Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Happy Days are Here, Again! It's Session Beer Day!

We celebrate 'session' beer across the U.S. today, because of what many American 'craft' breweries are doing now, and because of something that beer and whisky writer, Lew Bryson, started a few years ago ... and because of what transpired on this day, eighty-two years ago in 1933.

On 7 April, in 1933, after more than thirteen years of national Prohibition, the manufacturing, distribution, importation, and sale of beer had again become legal in the United States.

Well, sort, of. There was a 'small' beer catch. Prohibition remained in effect.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution never outlawed beer, wine or liquor, per se. It prohibited the "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors" [emphasis mine]. To define that, Congress passed additional, enabling legislation, the principal bill of which which was the National Prohibition Act (commonly known as the Volstead Act, after the Congressman who wrote it). In it, Congress defined "intoxicating beverages" as containing 0.5% alcohol-by-weight or more, and thus illegal under Prohibition, which took effect 20 January 1920. 1

What happened today, in 1933, was that Congress didn't legalize beer, but altered its parameters, upward. The Cullen–Harrison Act declared, in effect, that alcoholic beverages of up to 3.2% alcohol-by-weight (abw) —or 4.05% alcohol-by-volume (abv)2— were now to be considered as "non-intoxicating."

Thus, on 7 April 1933, even though Prohibition still remained in effect, beer, of a 'small' sort, had become, by Congressional determination, "non-intoxicating', and thus legal. Anything stronger than 3.2% abw (or 4.05% abw) was still prohibited until the passage of the 21st Amendment on 5 December 1933, which would finally revoke federal Prohibition.

It may have been 'small' beer poured and drunk across the nation, but it was a big, big party at midnight. (Hmm! If beer had been illegal to manufacture, where did it all suddenly come from?) Baltimore, Maryland's own curmudgeon-scribe, H.L. Mencken, would take his first 'legal' sip, and declare it, un-petulantly: "pretty good —not bad at all." And radio stations across the nation would air the song, Happy Days are Here Again.

Happy Session Beer Day!

Based on that event of 1933, many have renamed 7 April in its honor, as National Beer Day. But other than remembering history, there is indeed another reason to celebrate today.

Beer and whiskey writer, Lew Bryson, began a campaign several years ago to bring flavorful, lower-alcohol beers back to the United States. But he and we don't call such beer 'small' beer, anymore. Now, we call it 'session' beer.

In the 2010s, his and others efforts are bearing fruit, er, beer, as more breweries, every day, are brewing 'session' beers. 3. To celebrate, Mr. Bryson has declared 7 April to be Session Beer Day. A beer doesn't have to be big to be bold.

Meet up with friends today and drink a 'session' beer, or two ... and "all together, shout it now, happy days are here again!"

So long sad times, so long bad times,
We are rid of you at last.
Howdy gay times! Cloudy gray times,
You are now a thing of the past.

Happy days are here again,
The skies above are clear again.
Let us sing a song of cheer again,
Happy days are here again.

All together, shout it now. There's no one
Who can doubt it now.
So let's tell the world about it now,
Happy days are here again.

Your cares and troubles are gone.
There'll be no more from now on.

Happy days are here again,
The skies above are clear again.
Let us sing a song of cheer again.
Happy days are here again!
Happy Days are Here Again
Milton Ager (music); Jack Yellen (lyrics). 1929.
  • Untappd —a social networking service on which users rate beers as they drink them— played fast and loose the truth yesterday, implying that 7 April 1933 was the day that Prohibition ended. "Rejoice and raise a toast to National Beer Day, April 7th! It was 82 years ago that Prohibition was repealed, opening the doors for America’s great beer revolution." Untappd isn't the only one, however. Every year, someone else seems to trot out the wrong story, including the august Brewers Association which went way wrong in 2007. The story of that: here. Regardless, raise a toast. today, to Session Beer Day! Spread the word on social media: #SessionBeerDay.

  • 1 How could Prohibition even ever have occurred in the first place? Read "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition", by Daniel Okrent. It's a fascinating history, and a sober (pardon the pun) reminder to remain vigilant. Two more suggested reads (among several) on American beer history:
  • 2 Modern 'craft' breweries measure alcohol by volume (abv). Thus, 3.2% alcohol-by-weight (abw) is the equivalent of 4.05% alcohol-by-volume (abv).
    Alcohol by weight is a measure of alcohol content of a solution in terms of the percentage weight of alcohol per weight of beer. [...] Alcohol by volume is a measure of alcohol content in terms of the percentage volume of alcohol per 100 mL total volume of beer. [...] For official and accurate determinations, the alcoholic strength of a beer was historically measured or originally reported in percentage alcohol by weight in the United States, with most of the rest of the world preferring percentage by volume. As of 2011, the United States allowed reporting by volume for labelling and certification purposes.
    The Oxford Companion to Beer: Oxford University Press, 2012.

  • 3 What is American session beer? Lew Bryson defines it as:
    • Alcohol level of 4.5% alcohol by volume (abv) or less.
    • Flavorful enough to be interesting.
    • Balanced enough for multiple pints.
    • Conducive to conversation.
    • Reasonably priced.

  • For more from YFGF:

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