I’ve been bitching and moaning for the last few years about April 7, 1933 being celebrated by various groups as the end of Prohibition when the real end was December 5, 1933. On that date, the 18th Amendment was nullified by the passing of the 21st Amendment. In the meantime, I’ve heard all the contorted stories by a dwindling number of revisionists who still want to hang their hats on April 7.
Today is December 5, the 75th Anniversary of the end of Prohibition. Period. And as expected, beer writers and bloggers are wringing their hands about the significance of the date, its meaning in the grand scheme of things and whether it should be seen as a day of celebration or reflection. And with these postings, there seems to be a need to also tie the date to homebrewing and its supposed illegality during the dry years.
I contend, however, that homebrewing, per se, was NEVER illegal; what was illegal was the way in which malt extract (called “syrup” back then) was labeled and advertised. To support this argument, I’ve included a section from my last book, Beer & Food: An American History. What makes this book so interesting is that while it takes a look at the early marriage of American beer and food and how this union was cultivated, and gives a fascinating glimpse into why there might be a beer in your fridge today, it really details the history and development of beer in the Colonies and the eventual United States of America.
It’s this history that too many beer drinkers, writers, amateur historians and bloggers don’t understand, and as a result, the same old tired beer stories are told over and over. For instance;
1.) If I had a dime for every uninformed claim that corn and rice were dumped into beer coppers as a result of Prohibition (“They were brewing lighter beers for women,” “Brewers wanted more profit so they cheapened their beers”), I’d be writing this entry from the southern coast of France.
2.) Speaking of Prohibition, one of my “favorite” quotes and quite often pouring out of the mouths of some respected contemporary beer writers and “authorities,” is this, “National Prohibition forever changed the face of the U.S. brewing industry and the beers of old.” However, if you look at the neverending changes in the character, quality and brewing of American beer, you’d see that change was and is constant in the industry. In the short time of just a few decades, U.S. beer went from a creature with British origins but often brewed with indigenous American ingredients and brought to fermentation in a manner that some Belgian breweries still use today, to a murky German lager, in short time. . .cleaned up as a golden-colored Bohemian-styled pilsner, soon changed to a lighter version of the product from Pilsen with the addition of costly corn and rice, a product that eventually enjoyed shelf stability with pasteurization, benefited from the change from brewing as an art to brewing as a science and the resultant “cleaner” brew with the isolation of a single and pure cell of yeast, widespread bottling, the use of crown caps, a demand for ice-cold beer, the use of mechanical refrigeration, a wave of brewery closings and consolidations throughout the country when British investors bought into breweries throughout the U.S., only to find that intense competition had taken the bloom off the industry’s rose, increased beer taxes during the Spanish-American War, the brewing of a mandated weakened beer of 2.75% alcohol during WW I, the cessation of brewing in the United States on December 1, 1918, the later resumption of beer with an alcoholic strength of 3.2%, and finally. . .National Prohibition. So I find it hard to accept the argument that Prohibition irrevocably changed beer and brewing in the U.S. Folks, it was changing the moment the first colonist fired up his brew kettle, and it has continued to see change to this very day.
3.) Homebrewing was illegal during Prohibition. No, it wasn’t. Read on.