The story of beer and brewing is a long and winding one. It is the sort of story best enjoyed by an open fire with your feet up and a nice ale or two to hand. Because it is about beer, it is generally a rather happy story, but, every once in a while, this story takes a twist into altogether darker and more depressing territory. The 1920’s in the USA is one such period of horror for us beer nuts – the loathed and feared Prohibition era…!
It is a minor miracle there is still an American Brewing Industry. By 1916 there were over 1300 hundred breweries in the USA, including many names we recognise today; the popularity of ales and lagers was at an all-time high. However, in 1920 a piece of legislation called The Volstead Act was passed by government and it became illegal to make, transport, or sell anything deemed to be an “intoxicating liquor” such as beer. (Personally, the whole idea disturbs me, I wake every morning and thank the gods of malt, hops and yeast that I was born in the 70’s and didn’t have to suffer this enforced prohibition.)
Stories of underground, illegal booze rackets abound from the period, but they rarely feature beer. Unlike underground distilleries that could whip up batches of hooky liquor with little threat of detection, breweries were often big businesses that couldn’t just quietly slip into the woods with massive boil kettles and mash tuns. It is hard to hide a reasonable brew operation!
How did the few breweries that survived the 13 years of Prohibition do it? Fortunately, brewers are a canny and wily bunch of folk, who also happen to be supremely resourceful and who saw plenty of opportunity in adversity. For them, diversification became the name of the game and making the resources they had work in other ways.
Both Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling refocused on a more legal vice: ice cream. Anheuser-Busch owned a fleet of refrigerated trucks and used them to transport their new brand of dessert. Yuengling became the Yuengling Dairy Products Corporation and kept making ice cream until 1985. They reopened their dairy division this year and you can buy the stuff from their website, although I can’t imagine it travels well.
Coors’ glass works (which had originally produced bottles for Coors beer) was converted to a porcelain and pottery company long before Prohibition was an immediate threat, taking advantage of the clay deposits around the brewery’s headquarters in Golden, Colorado. Apparently, Coors’ ceramics business, called CoorsTek, makes more money for Coors than its beer business does. They mass-produced ceramic tubes and rods for the military and dinnerware lines, and are now the world’s largest engineered-ceramics manufacturer.
Many breweries, including the manufacturers of Schlitz, Miller, and Pabst, and Anheuser-Busch turned their attentions to malt extract. They advertised it as a cooking product, labelling it as: “For bread making use one half as many tablespoonfuls of malt extract as formerly used of sugar. This will make the bread light and perfectly browned.” Although, most people who bought it didn’t go anywhere near an oven, instead making their own beer. Home brewing was no less illegal as commercial brewing and consequently many malt extract producers ended up being raided by Prohibition agents. A court eventually ruled that the extract was legal, and people were able to make as much, um, bread as they wanted. Interestingly, making wine at home was not illegal. How unfair is that?
Many brewers noticed their existing equipment could easily be converted into making dyes, many restructuring their operations to make them. Amusingly, brewery owners weren’t the only people who noticed the similarity between alcohol and dye production; in a tasty reversal, many dye chemical plants converted to make illegal hooch.
Other products brewers turned to in an attempt to keep trading included cheese (Pabst), soft drinks and confectionery (Schell’s) and distribution of case tractors, separators, silo fillers and road machinery (Minhas Craft Brewery). Many also produced “Near Beer”, a barely alcoholic drink that was made using the same equipment and which sounds pretty rank.
Of course, history tells us that the act was repealed in 1933, and the business of brewing could continue unabated. We can’t help wondering though, after 13 dry years, how good must that party have been?