Tag Archives: Speakeasy Ales and Lagers

The Prohibition Chronicles

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday afternoon, along with my wife and two friends, I attended the premier of  “Toledo: The Prohibition Chronicles”. The sixty minute documentary told the story of gangsters and bootleggers who operated in Toledo during the Prohibition era. In particular, it focused on the battle between Toledo bootlegger, Jack Kennedy and Yonnie Licavoli, head of Detroit’s Licavoli Gang, as they fought for control of Toledo’s illicit booze industry. The documentary was produced by University of Toledo alumnus, Charissa Gracyk, with help from her cousin Gillian Perdeau. The venue for the documentary’s premier was the Nelson Theater in the city’s Collingwood Arts Center.

Prohibition,  which outlawed the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol, was ushered in with the passage of the 18th Amendment. It took effect on January 17, 1920.  Prohibition lasted thirteen years. Repeal of the 18th Amendment was complete, with the ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933. Ohio, like some other states, actually went dry before Federal Prohibition took effect. Prohibition in Ohio started on May 27, 1919. Ohio voters had went to the polls on November 5, 1918 to vote on The Ohio Prohibition on Alcohol Amendment (also known as Amendment 2). Amendment 2 passed by a margin of 51.4% to 48.6%. One year earlier, on November 6, 1917, Ohioans had rejected Prohibition (Amendment 1), 53% to 47%. The Anti-Saloon League, one of the organizations favoring Prohibition, was actually founded in Oberlin, OH in 1893. In 1905, by which time it was a powerful national organization, it moved its headquarters to Westerville, OH. Indeed, if you ever find yourself in Westerville, you might consider paying a visit to the Anti-Saloon League Museum.

In an informative essay titled Raising Our Glass: Saloon Culture in Toledo, Ohio, Arnette Hawkins describes the scene in Toledo on the final Saturday evening before the start of Prohibition. Drinking saloons were filled to capacity, with the customers including many revelers from nearby Michigan, where Prohibition had already kicked-in. In the last few days before the start of Prohibition in Ohio (between May 24 and 26 to be exact), there were one hundred individuals in Toledo who were arrested for being drunk and disorderly. When the fated day arrived, and Prohibition took effect, some Toledo saloons closed their doors. A few of them hung signs in their doorways that read, among other things, “Back Soon” and “Voters didn’t think and now they can’t drink”. Others found ways to stay open, rebranding themselves as soft drinks parlors or social centers.

When Prohibition went into effect, breweries looked to alternative products and markets as a means to stay in business.  D.G. Yuengling & Son of Pottsville, PA, for example, transitioned into Yuengling Dairy Products Corporation, and produced ice-cream. Pabst Brewing of Milwaukee, WI also went into the dairy business, with cheese being their primary product. The cheese was produced on a farm in upstate Wisconsin and aged in the brewery’s ice cellars. Toledo’s Buckeye Brewery survived Prohibition by producing soft drinks such as ginger ale and root beer. A number of breweries produced malt extract during Prohibition. Obstensibly, this was for use in the baking of bread; some labels on the cans of malt extract even told how much to use in bread making. In reality, the vast majority of malt extract was probably used to produce homebrewed beer. In the city of Lima, OH enough malt extract was sold in one week to brew four hundred thousand pints (fifty thousand  gallons) of beer. Had it been used for bread, it could have produced sixteen loaves for every man, woman, and child living in Lima (clearly it was not all being used to  make bread).

Labeling tunnels beneath the old Jackson Brewery in Cincinnati, OH

By the time Prohibition started, Lager was the most popular style of beer in the United States. Producing Lager involved storing it at cool temperatures for up to several months (the name Lager comes from the German verb ‘to store’). This meant that breweries had large cellars (lagering cellars or tunnels), where they stored beer during the lagering process. As noted above, Pabst used their cellars to age cheese. Other breweries thought of innovative ways to use their cellars. Breweries in Mansfield, OH, for example, even considered using their lagering cellars for growing mushrooms or providing a haven for hay fever sufferers. A number of breweries closed during Prohibition and re-opened when alcohol production was legal again; Jackson Brewery in Cincinnati, OH was one such brewery. Yet others closed their doors, never to open again.

While Prohibition did have a negative impact on breweries, it is worth noting that the number of breweries was already declining prior to Prohibition (see chart below). For example, between 1900 and 1916,  the number of breweries in the United States fell from 1,816 to 1,313. So while Prohibition never did the brewing industry any favors, consolidation as a result of closures, mergers, and acquisitions, was already under way.

Number of Breweries in United States, 1873-2016 (Source: Brewers Association)

It was still possible to produce beer during Prohibition, with the stipulation that its alcohol content did not exceed one half of one percent. This is what was known an ‘near beer’. (Note: Beer with an alcohol content of 3.2% is often mistakenly referred to as ‘near beer’).

One of the beneficiaries of American Prohibition were breweries in Canada, who supplied bootleggers in the United States with beer. The length of Prohibition in Canada varied by province, ranging from two years in Quebec (1919-1921) to forty-seven years in Prince Edward Island (1901-1948). Even when under their own Prohibition restrictions, Canadian breweries were not prohibited from exporting Beer to the United States. In fact, in 1924, eleven small Canadian breweries established the Bermuda Export Company, a cartel, whose express purpose was to export beer to the United States. Such was the importance of the American market to Canadian breweries that, during the first five years of U.S. Prohibition, eighty percent of the Beer produced in Canada was exported to the United States.

Prohibition in Canadian Provinces (Source: Eberts 2007)

In 1930, under pressure from the United States, Canada made it illegal for their breweries to export beer to the United States. Bootleggers circumvented this restriction by indicating on customs forms that the beer was bound other markets such as Cuba or Mexico. In reality the bootleggers’ boats would offload their cargo in Detroit, and be back in Canada an hour later. Customs officials, probably bribed, turned a blind eye. Four trips between Canada and ‘Cuba’ in a day meant that these boats were dubbed the “fastest boats on water”.

Not surprisingly, there are a number of modern day craft breweries whose names are inspired by Prohibition. These include Southern Prohibition Brewing (Hattiesburg, MS), Speakeasy Ales and Lagers (San Francisco, CA), Bootlegger’s Brewery (Fullerton, CA), and 21st Amendment Brewery (San Francisco, CA). And, of course, there are dozens of beers connected to the Prohibition era by virtue of their names. Examples include Boscos Prohibition Pilsener (Boscos Brewing Company, Memphis, TN), 18th Amendment Imperial IPA (Bootleggers’s Brewery, Fullerton, CA) and Suspension Pre-Prohibition Cream Ale (Brew Keepers, Wheeling, WV).

The United States and Canada are not the only countries to experiment with a prohibition on alcohol. At different points in their history, other countries, including Finland, and Iceland have banned alcohol. There are a number of countries today where alcohol is not permitted. These are mainly Muslim countries and include Afghanistan, Iran, and Kuwait.

Further Reading:

Stack, Martin H. No date. A concise history of America’s brewing industry. EH.net. Available here.