Today marks the 80th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition through the passage of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution.
Many people think the American craft beer scene is really humming now, but it was unbelievable before the Prohibition era. Pretty much every town had its own craft brewery — since technology to store and transport beer was less readily available at that time. People wanted fresh beer, and the best way to get it to them was to brew it near where they lived.
Then came Prohibition. Almost all of the nation’s small craft breweries went out of business. In fact, decades after the repeal, Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco was for a time the country’s last remaining small craft brewer — and even Anchor tottered on the edge of survival.
The beer companies that remained in business during Prohibition were the mega brewers, who had the size and resources to diversify their business plan to include non-alcohol operations. The result coming out of Prohibition was that the only beer readily available in America was the light American lagers we see today from Budweiser, Miller and Coors.
This shaped the palates of American consumers for several decades — in essence training Americans to think beer should taste a certain way. Convincing the average consumer that beer could have serious body and complex flavor was a challenge — in fact, it remains a challenge to this day.
The uphill battle fought by Anchor and the other forefathers of the modern craft beer movement has brought us to where we are now — the diversity of our beer is simply amazing.
But imagine where it would be if not for Prohibition! If our local craft brewers had been allowed to refine, define and push the medium for the past 90 years uninterrupted, there’s little argument that American craft beer would be the benchmark against which all other beers are compared. (Some are making that argument now, in fact, suggesting that it clearly is now Europe looking to the U.S. as an example of how to push the boundaries of beer.)
Point being, let’s celebrate today the repeal of Prohibition, let’s celebrate how great American craft beer has become. But let’s also give a wistful thought to where we could be now and take solace in the fact that after all these years, it appears we are indeed headed in that direction.
Here’s the front page of The Daily Oklahoman from Dec. 6, 1933, the day after repeal.