Under the Influence of History: Prohibition and Beer

Above: Prohibition officers raid a speakeasy. Flickr/dewarsrepealday

Since beer was first created thousands of years ago, mankind’s history has been closely intertwined with that of beer. Not only have historical occurrences greatly impacted the growth and development of beer, but beer has affected the course of history and society. Throughout our “Under the Influence” series, we’ll sample this thousand year history. To begin, let’s take a look at influence of history and society on beer during one of the darkest periods in American History: Prohibition. This is an issue close to my heart because of my newfound interest in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, as well as the often frustrating beer and alcohol laws that still exist because of Prohibition.

The Volstead Act was passed in 1919, which prohibited the sale of alcohol exceeding 0.5% ABV. The passage of the Volstead act was influenced by history and subsequently changed the history of beer in America. Prior to the passing of the Volstead Act, America had evolved and grown rapidly through the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution created an influx of movement into the cities. The poor working conditions during this time period coupled with overcrowding and low wages led to a variety of societal problems including poverty, prostitution, crime, and alcoholism. The abuse of alcohol and the subsequent violence and crime led to a growing support for the prohibition of alcohol. The support for prohibition was led by the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement and the Anti-Saloon League. The rising support for prohibition was coupled by the fact that the German-American pro-beer lobby became less outspoken as a result of World War I.

Prohibition failed as a social experiment, as Americans mostly switched from beer to hard liquor during prohibition because it was easier to produce and distribute illegally. The production and distribution of illegal alcohol led to the growth of speakeasies and organized crime in America with famous mobsters, such as Al Capone, controlling the illegal bootlegging industry. It was ultimately the action of these mobsters that helped propel the repeal of prohibition. The St. Valentine’s Day murder in Chicago and the subsequent negative press coverage spurred concern that organized crime had become too powerful and dangerous. This was coupled with the fact that one of the original arguments for prohibition, that it would serve as an economic catalyst, failed to take hold and the crash of Wall Street and Great Depression left the country broke. The Volstead Act was repealed in 1933.

Prohibition significantly changed society in United States, but it also had a profound impact on beer. Prior to prohibition, 1,392 breweries were open and only 164 remained afterward. Special permitting was required to manufacture alcohol and homebrewing remained illegal (it was not legalized until 1979). Restrictions were placed on alcohol content and price, which is why the lower alcohol content lagers cut with corn and rice play such a prominent role in American beer drinking culture today.

Fortunately, beer drinking and home brewing are no longer illegal and we are able to enjoy great tasting beer responsibly. The next time you enjoy a craft beer, you can have a better understanding that it owes its complexity to the evolution of history in the United States.