Sharp-witted Benjamin Franklin once observed that there are two guarantees in life—death and taxes. Simple, but irrefutable, that statement touches us all. Franklin’s two constants apply to everything we love, fear, anticipate, dread and enjoy—including beer.
The Pharaohs instituted one of the first formal beer taxes, which, they reasoned, would both fund public works and curb drunkenness.
From ancient times to present, beer, like humankind, has never escaped far from those shadowy twins, the Taxman and the Grim Reaper. From the civilizations of antiquity, history’s earliest records tell the tale again and again of death, taxes and beer.
In the beginning, brewers of the Fertile Crescent helped establish the beer-rich fabric of civilizations in Mesopotamia and Babylon. More than a drink or mere dietary staple, beer had a major role in religion, commerce and culture. Soon thereafter, it became a form of currency; goods and services were purchased and tariffs were collected in beer. Life without beer was unthinkable; thus, beer was taken seriously.
Considering beer a stabilizing factor for his kingdom, King Hammurabi of Babylon didn’t leave the quality of such a valuable commodity to chance. In 1750 BC, he issued a royal decree forbidding anyone to tamper with beer. Penalties were severe: any brewer found guilty of watering down his product was ordered executed. Death and beer were linked; taxes would follow.
As the kingdom of Egypt rose along the banks of the Nile, it was built on a solid foundation of beer. Realizing this, and faced with the enormous cost of monuments, pyramids and tombs, the Pharaohs instituted one of the first formal beer taxes, which, they reasoned, would both fund public works and curb drunkenness.
Tied so closely to beer in life, the Egyptians refused to believe they couldn’t take it with them. As a common part of burial customs, the wealthy arranged for meals augmented with jars of beer to be packed around them in their tombs as provisions for their journey to the afterlife. Truly affluent Egyptians, uncertain of the length of death’s trail, made additional preparations. In these tombs, archaeologists have discovered all the ingredients for beer and the vessels necessary to transform the burial sites into a type of graveyard mini-brewery.
Across the ocean in South America, emerging cultures were also adopting beer into their traditions. Religious leaders prepared humans for sacrifice with beer and other intoxicants before leading them to the altar and death.
If death were by natural causes, beer also had a role. Some tribes cremated their dead and used the ashes to “finish” the beer. Women brewers in these cultures held a position of honor and were laid to rest with their brew pots and tools around them.
Societies of northern European lands crafted their own unique beer beliefs. Viking poems narrate heroic tales of warriors, killed in battle, who after death enter Valhalla. There they toast earthly accomplishments by washing down sides of meat with large horns of ale, served by the beautiful and buxom Valkyries.
Viewing death in combat as the highest honor, northern peoples often protected their beer to the very gates of hell. Scottish legend tells of the Picts, a people that specialized in the brewing of heather ale. Known for ferocity in battle, they successfully defended their tiny kingdom against a number of enemies, including the Romans. Eventually, however, a rival tribe conquered them.
Cornered at the edge of a cliff, the Pictish king, the last member of his tribe who knew the secret recipe, was offered leniency if he divulged the formula. Considering his options for only a moment, the king turned away from his captors and flung himself off the cliff, choosing death over the disgrace of revealing the secret of heather ale.
As modern European society evolved and turned from a multitude of gods to Christianity, it retained many of the venerated customs. As part of a clever strategy, clerics used the old legends, with only slight alterations of the original intent, to make the new religion familiar and thereby more comfortable for converts.
Christians of medieval times in Europe acknowledged the certainties of death and celebrated each loved one’s passing with “death meals” (also known as heritage meals). A widespread practice of the day, the death meal brought a gathering of friends and relatives of the deceased on the seventh and thirteenth days after death. As a combination of grieving, celebration and send-off, it was an extended ceremony of prayer and mass, frequently punctuated with beer drinking and remembrance.
