Monday, 19 January 2015

American brewing in the 1930’s – the end of Prohibition

As promised, more about American brewing in the 1930’s. This time from an article in the “Journal of the Institute of Brewing”, co-authored by A. Gusmer and H. Lloyd Hind.

The latter shouldn’t need any introduction as one of the foremost brewing scientists from between the wars. His “Brewing: Science and Practice” forms the backbone of my book “Peace!”.

British brewers must have been delighted with repeal. Their nightmare was for Prohibition to be introduced to the UK. Though after 1920 the possibility of that became more and more remote, with reduced pub opening times and reduced beer strength taking the wind from temperance campaigners sails.

Let’s crack on with the article.

“After fourteen years of Prohibition, the sale of beer in the United States was permitted on 7th April, 1933. At that time only beer containing 3.2 per cent, of alcohol by weight was allowed, inasmuch as such beers were declared to be non-intoxicating; and it was not until 5th December, 1933, that the so-called "repeal" took place, making it possible to brew beers of any strength desired. The conditions in the brewing trade of America are consequently very interesting at the present time. We see a very active trade, handicapped in some ways by the necessity to use old plant which had lain idle or been turned to other uses, but showing its virility by a desire to adopt the newest methods wherever it has been found possible to rebuild or expand.”
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 42, Issue 5, September-October 1936, page 415.

3.2% ABW, or 4% ABV, isn’t what I would call non-intoxicating. Sounds rather like a fiddle to get some booze back on the shelves before a proper repeal could be passed. I’d certainly take 4% ABV beer over nothing. Or the 0.5% ABW stuff they had to put up with during the dark days of Prohibition.

Fourteen years is a long time to have your brewing kit lying around unused. I can’t imagine many brewers investing money in maintaining it when there was no immediate prospect of being able to brew again.

Near beer wasn’t hugely popular:

“During Prohibition the brewers made a beverage which was allowed to contain not more than 0.5 per cent, of alcohol by volume, but large quantities of strong liquor were consumed, since Prohibition could not be enforced, and the nation was weaned from drinking such so-called beers. During the last few years of Prohibition only a few million barrels of "near beer" were sold yearly and this was produced by less than 100 breweries. It was, however, fortunate that a few more of the brewers had gone into the malt extract business, the malt extract being sold for home brewing, and had consequently kept their brewhouses in operation and condition, but the cellar equipment had mostly been dismantled. It was therefore necessary for the brewers to become very active, and, in order to lose no time, it was found most convenient to remodel and build breweries very much like those used before Prohibition.”
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 42, Issue 5, September-October 1936, page 415.

Allowing brewers to sell malt extract to home brewers seems like a pretty big hole in Prohibition. Was home brewing itself allowed? I would have thought not. So why allow production of something that can only really be used to make alcohol?

Obviously if you’re just making malt extract you don’t need most of your kit. Just the malt mill, mash tun and copper, as there won’t be any fermenting going on. That’s a pretty small percentage of a brewery’s machinery.

Now for some numbers.

“The figures for 1933 only cover the nine months period from 7th April when brewing was legalised. Despite the great increase in population the output for 1935 has only attained approximately 70 per cent, of the pre - Prohibition production of about 48,000,000 British barrels, but it is anticipated that 70,000,000 (100,000,000 American barrels) will be reached at no very distant date. The total beer sales for 1935 showed an increase of 12.5 per cent, over those for the year 1934. If the same ratio of increase is maintained during 1936, the consumption should amount to nearly 51,000,000 American barrels, or about 36,000,000 British barrels. The increase in cask trade amounted to 6 per cent, while that in bottles and cans reached nearly 33 per cent. In 1935 the proportion of sale in bottles and cans was nearly 30 per cent, of the total, compared with 25 per cent, in 1934. Ninety-five per cent, of the output is accounted for by eighteen States, New York leading with 17.4 per cent, of the total production, followed by Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan.”
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 42, Issue 5, September-October 1936, page 416.

