American Prohibition and Beer

When the United States celebrated its 50th birthday in July 1826, hundreds of breweries were in operation. By the turn of the century, more than a thousand existed. By 1920, though, none produced beer — legally, that is. An industry that was more than two centuries in the making was decimated in less than a decade and a half, thanks to the efforts of the prohibitionist Carry Nation and her like-minded friends in Washington.

The single most destructive force in U.S. brewing history was the Volstead Act — Prohibition — which completely shut down the industry for 13 long years (January 18, 1920, to December 5, 1933). Imagine having to endure the stock market crash of 1929 without a beer to cry in. No wonder they called it a depression!

Prohibition not only ruined a legitimate and successful American industry and put thousands of workers out on the street, but it also gave rise to underworld figures who capitalized on the situation to brew and sell bootleg beer for millions of dollars in ill-gotten profits. In Chicago, more than 700 deaths during Prohibition were attributed to mob-related business.

Another side effect was American Prohibition’s transformation of the Mexican siesta town of Tijuana into a beer boom town — a dubious distinction. More than 75 storefront bars operated on a main street only 600 feet in length.

Prohibition was the great experiment that went terribly wrong. According to government statistics, it cost the country more than $34.5 billion in lost tax revenue and enforcement costs. And it didn’t work.

Of the breweries that narrowly survived Prohibition to reopen in 1933, most got by on meager income from producing ice, soda pop, near-beer, and malt syrups (ostensibly used for baking but often used by clandestine homebrewers) or from brewing illegal beer for the thousands of speakeasies operated by the mob.

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