What Really Drives Americans to Drink?

By Dirk Hanson 06/29/11

Feeling Thirsty? Average Americans guzzled 20 gallons of beer and 45 gallons of soft drinks per person last year. They also downed 18.5 gallons of coffee and a surprising 20 gallons of milk.

Which cold one for you?
Photo via thinkstockphotos

As the warm summer weather comes rolling in, Americans celebrate the Fourth of July with a cold beverage—or five. But while beer may be known as the country's favorite All-American beverage—it certainly doesn't hold that title in volume sales. As it turns out, beer consumption in this country falls a distant second to consumption of carbonated soft drinks. In fact, soda, pop, soda pop, or whatever you call it in your part of the country, ranks as the nation’s most commonly consumed beverage. A typical American consumer knocks back an average of 44.7 gallons of soda year, which sound like a lot, because it is. In second place, according to a survey by Advertising Age, is bottled water in both bulk and single serve containers. And rounding out the list at #3 is beer, with consumption per year of about 20 gallons per capita. Despite the recession, beer sales remained rock-steady for the year. And while soft drink maker Coke spent $267 million in advertising last year, and Pepsi spent $54 million, Anheuser-Busch alone spent more than $500 million. Total beer advertising was estimated at $1.25 billion last year. A bottle of beer, all things being equal, costs more than a bottle of water, or a can of Pepsi. Do the math, and you will conclude that third place is just all right for the beer business. After all, it means Americans are downing an average of 168 pints of suds on an annual basis. The biiter battle for dominance among beer brands make the soft drink wars look like  child’s play.

Wine and spirits are gaining ground, too. But despite all the publicity, the so-called energy drinks category is still small—1.2 gallons a year—but it has doubled in a year, largely thanks to buzzy new entrants like Four-Loko. While the super-caffeinated malt concoctions have been banned from many states, the brand's founders exclusively confided to The Fix that sales of their uncaffeinated brand remain strong. "It's still seen as pretty bad ass, "one of the frat boy founder's said, claiming that the company was planning to release a series of less lethal beer mixtures in the coming year.

Coffee consumption came in just below beer, with Americans drinking 18.5 gallons of java per every year, just shy of the 20 gallons of milk we slug down every year. In terms of growth, this year's biggest gainers included energy drinks, bottled water, and “value-added” water—mixed with fruit juice or vitamins. No doubt due to the White House's war on obesity, high- calorie carbonated soft drinks posted the biggest decline, followed by fruit beverages. (Can't explain that one.)  Meanwhile, beer sales just canter serenely along.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]