Here’s the accompanying table:

Table I
United States Statistics of Fermented Malt Liquors
American barrels
Breweries operated.
Brls. produced. Brls. taxed bottled. Brls. taxed draught. Total sales. In store Dec. 31st.
1933 177 24,501,676 6,407,128 14,002,242 20,469,370 4,402,965
1934 593 43,155,166 10,022,344 30,012,163 40,034,507 5,437,955
1935 678 47,939,540 13,203,795 31,773,529 45,057,324 6,204,595
British barrels
1933 17,700,000 4,600,000 10,100,000 14,700,000 3,200,000
1934 30,800,000 7,200,000 21,400,000 28,600,000 3,900,000
1935 34,300,000 9,500,000 22,800,000 32,300,000 4,500,000

You can see that there was a swing towards bottled beer right from the start.

Notice how production was concentrated in the two most populous eastern states, New York and Pennsylvania, and four Midwestern states Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan. If you remember that table of pre-Prohibition nationally-distributed bottled beers that they all came from the Midwest.

For comparison purposes, here’s UK beer output for the same period:

UK beer production (British barrels)
1933 17,950,303
1934 20,182,308
1935 20,864,814
Brewers' Almanack 1955, p. 50

Next we’ll be looking at raw materials and costs.


Greg Hackenberg said...

The "determination" that 3.2 Beer was non-intoxicating was indeed largely a political move to water down the enforcement of the increasingly unpopular law. You might want to look into Maureen Ogle's book Ambitious Brew which covers the period extremely well, as well as a good chunk of the brewing history of the US.

And the homebrewing of beer was illegal under prohibition. It was not until 1979 that it was legalized. Just to muddy the waters, the homemaking of wine was always allowed.

Anonymous said...

Home brewing was definitely illegal during prohibition but a number of places ignored it, like Baltimore and Detroit. Here's an interesting bit from HL Mencken on his brewing:

This piece has more on HLM and also notes that the US government encouraged the production of malt extract as a sugar substitute in response to the first world war:

Craig said...

3.2 actually stuck around until the 1980s, especially in the south and west.

Malt syrup was made, and sold legally during prohibition, but wasn't "supposed" to be used for home brewing (wink wink). It was "intended" for use in baking and in desserts. Obviously that wasn't the whole truth. However, there were a few court cases based on the legality of selling malt extract. In 1928 Federal judges in Massachusetts and Michigan heard cases and ruled in both instances that the syrup itself was not alcoholic, therefore did not violate the 18th Amendment. The Michigan Judge, George M. Clark, basically ruled that if malt syrup was illegal simply because it could be used to make booze, then it should be illegal to "...sell any substance which may be used in making intoxicating liquor, such as sugar, cornmeal, raisins, grains, etc."

Phil said...

3.2 actually stuck around until the 1980s, especially in the south and west.

Maybe that's another reason - along with the standard 12oz 'serving' - for the relative lack of contemporary interest in sub-4% session beers: too much like the old days.

On home brewing, AIUI there was a loophole of sorts, inasmuch as you could (in theory) home-brew as much 0.5% near-beer as you liked. I guess nobody actually bothered (I assume it's much harder than brewing at a more usual strength) - if there had been a legally tolerated home-brewed near-beer scene, flying the flag through the years of Prohibition, it would left more of a mark (surely?).

JessKidden said...

3.2 abw is still mandated in several states (OK, UT, CO, KS, MO, MN) for certain types of retail licenses. See the Beer Institute's "Beer Almanac" page 23, "3.2 Beer Shipments by State".

As noted by others, the legality of homebrewing during National Prohibition was fought in the courts throughout the period. The brewing industry estimated in 1928 that, based on the amount of malt syrup being sold and that portion of the US hop crop that was not exported or used for near beer/malt syrup, between 17 and 26 million barrels of homebrew were being made annually - compared to 50m-60m bbl. of legal beer in the years before WWI and Prohibition.

Craig said...

From the Lima (Ohio) News, March 31, 1929

“...Enough malt extract is sold each week in Lima to provide the necessary sweetening for 800,000 loaves of bread, or more than 16 loaves for every man, woman, and child.”