In the Americas, beer has long been integrated into a different aspect of culture associated with death. Reaching back centuries, Latin Americans have combined ancient Aztec and modern Christian beliefs to observe the Day of the Dead each November 1st and 2nd. Families prepare weeks in advance for the graveyard festivals honoring their departed loved ones who, they believe, return for a visit on these days. As a ceremonial act of respect for the deceased, relatives carry elaborate meals, tequila and beer to the cemeteries for sharing with the departed. Though recently encroached upon by the more commercialized Halloween, the Day of the Dead remains a significant holiday celebrated throughout Mexico.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the church expanded its social influence and solidified its political power. Touching nearly every facet of life, the church gave special attention to beer. Beer had become the dominant drink of northern Europe and the clerics recognized it as a reliable source of revenue.
Taxes on beer during that era were levied in the form of licensing fees. This was an indirect tax, targeting the production of gruit, the mixture of herbs that brewers used before the introduction of hops. Laws dictated by the church limited the availability of gruit to brewers. Only the approved gruit houses could supply the ever-growing number of breweries with the “secret” mixture.
In a way, the church was doubling beer’s payoff. It incorporated beer into a broad number of church functions, ensuring the congregation’s attendance, and it made money, through the control of gruit, on every barrel consumed.
Church authorities didn’t necessarily purchase the beer used in ceremonies and feasts. Often they obtained the beverage by the other type of taxing called “tithes.” Church documents from the Bavarian brewing center of Freising, dated in 815 AD, specified an annual payment of “one young wild boar, two hens, one goose, and one load of beer.”
Payment of beer tax in any form was sober business. In Aix-la-Chapelle, the council of 1272 confronted the non-payment of beer tax with extreme penalties. Brewers found guilty of avoiding or cheating on taxes were punished by chopping off their right hand. Wisely, the council also saw cheating in the alehouses.
Tavern keepers had been avoiding the beer tax by importing beer. To stop this, the council stipulated that any tavern not paying the tariff was to be destroyed. England adopted similar laws and in 1625 declared that any tavern keeper failing to pay the annual licensing fee was to be whipped. A second offense was subject to a month in jail.
Over the centuries, as beer further secured its place, authorities increasingly relied upon revenue collected from beer. Eventually, the escalating tax rates brought about another sort of death, this time to the breweries. Taxes imposed by Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X in 1543 pushed brewers into open revolt. Their rebellion gained them a temporary reprieve but, before long, taxes were raised again.
In town after town, brewers felt the vicious bite of taxation. The situation in the city of Hamburg, Germany, illustrates the effect. In the late 1500s, the city boasted more than 1,500 brewers, but over the following century, as taxes soared, one brewery after another folded. By 1698 only 120 remained. Similar situations occurred throughout Europe.
Death in the Streets
Never idle, death kept another date with beer in England. For centuries, English politics had been discussed and debated in the ale houses of London. Generally, the various political factions would meet in a favorite tavern, discuss the issues at hand, hoist a few mugs, and be on their way. All seemed routine, but on the night of October 31, 1715, members of two rival political groups, the Hanoverians and the Jacobites, unwittingly scheduled meetings for the same taproom. Fighting erupted and soon spilled into the streets. In the days that followed, violent street brawls, which became known as the “Mug House Riots,” resulted in mounting casualties.
London also suffered one of the world’s worst brewery disasters. On October 16, 1814, London’s Meux & Co. brewery was conducting its daily routine when an employee noticed that a metal band on one of the giant wooden holding tanks seemed misaligned. It was. Later that day the band snapped, bursting the 22-feet-high, 4,000-barrel vat. Its contents slammed into the adjacent tank, rupturing it, and the combined wave of beer crashed through the brewery’s stout brick walls.
Without warning, the neighborhood was engulfed in a tidal wave of beer. Startled, the patrons of the nearby Tavinstock Arms tavern were frozen in their tracks when a river of beer swept through the door, flooded the taproom, and collapsed the floor, plunging customers and bar maids into a cellar rapidly filling with beer. It was a scene repeated throughout a five-block radius. While some residents fled to upper floors, others rescued neighbors from houses reduced to rubble, but still more took advantage of the disaster by gleefully diving into gutters flowing with beer. When the foam cleared, 12 lay dead, crushed in the path of the escaping beer. Eight more also perished from what investigators labeled “death by alcohol coma.”
