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The day the beer flowed again

April 07, 2008|Maureen Ogle | Maureen Ogle is the author of "Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer."

At 12:01 a.m. on April 7, 1933, sirens, fire alarms and train whistles shrieked. In Chicago, harried bartenders scrambled to serve crowds that stood 12 deep. At Pabst Brewing Co. in Milwaukee, thousands of onlookers cheered as company employees hoisted barrels and crates onto trucks. About 800 people stood in the rain outside the White House, watching as a man hopped out of his vehicle and unloaded two cases of beer. Secret Service agents accepted the goods, a gift for the chief executive from one of the nation's brewers. "President Roosevelt," read a sign on the side of the truck, "the first real beer is yours."

After 13 dry years, legal beer had returned to the United States. It may seem silly to commemorate that day's 75th anniversary. After all, it's only beer, and we've got bigger things to think about. War. Global warming. Soaring gas prices. Crashing home prices. But that's all the more reason to celebrate. We could use a reminder of the way action inspires hope, and hope inspires action.

In early 1933, the height of the Depression, nearly 25% of adults in this country were out of work. Foreclosure and bankruptcy plagued every community. A cascade of bank failures had destroyed the savings of millions of people. Children skipped school for lack of clothes and shoes. Men and women stood in soup lines, and the homeless and jobless marched in angry protests.

On March 4, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated. He had campaigned on the promise of a "new deal" to repair the economy, a vague plan that was short on specifics but long on ambition. But he had also made one definite pledge: to repeal Prohibition.

Today, we look back on Prohibition as an exercise in temporary insanity, but the 13-year experiment in sobriety was rooted in our quintessentially American faith that we can perfect the world. A broad cross section of people -- men and women, urban and rural, young and old -- supported the ban on alcohol because they believed that it would reduce crime, alleviate poverty, strengthen the family and nurture a more perfect union.

That lofty vision collapsed under the weight of reality. Prohibition spawned an underground economy devoted to making, shipping and selling booze. The officials trying to enforce it earned more from bribes, kickbacks and the resale of confiscated alcohol than from their meager salaries. The poison of such corruption permeated daily life. It undermined respect for the Prohibition amendment and, by extension, for the Constitution itself. Worse, Americans realized that in banning the production of alcoholic beverages, one of the nation's largest and most heavily taxed industries, they had closed the spigot on a significant source of both jobs and revenue.

By the early 1930s, most Americans were done with the experiment. Emboldened by Roosevelt's election, "wet" members of the lame-duck 72nd Congress managed to pass a repeal amendment just days before FDR took office. But two-thirds of the states had to ratify the measure -- a process that would take months.

So on March 13, the president asked Congress to legalize beer right away. The plan was elegant in its simplicity. The 18th Amendment merely banned "alcoholic" beverages; it did not identify what those were. That was spelled out in the Volstead Act, which defined an "alcoholic" and "intoxicating" drink as one containing more than 0.5% alcohol. Solution: Rewrite Volstead to categorize "nonintoxicating" beverages as ones containing up to 3.2% alcohol -- the same as most pre-Prohibition beer. Brewers could reopen their doors, hire workers and start paying $5 a barrel in federal taxes. (Winemakers and distillers would have to wait eight months for the ratification of the 21st Amendment. Even the most creative congressman had trouble labeling 80-proof spirits as "nonintoxicating.")

Versions of that plan had been proposed and defeated in every Congress since 1920, but Roosevelt gambled that he would succeed where others had failed. It was not the only risk he would take. A few days earlier, he'd asked the nation's remaining banks to temporarily shut their doors, knowing that might spark more panic.

The economic chaos had spawned cynicism, hopelessness and, above all, fear. Roosevelt believed that bold leadership and decisive action would nurture trust, that trust would inspire hope and that hope would move the nation. But many of FDR's economic proposals bred their own stew of unease; no one knew, for example, if the bank holiday would succeed or provoke yet another financial crisis. The beer bill, in contrast, offered comfort because it would ignite an immediate, predictable and positive result: jobs and tax revenues.

Congress heeded the call. On March 22, FDR signed a bill legalizing 3.2% beer. Within two days, brewers in Milwaukee had hired 600 workers. Beer makers in New York announced plans to spend $22 million refurbishing their dilapidated plants. Detroit automakers scrambled to supply brewers and their wholesalers with $15 million in new cars and trucks. In the 48 hours after the beer taps opened April 7, brewers paid $10 million in federal, state and municipal taxes ($155 million in today's dollars).

Beer alone would not undo the economic disaster or heal the nation's spiritual malaise. But at a moment of despair, FDR's words and actions inspired Americans to believe the country could steer a new course. Over the next few months, the president proposed, Congress approved and millions cooperated in implementing a host of innovative (and untested) projects designed to prime the economic pump and get people back to work.

So today, let's take a moment to honor the day hope arrived in a glass.

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