Some of you are going to want to punch me for what I’m about to write. Over the past few weeks I watched Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition, did a little reading on the subject, and have come to the conclusion that Prohibition is the greatest thing that ever happened to craft beer.
I know some of you are thinking, “but wouldn’t we have so many more breweries if they weren’t shutdown by Prohibition, and aren’t beer advent calendars the best thing ever?” But you would be wrong about that first thought.
If you live on the East Coast and have enjoyed a Stone Arrogant Bastard, or anything from Dogfish Head while in any place but Delaware, then you have prohibition to thank. If you’re a lady and enjoy the occasional drink at a bar in America then once again you better be thanking good ole Prohibition.
Now one of the things I like even more than beer is women. And by women, I mean only my wife (she reads this blog), and I enjoy the occasional beer or five with my wife when we go out. This is partially possible due to Prohibition.
The pre-prohibition saloons were for men only, but women were allowed in booze filled speakeasies of the Prohibition era. This cultural shift carried over into post-prohibition America. But prohibition didn’t just make it possible for men and women to enjoy great beers together, it also got those great craft beers into their hands.
Before prohibition the major breweries not only produced beer, but also controlled distribution, and owned most of the bars, saloons, pubs, etc. These saloons served only their brand of beer and no other. During this time you would never find a bar with 100 taps serving beers from all over the country. This business model led to a drinking culture that took a terrible toll on society. Saloons were men only establishments where a man wasn’t a man unless he could drink his entire paycheck away, walk a straight line out the door, and maintain enough hand eye coordination to successfully connect his fist with the faces of his wife and kids. In pre-temperance movement 1830, the average American was drinking nearly 4 gallons of pure alcohol per year (compared to 2.5 gallons today).
After prohibition, the Federal government gave states the right to regulate the production and sale of alcohol. This led to the three-tier system that we have today. Brewers can only sell to distributors, distributors sell to retailers, and retailers sell to the consumer. Some states make an exception for small breweries and that has really helped some craft brewers, but I would guess about 99% of beer goes through the three-tier system. Of course beer gets taxed at each tier and we pay more for it than we would without this system. But this system is also why we have so much craft beer all over the country.
The three tier system means that independent distributors aren’t tied to a single brand. They want to distribute what beer drinkers want to drink, and that means they want to distribute craft beer. Under the old system it would have been impossible for a small brewery to even get a foothold in any market outside their immediate neighborhood. The post-prohibition regulations aren’t perfect, but the current craft beer movement wouldn’t have happened without them. And those regulations would never have been put in place if America didn’t go through prohibition.