For beer drinkers, the real tragedy of Prohibition was not a 13-year absence of malt beverages but the 60 years of mediocrity that followed. The era preceding WWI and Prohibition was a Golden Age of brewing, as crisp American-made lagers, lightened by the addition of corn or rice, bested Bohemian pilsners and English pale ales for blue ribbons and gold medals at international expositions in North America as well as Europe. Post-Prohibition beer? Not so golden. The only awards American megabrewers win are for entertaining ads that divert our attention from the insipid character of the products they promote.
But don’t blame the descendants of Frederick Pabst and Adolphus Busch. They tried their damnedest to resurrect the robust, flavorful beers that once made Milwaukee and St. Louis famous. In fact, they may have tried a little too hard.
For nine months prior to Repeal, beer drinkers had made do with a kind of light beer authorized by the Cullen-Harrison Act of March 1933, which modified the definition of “intoxicating beverages” in the Volstead Act from 0.5% to 3.2% abw (4.0% abv). After Repeal, U.S. brewers were free to resume brewing the pre-Prohibition lagers that were nearly as hoppy and potent as today’s IPAs. Lest the public confuse the resurrected pre-Pro beer with the 3.2 post-Pro beer, the brewers attached such descriptors as “prewar strength,” “high proof,” “extra strength,” “high test” and “14 percent original extract” to the labels of the newly legal brews.
A tardy U.S. Congress, which had been caught off guard by the swift ratification of the 21st Amendment, finally acted to promote moderation and establish regulations that would curb the excesses of the saloon. Its main achievement was to abolish the old system of “tied houses” owned by or beholden to brewers, and establish a three-tier system that legally separated brewers from wholesalers from retailers. But while it was at it, Congress decided to take a whack at strong beer, the perennial whipping boy of temperance advocates and the boogeyman of abuse since the age of Queen Elizabeth I.
A House Ways and Means Committee questioned the validity of such claims as “prewar strength,” and noted that the variation of alcoholic content “has little consumer importance,” that selling beer on the basis of alcoholic content “attempts to take advantage of the ignorance of the consumer and of the psychology created by prohibition experiences.” The committee’s report concluded that the abuse of such claims had grown to such an extent since Repeal that “the prohibition of such statements is in the interest of the consumer and the promotion of fair competition.” (Sixty years later the Supreme Court would come to exactly the opposite conclusion.)
On Aug. 29, 1935, Congress incorporated the committee’s recommendations into the Federal Alcohol Administration Act. The legislation mandated the labeling of alcoholic content, or proof, for all spirits and wines with an abv greater than 14% abw (17.5% abv). However, “statements of, or statements likely to be considered as statements of, alcoholic content of malt beverages are hereby prohibited unless required by State law.” While the federal legislation failed to limit alcohol content, state legislators, especially in the South and Midwest, were more than happy to cap beer potency on their own turf. Most of these alcohol ceilings remained in effect until just the last decade or so when lawmakers realized that the craft beer boom was leaving them behind—along with the all the jobs and tax revenue it generated.
Thanks to the language of the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935 and the subsequent limits on beer strength imposed by individual states, most brewers voluntarily limited alcohol content to 5% abv. Few complained. If you add the years of 2.75% “war beer” that preceded Prohibition and the nine months of 3.2 beer that followed it, nearly an entire generation of Americans had never tasted full-strength beer—much less strong beer.
Ever since the first stirrings of the craft beer renaissance, pre-Prohibition beers (generally lagers) have seemed poised to make a comeback: first in 1981, when the late mathematician and pioneering homebrewer George Fix won the best-of-show David Line Trophy at the Second Annual International Beer Competition in Phoenix for his Pre-Prohibition Pale Lager (6.25% abv); later, in 1997, when the Manayunk brewery’s Tom Ciszauskas brewed the first commercial resurrection, Harry’s Prohibition Pils; and again in 2010, when Coors’ Batch 19 (5.5%), inspired by a pre-Pro recipe, briefly focused attention on this misunderstood style. Sadly, American megabrewers’ longstanding abuse of corn as a brewing adjunct (sometimes as much as 50% of the grain bill) has turned a generation of American beer drinkers against any beer brewed with corn. As I sip from a can of Surly’s tasty corn-based #merica! all I can think is “What a shame.”