brew for centuries, but its been synonymous in the States with a top crafty lager since 1984. Using his own money—and a family recipe for Louis Koch Lager that he found in an attic—Jim Koch founded Boston Beer Company in 1984. He named the dry-hopped lager after 18th-century Samuel Adams, who was a Founding Father, a governor of Massachusetts, a part of the American Revolution, and a brewer. (Like Alexander Hamilton, his varied resume deserves a musical.) According to a 2015 Brewer’s Association list, Boston Beer Co.’s the second best-selling craft brewery in the nation (next to Yuengling), and the fifth overall best-selling brewery.
3. MILLER LITE
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We have a biochemist to thank for the advent of light beer. In 1967, Joseph L. Owades worked for Rheingold Brewery and discovered an enzyme that digested all of the starch, resulting in a beer label called Gablinger’s Diet Beer. Meister Brau of Chicago first manufactured the light beer until Miller Brewing bought Gablinger’s. In 1975 they changed the name to Miller Lite, and it became the first nationally distributed reduced-calorie beer.
4. COORS BANQUET
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Adolph Coors liked the mountain waters of Colorado, so he established Coors there in 1873. Back in the late 1800s, miners in Golden, Colorado, worked hard every day and would gather after work and drink Coors beer in a celebratory banquet setting. In 1937, out of respect for those miners, the name Coors Banquet became official. Decades later, in 1981 the beer started national distribution. Besides the innovative stubby Banquet beers, Coors also became the forerunner of almost frozen cold-lagered beers (Coors Light), and they were one of the first breweries to delve into recycling, with the launch of their all-aluminum cans in 1959.
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The Best family emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee and started Best and Company in 1844. Jacob Best Sr.’s daughter married Frederick Pabst, and in 1889, Pabst named the brewery after himself. They purchased about a million feet of silk ribbon, and workers hand-tied the ribbons around every bottle of their Best Select beer. At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the beer won a blue ribbon award, and Best Select’s name switched to Pabst Blue Ribbon in 1898. Today, the brand's mostly known as a hipster beer because of its cheap price.
6. ARROGANT BASTARD
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This year, Escondido, California's Stone Brewing Company turns 20 years old, and one of their first beers, Arrogant Bastard, turns 19. Described as an “aggressive beer,” the strong ale set the standard for Stone’s West Coast-inflected IPAs and other hoppy beers. Founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner have turned the brewery with the scowling, horned gargoyle logo into the ninth largest craft brewery in the U.S. "It told me what its name was," Koch told Thrillist about the beer’s genesis. "We did not create it. I did not name it. It was already there. We were just the first lowly mortals to have stumbled upon it. Steve was the first to learn how to brew the beer that already was, and I was the first to realize what its name already was."
7. BLUE MOON BELGIAN WHITE
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The Belgian Wit (meaning white, or wheat) beer that’s served with an orange wedge derived from baseball. In 1995, Keith Villa, who is one of only a few Americans with a Ph.D. in brewing, began brewing beer inside Denver’s Coors Field stadium. Called the Sandlot, it was the first brewery inside of a Major League stadium. Taking his experiences from Brussels (where he earned his doctorate), Villa brewed a Belgian beer called a Bellyslide, made with Valencia orange peels and coriander. The Coors-owned beer was in such high-demand that they needed a better name than Bellyslide. "So one day, when a bunch of us were tasting beers, our admin called out, 'You know, a beer that tastes this good comes around only once in a blue moon,'" their story reads. "And with that phrase ringing in our ears, the Blue Moon Brewing Company was born."
8. OLD STYLE
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Like so many other breweries on the list, the brewery’s founder moved from Germany to the Midwest. While living in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Gottlieb Heileman founded Golden Leaf Lager in the 1890s. Post-Prohibition, the company’s brewmaster came up with a strong brew for the company’s picnic and renamed the beer Old Style Lager Special Export. Old Style trickled into the Chicago market, and is noted for once sponsoring the Chicago Cubs (“Chicago’s beer”), and for its German brewing method called krausening—meaning to double ferment the beer.
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August Krug was a homebrewer in 1849 and hired the recently emigrated, 20-year-old Joseph Schlitz to do his bookkeeping. Sensing an opportunity of a lifetime, Schlitz took over the brewery in 1856, when Krug died. Akin to Pabst, Schlitz renamed the company after himself. By 1902, Schlitz became the largest brewery in the world in crafting their American lager beer. In 1911, Schlitz was the first brewer to create the brown bottle design (to avoid spoiling), and decades later in 1956, they introduced the “tall boy” 16-ounce can, something that’s still prevalent in bars and stores today.
10. SIERRA NEVADA PALE ALE
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Homebrewer Ken Grossman established the Chico, California, brewery in 1979 and named it for the nearby mountains where he loved to hike. A year later he started brewing the popular pale ale, using whole cone Cascade hops. According to the company’s website, Grossman dumped 10 batches of the ale before getting it right. The Pale Ale set the tone for today’s craft beer explosion, and more than 30 years later, Sierra’s one of the top three best-selling craft breweries in the U.S.
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A German man named Bernhard Stroh settled down in Detroit in 1848, and started brewing pilsners like he had in his homeland. Stroh had originally named the brewery Lion’s Head Brewery, but his son, Bernhard Jr., changed the name to B. Stroh’s Brewing Company after Stroh’s death in 1902. Their lager formula won a blue ribbon at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and nearly a century later, in 1999, another ribbon-centric beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon, purchased the brewery.
12. FAT TIRE AMBER ALE
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Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan formed the Fort Collins, Colorado, brewery in 1991, but started brewing their flagship beer, the Belgian-flavored Fat Tire, a couple of years beforehand in a basement. The amber ale got its name from a European trip Lebesch took on a bicycle, or a “fat tire,” and the bike ended up being used as the company’s logo.
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In 1896, Adolphus Busch named his new lager after the then-Kingdom of Bohemia (now Czech Republic) town of Michalovice. Michelob Light didn’t show up until decades later, in 1978, and the carb-reduced Michelob Ultra was invented in 2002.
14. COLT 45
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Many people associate the malt liquor—a lager with a sweeter flavor—with longtime spokesman Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). But when it was first created in 1963, the National Brewing Company named the beer after Baltimore Colts running back Jerry Hill, who played for the football team from 1961 to 1970, with the jersey number 45.
15. YUENGLING TRADITIONAL LAGER
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David G. Yuengling immigrated to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, from Germany and established the company in 1829 as Eagle Brewery. When David’s son Frederick joined the team in 1873, the name changed to D.G. Yuengling and Son. The family didn’t gain popularity with their beers until 1933, when they introduced Winner Beer, in tandem with the repeal of Prohibition. Today, the beer’s so well-known in Philadelphia that when you’re at a bar and want a Yuengling, all you have to say is “lager” and the bartender will know what you mean.