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History of Beer Part 3: Beer and Prohibition


Welcome to the next installment of the History Of Beer. Last time we talked about how beer changed and evolved during the Industrial Revolution. This time we will go over a period in history when society actually frowned upon beer—Prohibition, otherwise known as the Dark Ages.

Of course, the ‘frown’ was in the legal sense only. While Prohibition banned producing, importing, and transporting alcohol, it was not hard to come by an alcoholic beverage throughout the Era.

The years leading up to Prohibition were good ones for the brewing industry. Lager became quite popular after German immigrants introduced it to the American market in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Beer even became the alcoholic beverage of choice by the 1890s.

Brewing became a big business around that time as well as some learned how to harness several advancements made during the Industrial Revolution to their advantage. As it became easier to produce in larger volumes and then transport it, breweries like Pabst and Anheuser-Busch began to expand their markets nationally and internationally.

While Pabst and Anheuser-Busch were the first breweries to produce one million barrels in a year, they were not as powerful as you might think. They and regional breweries used the latest in pasteurizing, bottling, and transporting beer to expand their markets. But they had some stiff competition from local brewers that supplied the immediate markets Pabst and  Anheuser-Busch were trying to move in on.

However, a case could be made that this new-found ability to mass produce and transport beer is what led to Prohibition.

At the time, it made more sense for retail establishments, saloons, to have liquor on hand and in reserve but not beer. To get their product to the masses, brewers began setting up 'tied houses,' saloons financed and supported by specific brewers for the purpose of selling the brewer’s beer.

As brewers became more aggressive in their marketing efforts, the number of saloons grew.  They were not exactly attractive places. Saloons were commonly described as an “affront to respectability.” Free food was often provided to get people through the door. Since it was hard to make ends meet by merely selling beer, saloon keepers often dabbled in gambling, cock-fights, and prostitution.

When a new prohibition organization was formed in 1893, the name spoke to what really bothered people—the Anti-Saloon League. They used the widespread dislike of saloons many people had to fuel the push for prohibition.

So, an argument could be made that prohibition had nothing to do with beer, but with what people did in and around the place they drank beer. But what went on was enough for the Anti-Saloon League and other organizations like it to push for a law banning the sale, manufacture, and transport of alcoholic beverages—which they got in 1920 with the passage of the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

In 1915, 1,345 breweries were producing over 59 million barrels of beer annually. When the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act made that production illegal, the companies running those breweries had to figure something out. Do they go under and close-up shop? Or do they find some other product to produce? At the same time, many wondered if Prohibition was going to be a temporary issue.

Many did not want to wait for a repeal of the law, so they got out of the business, taking a substantial loss in the process. Some, like Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst, and Anheuser-Busch, decided to do what the law allowed. So, they produced a product which fell under the threshold of one half of one percent of alcohol—near beer.

But near-beer was not the only beer produced during Prohibition. Some breweries were granted a special license to continue brewing traditional beer for ‘medicinal purposes.’

Many brewers also got into making malt syrup. While it was advertised as an ingredient for making cookies, it was more commonly used by home brewers (federal law did not make private ownership and consumption of alcohol illegal).

Prohibition did succeed in reducing the overall alcohol intake of the nation. But scholars are split on whether it caused a dramatic rise in violent crime. Some think that what it effectively did was make the consumption of alcohol more widespread.

In time, supporters of Prohibition began to change their minds, and the government started to miss the tax revenue. Congress began by amending the Volstead Act to allow for a beer with 3.2 percent alcohol by volume in April 1933.

With the ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933, Prohibition came to an end.
While it was a dark time for beer drinkers, it is worth noting that a couple of significant advancements in beer drinking occurred during that time.

Prior to Prohibition, beer was commonly produced in barrels and shipped to saloons. But during those dark days, many brewers began looking into bottling and canning processes for their new products (near beer, soda, ginger ale, malt syrup, etc.).

So the next time you lift an ice-cold can or bottle of NoCoast, thank Prohibition for introducing the beer bottle and beer can to the world — and then open another NoCoast!

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