American Prohibition: 90 years ago beer was welcomed back!

On January 16, 1920, in the United States, a law took effect which prohibited the production, sale, import, and export of alcoholic products, including beer, and, in 1929 their consumption as well. Then what happened? Let’s find out together.

Simone Massenza
Simone Massenza

In this era of liberal ideas, open-mindedness, and, fortunately, respect towards individuals and their differences, it may seem strange that until recently we were a bunch of puritans.

Since accidentally and involuntarily discovering it in the Mesolithic Age, Man has always loved alcohol, and never dreamed of doing without it. Responsible and, above all, quality consumption is the way to go, as well as my personal recommendation.

But there’s a difference between responsible consumption and prohibition.

The temperance movement 

Between the 19th and 20th centuries, in the supposedly libertarian United States, temperance movements and sobriety clubs emerged. These were organized fundamentalist and moralist groups, like the Anti-Saloon League, the American Temperance Society, the Prohibition Party, or (my personal favorite) the Society for the Suppression of Vice. The purpose of such critical mass was to steer (Oh my Lord) the lost sheep back onto the right path, by law, and to hell with the concept of free will.

These groups took issue with everything: from the display of artwork featuring nude figures (oh, dear Michelangelo, repent and be ashamed of your lascivious David!) to medical texts that depicted the human body (better to become a surgeon without ever having seen a naked body), and going so far as to monitor private written correspondence (imagine if they had read your messages on Telegram), outlaw gambling and prostitution, and legally regulate the length of women’s skirts.

The pinnacle was when they wanted to prohibit intimate relations even for married couples, if deemed to passionate. Go ahead and do it with your husband or wife, but not passionately, and better yet reluctantly, otherwise it’s inappropriate.


Public enemy number one

Then they discovered public enemy number one: alcohol. That Americans are the most alcohol-thirsty people in history, a habit inherited from their British ancestors, aka the “thirstiest” on the Old Continent, is a well-known fact. As is the fact that excessive consumption was an objective problem at the time.

But for the sober temperance advocates, alcohol was seen as the cause of all evil: aggression, concentration disorders, absenteeism at work, divorce, and even economic stagnation (all that was missing were CO2 emissions and global warming). On June 2, 1851, the Maine Liquor Law passed, valid only in that state, the first form of alcohol prohibition in America. By 1880 it had been adopted by 14 other states.

In 1908 a law was approved which gave each individual county, city, or village the opportunity to determine, via popular referendum or ordinance, whether to remain “wet” or become “dry”.


Prohibition becomes law 

Thanks to new wealthy followers like billionaire oil tycoon John Davison Rockefeller (the richest man to have ever lived) and Henry Ford (the father of the automobile), the groups were able to exert pressure on Congress, leading to the approval, in 1919, of the infamous National Prohibition Act, later renamed the Volstead Act in honor of its primary sponsor, Republican Representative Andrew John Volstead.

The law took effect on January 16, 1920, as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, import, and export of alcoholic products, including beer, and, in 1929, their consumption as well.

After an initial compromise proposed by President Woodrow Wilson (who was opposed to prohibition) to set a limit of 2.75% ABV for fermented beverages, the limit was instead legally set at 0.5% ABV, more or less the same as one of today’s non-alcoholic beverages.

During that time, breweries, which numbered around 1,300 establishments from California to Maine, initially attempted to survive by producing tonics, a new alternative to fermented beverages, like Root Tea (made with sassafras bark), later renamed Root Beer in the vain hope of selling more, or reintroducing the historic British Ginger Beer (made with ginger). But after the initial success and novelty wore off, these were a complete flop.


A pint of near beer, thank you 

So they began producing alcohol-free beer, which, due to the technological limitations of the time, was made either through evaporation, by heating the beer to 80°C for 30 to 60 minutes, enough to remove the ethanol, or through dilution, by adding water until the desired and legally permitted alcohol content was reached.

The smaller breweries were the first to die out, and the larger ones began producing these new non-alcoholic beers, giving them evocative names: Lux-O by Stroh’s and Pablo by Pabst (today both Pabst), Famo by Schlitz, Vivo by Miller (today Molson Coors), Yuengling Special and Por Tor by Yuengling, and Bevo by Anheuser-Busch. These new non-alcoholic beers were called temperance beers or near beers, but, here too, the demand was weak (Houston, we have a problem).

