Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Happy Days are Here Again!

"Pretty good. Not bad at all!"

Based upon an event that occured in the United States in 1933, many now celebrate 7 April as National Beer Day.

That day, after more than thirteen dry years of national Prohibition, the manufacturing, distribution, importation, and sale of beer again became legal in the United States.

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

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

Thirteen-plus dry years later, Congress didn't actually legalize beer but, prodded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, simply altered beer's parameters upward. (Roosevelt's campaign planks had included a promise to Repeal Prohibition.) The legislation it passed, the Cullen–Harrison Act, declared, in effect, that alcoholic beverages of up to 3.2% alcohol-by-weight (abw) —which is the equivalent of 4.05% alcohol-by-volume (abv)2— were now to be considered as "non-intoxicating"! On 22 March 1933, the president signed the bill into law, noting that "I think this would be a good time for a beer." The bill took effect two weeks later, on 7 April.

Unfortunately, stronger beers and alcoholic beverages remained prohibited. It wouldn't be until eight months later, on 5 December 1933, that a majority of states would approve the 21st Amendment, finally revoking federal Prohibition of most alcholic beverages.

So, it may have been 'small' beer poured and drunk across the nation on 7 April, but it was an all-day party that started (or at least legally started) at midnight. It's estimated that one and a half million barrels of beer were consumed that day.

Anheuser-Busch rushed a dray of its new team of Clydesdale horses to Washington, D.C. to deliver a just-bottled case of 4.05% Budweiser to President FDR at the White House. To their dismay, the drivers found that other breweries —including the Abner-Drury Brewing Company of Washington, D.C. and the Yuengling Brewery of Pottstown, Pennsylvania— had already been there, done that. A delicious defeat, especially considering future brewing history.

Shortly after midnight, a few miles to the north, Baltimore, Maryland's curmudgeonly scribe, H.L. Mencken, took his first legal sip of beer in thirteen years and un-petulantly declared it, "pretty good —not bad at all." And radio stations across the nation gleefully spun the hit song, 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.

  • According to CraftBeer.com, National Beer Day was first celebrated as such on 7 April 2009.

  • 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.

  • For more from YFGF:

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