Celebrate the Return of Beer

7 04 2010

Photo Credit: Kent Wang CC

Today, April 7th, is the 77th anniversary of the return of beer in the United States. On this day in 1933, a law signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt altered the alcohol ceiling as mandated by the Volstead Act (18th Amendment) to allow beer to be consumed by the American public, marking the beginning of the end of Prohibition and eventually leading to the 21st Amendment.

On the news that beer would be allowed in the U.S., cities throughout the country shut down as impromptu parades began. But to realize what a momentous occasion this (and the remaining effects of prohibition on the American public) one must know that Prohibition did not begin in 1919 with the 18th Amendment.

As long as there has been an United States of America, there has been a push for prohibition here. Religious groups, particularly the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, pushed for temperance and prohibition; believing society’s ills stemmed from the sale and consumption of alcohol. However, for the most part, alcohol was one of the only sources of potable water, particularly in urban areas. But as time went by, ad with the growth of industrial beer-particularly after the influx of German and Czech immigrants in the early to mid-nineteenth century-and the establishment of clean water sources, beer became plentiful but not as necessary.

By the 1840’s, prohibition of alcohol became an important discussion of domestic public policy.

Photo Credit: Kent Wang CC

While not as important as the debate over slavery, prohibition became tied in with questions of public health, morality and immigration. In fact, Maureen Ogle claims in Ambitious Brew that the rise of the Republican party was due to the fact it was the only party for the abolition of slavery, pro-alcohol, and pro-immigrant. Whigs, on the other hand, ran on an anti-immigrant platform and eventually lost all political clout.

By the 1860’s, there were over 10,000 breweries in the United States. Many of them were what we would now call “craft” or “micro” breweries. They were small, mostly serving a local community and made only a few thousand gallons of beer a year. In the post-bellum years, with slavery gone for good, religious activists continued, undistracted, on the other scourge of America: alcohol. In Ohio, a temperance movement called the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) worked for the prohibition of alcohol by closing the saloons. As 90% of all beer was sold off of draft and nearly 100% of consumption was on premises, by closing the saloons, access to beer would be denied. A comprehensive movement to boycott, ban, and close saloons was undertaken. Within 40 years, nearly every state in the Union (with exceptions being in brewer rich states like Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, and Missouri) had banned the sale of alcohol in saloons, creating a de facto prohibition of alcohol.

While some brewers, such as those in “Wet” jurisdictions did alright, others had no choice but to close. Bolstered by by their success on local levels, the ASL worked hard for a Constitutional amendment. The ASL proposed such an amendment. They were laughed out of the halls of Congress. At that point, nearly 2/3rds of the Treasury Dept.’s income came from beer sales. Brewers were respected members of the community. And beer drove the country’s economy. However, after Congress ratified the 16th Amendment, establishing the Income Tax, this fact became a moot point. Money from beer taxes became a drop in the bucket.

As war raged on in Europe, sentiment toward Germans grew sour. And as most brewers in the United States were first of second generation German immigrants, brewers lost much of the respect they held. When America joined the war effort in 1917, rationing of resources began. Brewers were hardest hit. It became illegal for breweries to purchase rice and corn-two important ingredients in the beers they made. The combination of dry jurisdictions, rationing of ingredients, anti-German sentiments and a strong push from the ASL convinced Congress to and state legislatures to ratify the 18th Amendment banning all intoxicating beverages.

For 14 long, hard years, the Volstead Act was the law of the land. The law specified that beverages had to have less than .5% ABV in order to be considered legal. Many breweries stayed open by producing “near beer”, beer that has had its alcohol stripped from it; soft drinks; ice cream and malt syrup. Other breweries continued to brew and sell on the black market illicitly. Many others had no choice but to close. People were reduced to homebrew or buy from unsavory characters.

Gangland stepped in to fill the void. Cheap hooch and expensive beer came from illict stills and Canada. While studies showed that over 60% of citizens followed the law, newspaper editors exploited the crime to make a profit.

Photo Credit: brandi666

By the early 1930’s, American realized that by prohibiting alcohol, society’s ills did not go away. At this point, anger toward the Germans had greatly diminished and The Great Depression was covering the land. It seemed more and more that the 18th Amendment had failed. FDR ran on a pro-booze platform and one of his first acts in office was to sign the bill that increased the alcohol threshold of “intoxicating” beverages to 3.2%. Ogle tells the story of a Senator who, in the name of research, skipped breakfast before going to a lab to drink four beers with 3.2% ABV. The result: no signs of intoxication.

At midnight of April 7th, 1933, beer flowed again. The honor of the first legal beer went to President Roosevelt. After legalization, the stock market saw a minor but significant bump; stimulating an all but dead economy. After 40+ years of prohibition, including the Volstead Act,  America’s brewing industry was a shriveled husk of what it once was. Fewer than 500 of the original 13,000 breweries existed And for nearly two generations of Americans, beer was either illegal or mistrusted. For the most part, America had lost its taste for beer. Those who had survived all made the same product: The American Pilsner. Americans only knew one type of beer. And it would mostly stay that way until the 1970’s. But that is another story for another time.

In the meantime, we celebrate the freedom we share to drink beer and alcohol in general. And we celebrate the democracy that allows us to write and re-write laws as we see fit. For more information on how to promote laws that promote healthy consumption of beer and fight the neo-prohibitionists, please visit http://supportyourlocalbrewery.org/

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