Many breweries succumbed, 85%, and with them numerous American styles that, like mountain gorillas, were destined for extinction. Kentucky Common, American Lager, and American Porter, three of the most popular and widely consumed American beers, disappeared from circulation, and it took a century (2010s) to see them make a comeback.

Real contraband beer started to circulate, smuggled in from neighboring Canada, or better yet from those areas that were unaffected by the wave of Prohibition, and from Mexico, like the beer “imported” by Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr. (aka “Joe“), the father of future President JFK. It was also produced by our own moonshiners in the woods at night. But not all master brewers were willing to give in, and some began producing near beer that was a bit less “near” and a bit more “beer”. Such was the iconic and famous case of the Harvard Brewery in Lowell, Massachusetts.


Non-alcoholic beer with alcohol 

Founded in 1893 as the Consumers’ Brewing Company, it decided to start producing traditional beer once again, but to bottle it as non-alcoholic. Its success was guaranteed, and the brewery sold rivers and rivers of the blonde beverage like never before. Unfortunately, things got slightly out of hand.

Word spread a bit too much and, in August 1925, hundreds of American citizens, tired of drinking soda, staged and assault, not on a stagecoach (as in a true Spaghetti Western), but on a delivery truck! A colossal brawl ensued, with screaming and punching, even below the belt, as men and women fought in the middle of the street to grab even just one coveted keg.

The police were forced to intervene in order to quell the riot, and, upon realizing the “special” nature of the aforementioned beer, called their higher-ups: the Feds, specifically those from the Bureau of Prohibition, a newly formed agency with 1,520 agents dedicated exclusively to combating alcohol.

They promptly headed to Harvard, but their entry was denied due to lack of a search warrant. However, hearing excessive and unjustified commotion behind the entrance door, the Bureau decided to grab the bull by the horns and break it down.

They caught the entire staff in the act of emptying kegs of beer into the nearby Meadow Brook River. 380,000 liters of beer. A LOT of beer! The events in Harvard were neither unique, nor isolated. The American brewing landscape was a disaster.


Beer and crime 

The Roaring Twenties were characterized by closed breweries, lost beer styles, near beers, fake near beers, unwanted tonics, contraband real beers, and terrible self-produced and illegal beers.

A scene that was embellished by gangsters like Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone, aka Scarface, who was always front and center, controlling the illegal alcohol trade (worth billions of dollars) and an entire galaxy of tens of thousands of speakeasies (or blind pigs or blind tigers), which emerged in 1888 due to increased taxes on commercial licenses, where alcohol was served to the sound of boogie-woogie, foxtrot, and Charleston.

After ten years of conflicts, costs, disgruntled citizens, and a decline in tax revenue (amounting to several billion dollars), despite the fact that deaths from liver cirrhosis and arrests for public drunkenness were down, the United States was forced to impose, after the 1929 stock market crash and in the midst of the Great Depression, new taxes on big business and on the wealthiest taxpayers. Billionaires like John Pierpont Morgan Jr., son of banker J.P. Morgan, feeling the impact in their wallets, shifted from supporting temperance to total liberalization, endorsing the new candidate and future President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his slogan: “A new era and a beer for everyone!“.

It’s a good day for a beer 

On March 12, 1932, just eight days into his presidency and during the launch of his New Deal, FDR declared: “I think this would be a good time for beer!“.

Nine days later he approved the Cullen-Harrison Act, also known as the Beer-Wine Revenue Act, which, after thirteen years, made beer legal again, as long as it remained below 3.2% ABV. Approximately one year later, on February 17, 1933, known as New Beer’s Eve, the new Blaine Act put an end to Prohibition and went into effect as the 21st Amendment, the only time in American history that an amendment was repealed.

At 5:27pm on December 5, 1933, millions of Americans, including adults who had waited 14 years for this special toast, could once again order a pint, and within just 24 hours, 1.8 million hectoliters of beer were consumed, the equivalent of 1.5 million kegs.

As a result of Prohibition, only a few large industrial breweries that were able to withstand the decade ultimately survived. It wasn’t until the 1970s, with the American Renaissance, that we finally started drinking good beer again. A small legacy of the 1908 devolution remains in 33 out of the 50 states, which allows 83 communities in the United States (only 0.5% of the population) to remain dry country to this day.