Mass beer-related deaths weren’t limited to England. In 1855, Chicago was growing fast and trouble was brewing. The city’s immigrants were enflamed by an administration filled with prejudice. Pushed to the limits of tolerance, citizens considered a city proclamation forcing a Sunday closure of ethnic beer halls as the final insult. Owners called the law discriminating and illegal. On the following Sunday, they ignored the statute, opened the beer halls, and were promptly arrested.
Normally peaceful citizens armed themselves and marched on the courthouse. At the intersection of Clark and Randolph streets, they were confronted by a company of police. Fighting broke out and gunfire lasted well into the evening.
Organized rebellion also led to the first real beer tax in the United States. From the time of independence, American beer tax was largely indirect, typically in the form of licensing fees and duties on malt and hops. That changed during the War Between the States. On July 1, 1862, Congress authorized a beer tax of $1 per barrel.
Although brewers rallied behind the tax for the duration of the war, they objected to Congress having set the rate equal to that imposed on distilled spirits. Brewers recognized that linking beer with other alcoholic beverages was an early move by temperance forces in a battle that would stretch over the next 70 years. In that time, Prohibition would become the most distinctive, and most despised, feature of American culture.
Crime Steps In
Modern history has offered no more chance of escape from death and taxes than in all the previous centuries of human experience. In the United States, “sin taxes” increasingly became a favorite method of raising money, and state and federal lawmakers saw beer as an easy way of bolstering their treasuries.
Use of the sin tax was insidious enough, but many historians agree that the worst political blunder of the last century was Prohibition. As the country went dry, breweries died, and so did scores of Americans.
As the beer and liquor supply dried up, organized crime stepped in. There was easy money in supplying illegal beer and booze to a public ready to defy their government. In major cities, mobsters obtained ownership of the boarded-up breweries and barely concealed the production of beer. Inevitably, rival groups clashed over the territories they staked out. Tax-free alcohol sales were profitable and much too attractive for uncontested surrender. It was a situation that naturally fueled violence, eventually leading to mob wars, most notably the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre.
In 1932, while campaigning for the presidency, Franklin Roosevelt made repeal of the Prohibition law one of his objectives, but indirectly, taxes may have been a more compelling motive than stopping gangland bloodshed. FDR was certain that reopening breweries, in the middle of the Great Depression, would mean instant jobs for more than 150,000 out-of-work brewers. On the surface, it looked as though his motivation was employment and increasing the circulation of money through beer sales, but in his mind, Roosevelt must have been relying on the windfall of beer tax to help drag the government out of its financial crisis.
Whatever the reason, repeal and the beer tax helped refuel the economy. It also reintroduced the politicians’ friend, the sin tax, which became a revenue mainstay for the remainder of the 1900s.
Reprieve in the 21st Century?
In the last years of the 20th century, death, too, continued to use beer as his vehicle. During 1996, a herd of elephants in India broke into a rural hut and consumed a fresh batch of homebrew. Becoming aroused in their intoxicated state, they stampeded and crushed several villagers.
Sadly, beer and death also touched African nations, where people fashioned inexpensive and illegal beer by mixing home-fermented grain with various substances, including wood alcohol and gasoline. Those drinking the lethal potions suffered a dreadful poisoning, frequently leading to death. It was as if the Grim Reaper knew they couldn’t resist.
At times, we all attempt to steal brief moments from death and taxes. Through various methods, we sometimes manage to push them aside, if only for a time.
For many, escape is found in a relaxing glass of beer. It’s a short reprieve that doesn’t last. The two dark twins constantly lurk around the corner. Where or when they’ll next strike is unpredictable, but as Ben Franklin would smugly observe, there is one certainty: there’s no escape from death and taxes.