Sunday, April 07, 2013

Beer be Free! (80 years ago, today)

In the 11th century, King Canute ordered the ocean's tide to retreat. It didn't.

In 1893, the Supreme Court ruled that a fruit was a vegetable. Nature stated otherwise.

And, on 7 April 1933 —80 years ago today— Congress, in its collective wisdom, decreed beer to be non-intoxicating... sort of.

The 18th Amendment to the U.S, Constitution —which was ratified on 16 January 1919— had prohibited the manufacture and sale of "intoxicating liquors ... for beverage purposes". The wording left it up to Congress to define "intoxicating". Congress did so later that year, via the Volstead Act, defining intoxicating as any beverage containing greater than 0.5% alcohol by weight (the equivalent of 0.634% by volume).

National Prohibition would go into effect the following year, in January 1920, and it would be a long, dry, thirteen years until Congress would pass the Cullen-Harrison Act on 19 March 1933. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in keeping a campaign promise, signed the bill the next day, saying, "I think this would be a good time for a beer."

A few weeks later, on 7 April 1933, the bill went into effect, declaring, in effect, that alcoholic beverages of equal to or less than 3.2% alcohol-by-weight (4.05% by volume) were to be considered as "non-intoxicating", under the requirements of the 18th Amendment. Beer, of a weak sort, had become legal, even though Prohibition still remained in effect.

Family-owned F.X. Matt Brewing, of Utica, New York, would obtain the first brewery permit in the nation to sell beer. Another family-owned brewery Yuengling, of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, would deliver a case of beer to the President at the White House. And, throughout the nation, in celebration, 1.6 million barrels of beer would be consumed in a 24 hour period. If that had been just bottled beer - which it wasn't - the happy ruck would have consumed more than 529 million bottles of beer in one day.

Considering all that beer at the ready, a question begs to be asked. Since it had been illegal to brew beer before the stroke of midnight 7 April 1933, where had all that beer suddenly come from? Regardless, the day indeed was quite the national party, and contrary to the dire predictions of the 'drys,' relatively crime-free.

To be precise, it wouldn't be until nearly eight months later, on 5 December 1933, that the 21st Amendment would be ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment, and thus Prohibition. From that date on, beers of any strength, and wines and spirits, were allowed to be produced and sold, but only at the discretion of each state within its own borders.

Anchor Cue

Today, celebrate, yet be mindful of a milestone of U.S. beer history. Enjoy a beer brewed by an independent American brewery. You won't have to limit yourself to 3.2%.

  • For an excellent history of the rise and fall of Prohibition, read Last Call, by Daniel Okrent. A lot of the above post was culled from this book.
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