All About Beer Magazine - Volume 28, Issue 3
July 1, 2007 By

As I write this, I am reminded that it was in April of 1933 that we got beer back from the prohibitionists after thirteen dry years. Prohibition lasted another eight months until December of that year, when newly-elected president Franklin Roosevelt was pretty much responsible for the end of Prohibition itself. But a prohibitionist streak extends from the founding of the nation to the modern day.

In the early days of our country, folks drank about three times as much as we do now. The water was bad, and alcohol was safer. Taverns doubled as community centers, sometimes even hosting church services. There was no morning coffee break, but there was often a booze break. Eventually, taverns became “grog” shops and saloons.

Anyone could drink, age was no barrier: if one had the money and could reach the bar, one could imbibe. (Age restrictions didn’t really come about until the repeal of Prohibition.) Such abuse soon generated the first temperance society (CT, 1789), which advocated moderate consumption of low-alcohol beverages. It wasn’t long, however, before “temperance” became abstinence, layered with religious overtones. Talk about religion intruding into the schools—mandatory temperance education became the norm. All drinking was alcohol abuse.

The Feds got into taxation with the first Congress in 1789, when the government was nearly broke. They started taxing imports. It is unclear whether this included only alcohol products or if it included other products. My source on this, Arnold and Penman*, seems to indicate that the import excise tax included only alcohol products, which wouldn’t be surprising, given our forefathers’ feelings about the British Stamp Act, which triggered our War of Independence. These imports totaled $2,130,224 gross revenue that year, for 3.8 million gallons spirits, 0.9 million gallons Madeira wine, and 90,000 gallons beer.

In 1791, domestic distilled liquors were taxed at 20-25 cents per gallon. Needless to say, this was very unpopular in a nation of farmer-distillers, especially in Pennsylvania, where, according to one narrative, “you could scarcely get out of sight of the smoke and Still Houses.” Indeed, it led to a revolt by the four western counties, (the “Whiskey Rebellion”), which was suppressed by President Washington.

By 1860, our nation’s population was at 31.4 million, and there were 1,269 breweries. German-style lager beer, introduced in 1840, was gaining ground over our traditional British-style ales, with 22.4 percent of the 3.8 million barrels produced that year. By the end of the Civil War, the mellower, lower alcohol lager beer was considered by many as a “temperance” beverage and the popularity of lager was increasing rapidly.

Americans were becoming more civilized and refined. As the rudeness and loneliness of pioneer life was dissipating, living standards improved. The abolishment of slavery after the Civil War generated a new feeling of pride and world citizenship, elevating the moral tenor of the nation.

A Refined America

Thus, we had a population holding an increasingly dim view of the problems associated with alcohol abuse. Prohibition, propaganda and religious fanaticism raged across the country; this despite an actual decline in drunkenness and alcohol abuse. (That’s the result of all those lonely bachelor farmers starting families out there on the prairie.)

Arnold and Penman note, “The development of lager beer was thought an especially fine example of a true temperance beverage.” All this led to a seven-fold increase in the consumption of (mostly lager) beer over its first 60 years from 1840 to 1900. This is especially noticeable in the period from 1870 to 1880 when beer production doubled from 6.6 million to 13.35 million barrels, while the population went from 38.5 million to 50 million (including 2.3 million immigrants). Beer production doubled during that period, but it was accompanied by a 16.6 percent decrease in breweries.

The brewer had become a respected member of the community. Soon, however, larger conglomerates gained strength, reducing the numbers of small local brewers. The stranger-beer supplier lacked local sympathy. From 1880 to 1890, the population increased by 13 million, with five million immigrants, giving the Prohibitionists new ammunition and creating the impression that brewers were un-American foreigners’ lacking patriotism.

In the period from August 1898 to December 1900 alone, 167 breweries closed and 87 more went into receivership. By 1914 beer, especially lager beer, had become the drink of the masses. Brewing was the nation’s fifth largest industry, but twenty-three states had turned dry by 1917.

