Beer (& More) In Food

Beer: The Condiment With An Attitude!

That Oh So Wonderful 3.2% Beer Of April 7, 1933

Posted by Bob Skilnik on April 7, 2008

At this time in U.S. beer history, the brewing industry was still under the influence of German and German-American brewers. Lager was the most popular beer, not a surprise with wide-girthed Braumeisters still turning out the golden brew. One demonstrated point of their pride of product during the pre-Prohibition era was the brewers’ insistence of a lagering period of at least one month. Now with events as chaotic as they were prior to April 7, and with FDR’s delayed signing of the C-H bill on March 23, they would have had to be clairvoyant to have good-quality and properly aged beer conveniently ready for April 7.

So how did they do it? They used weak, and I would go as far as to claim inferior beer. In Chicago alone, there were 5 legally-licensed breweries that were pumping out real beer and then extracting the alcohol from the beer and selling it as “cereal beverage,” in other words, near beer. I made an earlier reference last April that the beer was “weak-assed” and some beer blogger made the remark with some disdain that there was nothing wrong with weak beer, or as geeks like to put it “session beer.” I agree; there is nothing wrong with lighter-alcohol session beers. If your group is babbling at the bar after something like 3 barleywines or Imperial Stouts, it might be an early end to your little bier klatsch…and that’s no fun. But think about what you would do if you were a brewer back then. How would you handle the grain and hops bill if you knew that in the final process, you would be required to boil the hell out of the beer and collect the vapors of alcohol for shipment to a government-bonded warehouse where alcohol was stored? Would you start with a nice heaving load of fine Moravian malts, maybe throw some crystal malt in for color and a little more body, and then dip into your supply of “noble” hops for character; maybe some for bittering and then topping off the batch with a touch for some added nose?

Of course not! You’d probably use some indifferent malt—and certainly not a lot—and most likely the minimum amount of hops (and who knows how old those hops were?) Why strive for a quality brew when you knew that the beers would be stripped of alcohol and then, either at the local speakeasy or on the delivery truck, the beer would be injected with alcohol through the bung-hole of the wooden barrel, giving rise to the Roaring Twenties speakeasy standby, “needle beer?”

To give you another example of the quality of the beer that was consumed on April 7 and somewhat beyond, city and federal agents were hitting the streets and testing beers in Chicago on April 7, 1933 to make sure the brewers were conforming to the 3.2% alcohol limit. Not one beer sample was in violation. On the contrary, the agents remarked that the beers were well below the legal limit. Why? Because the beer that rolled into the streets of the U.S.A. on April 7 was the indifferent beer that had been brewed for alcohol extraction, brewed to be near beer. It was brewed with the least amount of grains and hops and probably hard to argue that it had been aged for at least a month. What would be the purpose?

After the euphoria and initial beer supplies ran out throughout U.S. breweries, the suds factories started turning out “green” beer, beers that demonstrated little lagering, if any at all. It became so bad that Blatz (and others) began running full-page newspaper ads, thanking FDR for bringing “Democratic” beer back to the masses while pledging to the President and all beer drinkers in the country that they would release no beer, despite the demand, until it had gone through a proper period of maturation. That wasn’t “session beer,” my blogging critic, that was shit beer they were drinking in the aftermath of April 7, 1933.

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