At 12:01 a.m., 74 years ago, beer became legal for the first time in thirteen years. Though it would be eight more months until Prohibition officially ended (on December 5), President Franklin D. Roosevelt kept his first campaign promise by encouraging Congress to modify the Volstead Act and they passed the Cullen-Harrison bill, which FDR signed it into law on March 23. The bill allowed the sale and manufacture of low-alcohol beer (3.2% alcohol by weight/4.0% by volume), along with light wines, too. For brewers, it represented a return to brewing and those that had remained opening making non-alcoholic products quickly retooled. Those that had been shuttered for over a decade had a harder time re-opening, but some did manage it. Ultimately Prohibition did irreparable harm the industry as a whole and less than half of America’s breweries did not survive.
And we’re still waiting for an apology from all the temperance nutcases who thought making alcohol illegal would turn society into a utopia. If anything, it made things much, much worse. Virtually every societal ill temperance nutjobs believed prohibition would fix were only made worse. Instead of a more civil, crime-free world, crime actually increased significantly, not least of which directly is directly attributable to bootlegging and bathtub gin. An entire new enforcement agency was created to deal with all the new criminalized behavior by the Volstead Act, made famous by Elliot Ness and his “Untouchables.” And that was in part because corruption became rampant especially among law enforcement and local officials who took bribes and looked the other way while speakeasies operated with homemade and illegal booze. This corruption in turn made the average citizen’s respect for the law evaporate.
All those people who used to work at breweries, wineries, distilleries along with their salesmen, advertisers, marketers, distributors, delivery men, and on and one were suddenly out of a job, causing much economic harm. It’s no mere coincidence that our worst economic depression took place during this same period of time. In every sense this experiment was ignoble and failed to achieve any of its goals.
Originally, and for many years after, brewers referred to April 7 as “New Beer’s Eve” Although the fortunes of many breweries and the industry as a whole ebbed and flowed, overall the number of breweries continued to plummet until the early 1980s, when the microbrewery revolution began to reverse that trend.
The Brewers Association, a trade organization for small and regional breweries, is reviving the holiday under the name “Brew Years Eve” and encouraging their members to host celebrations all over the country. Their website lists hundreds of events by state
From their press release:
While the full repeal of Prohibition came on December 5, 1933, a modification of the Volstead Act legalized beer with 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (4.0 percent by volume) starting on April 7 of that year. In fact, one of the first public delivery of beer went to the White House to honor Franklin Delano Roosevelt who had won the presidency in part because he favored repeal. From April 7 on, the country’s brewers were back in business and Americans enjoyed legal beer for eight months before wine and spirits were once again legitimate.
Today, brewers bring Americans a lot more than just beer. Since the 1970s, the ranks of brewers have grown to include more than 1400 small, traditional and independent craft beer makers. Each contributes jobs and a variety of local and federal taxes to the economy.
To learn more about the history of Prohibition, here are some interesting links:
- Alcohol Prohibition Was A Failure, Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute
- Alcohol, Temperance & Prohibition, from Brown University
- April 7 is NOT the 74th Anniversary of the End of National Prohibition, by Bob Skilnik, with an excerpt from his wonderful book Beer & Food.
- Prohibition: A Lesson in the Futility (and Danger) of Prohibiting, from the book Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do
- Schaffer Library of Drug Policy History of Alcohol Prohibition
- Temperance & Prohibition History, from Ohio State
- Thinkquest’s Prohibition — The “Noble Experiment”