Temperance Gains Momentum

Meanwhile, the Temperance movement had gone from promoting moderation and sobriety to total zero-tolerance and abstinence from all alcohol beverages; and from educating people on the virtues of self control to propagating growing levels of religious intolerance and bigotry. The Anti-Saloon League (ASL) was formed in 1893, and declared for National Prohibition in 1913. They only started to lose their heavy-handed influence after 1930.

The situation was complicated by the war. In the spring of 1917, shortly after we went to war against Germany, Wilson tried to pass a Food and Fuels Control Act to assist in conduct of the war. The ASL wanted to get him to declare Prohibition as a war measure: instead, the 18th Amendment was adopted November 21, 1918 (10 days after the Armistice took effect). Under its provisions, no food materials were allowed in the manufacture of booze after May 1, 1919, “until the conclusion of the war.” Wilson tried to get Prohibition relaxed as to beer and wine, but he was ignored by Congress at the behest of the ASL.

The 36th state (NE) ratified January 16, 1919, so Prohibition was to go into effect January 16, 1920. (Ultimately, all but three states—CT, NJ, and RI—soon ratified.)

Prohibition had to have had a huge impact on the nation’s economy, especially in the short time between passage and the closing of all production facilities. The 18th Amendment allowed only a year for the alcohol industry to adjust to being abolished, and even that grace period was severely shortened.

Oddly, the media of that era gave uncritical support of Prohibition. Of course, that was a time when newspapers were not expected to present a balanced view of the news. The great publishers were free to promote whatever views they desired, with no regard to opposition opinions.

Defining “Intoxicating”

The national Prohibition effort was directed against “intoxicating” rather than “alcoholic” beverages, and the new law defined what would be legally considered an intoxicating beverage as one having an alcohol content over 0.5% ABV. But how did they get that particular definition? Well, it came about by a rather casual adaptation of an IRS procedure defining taxable fermented liquor in 1867. Here’s the then-commissioner’s off-hand definition for his underlings: “discussing in a rather casual way, that a slight amount of alcohol, say one-half of one percent, would exempt the beverage from tax…This later hardened into a rule, and from that time forward…was regularly accepted (as the taxation level).” It was a question of taxation only.

Several subsequent Treasury decisions upheld this formula, even though it is clear that it was not up to them to define the level of “intoxication”.

On June 29, 1932, the Democratic National Convention adopted a platform plank that strongly favored the repeal of the Prohibition amendment and the immediate modification of the Volstead law so as to legalize the manufacture and sale of beer at 3.2 percent by weight/4 percent by volume. Their candidate, Franklin Roosevelt, was elected in November, 1932 by an overwhelming majority, with a Congress to match. Both houses passed the 21st Amendment by the required 2/3 majority even before Roosevelt’s March 4th inauguration.

The 73rd Congress was called into special session by Roosevelt to modify Volstead’s definitions, exempting 3.2 beer, and “…(T)o provide through manufacture and sale, by substantial taxes.” The measure actually passed on March 21st, and was signed at once to take effect seventy-four years ago on April 7, 1933. By October, many states had repealed their own Prohibition laws. Michigan was the first state to ratify the 21st Amendment, and Utah (oddly) the 36th, nosing out Pennsylvania by a few hours for that honor.

The 21st Amendment went into effect on December 5, 1933, a great accomplishment in that short time span. Did I mention that it was the Democratic Party that accomplished this remarkable feat? Sorry about the politics here, but the other party actually wanted to re-instate Prohibition at the start of WWII. Think about that. The real truth is that Prohibition was brought about, and maintained by a silly coalition of Republicans and Democrats and their onerous Evangelical Christian friends.

*The wonderful book History of the Brewing Industry and Brewing Science in America by Arnold and Penman (privately published in 1933), which I discovered in my own library, is rich in material about early American drinking habits, including a complete list of brewing statistics through the 19th century, complete with production, population, tax rates and other such trivia. You might find it on interlibrary loan.