Mid-Atlantic Brewing News April/May 2006

Remembering Dry Philadelphia: From the Volstead Act to Repeal

By Rich Wagner

It's hard to believe that a city with a brewing tradition dating back to the days of William Penn and a neighborhood called Brewerytown could find its industry crushed with the passage of an amendment to the Constitution. But for thirteen years, from 1920 to 1933, America, at least by law, became "dry." And what may seem like ancient history, immortalized in episodes of Elliot Ness and The Untouchables, is how prohibition decimated and changed the course of an industry.

The reasons for prohibition were myriad, but saloons had developed an image problem and there were those who thought that gambling, prostitution, alcoholism and domestic violence could be eliminated by banning alcoholic beverages. Unfortunately, to borrow a phrase, “when alcohol is outlawed, only outlaws will be boozing!”

The temperance movement had been gaining steam for over a half a century and the tug of war between “wets” and “drys” was nothing new. Brewers argued that beer, unlike distilled spirits, shouldn’t even be classified as intoxicating. “Wet” legislators introduced bills to permit alcohol, as long as it was prescribed by physicians. War rationing was sort of a “tryout” for prohibition, and ultimately religious furvor combined with sympathy from the women's suffrage movement led to the Eighteenth Amendment passing into law, much to the chagrin of World War I veterans returning home. They had never had a chance to vote against it!

In 1920 there were over thirty breweries operating in Philadelphia and, with the coming of prohibition, they had to adapt. Some brewers switched to manufacturing soft drinks or ice cream. Many sold yeast, sometimes along with malt extract, which encouraged homebrewing. Others sold ice and rented cold storage space. As far as brewing went, the legal route was to make “near beer,” a cereal beverage containing less than one half of one percent alcohol. But regardless of what the law was, it was impossible to make people buy it! And since brewers had to make “high-powered” beer before de-alcoholizing it, there was a tremendous temptation to skip the last step and sell a product for which there was a demand.

Which brings us to the Volstead Act, the enforcement arm of this most unpopular law. The Philadelphia papers were full of stories filled with mystery and intrigue, cat and mouse games which sometimes put local police at odds with federal agents. In one case, an entire precinct was suspended for looking after the brewers’ interests instead of the law. Zealous enforcers were taken to court by brewers for trespassing without warrants and destroying “high-powered” beer waiting to be turned into near beer. Confiscated beer kegs disappeared from impoundment lots, and samples of high-powered beer “happened” to lose their kick en route from the brewery to the chemist’s lab. In a widely published letter, Adolphus Busch wrote the president that he had been told by the Federal authorities themselves that they were powerless to enforce the law due to the corruption the Volstead Act had wrought.

One writer of the day claimed it wasn't so much that people wanted beer (or alcohol), but they felt that a fundamental right had been taken away from them by the Government. Imagine coming to the "land of the free" only to find the land bone dry. It was reported that some immigrants actually went back to their homelands!

Ultimately the Federal government began padlocking breweries and millions of gallons of beer flowed into city sewers. Midway through the “noble experiment” enforcement had essentially brought illegal brewing to a grinding halt in Philadelphia, but in 1929 the stock market crashed leading to economic depression, and one thing that got FDR elected during that time was his promise to end prohibition and bring back beer!

Just three weeks before beer’s return, the Public Ledger proclaimed there was enough beer in the city’s breweries to fill seven billion glasses of beer: " … if the average foaming beaker contained about half a pint, that's the approximate number of glasses that could be filled from vats, brimming right now with beer… There are, in the seven Philadelphia breweries operating under Government permits to make near-beer, 448,229 gallons of brew…."  The article also noted that in Norristown, the Adam Scheidt brewery had nearly that amount in stock! Bulletin writer Laura Lee took a tour of Esslinger’s and quoted officers of the company as saying that the only thing they knew for sure was that the two $20,000 machines for removing alcohol from beer to make it near-beer would soon be "worth about a dime."

The Twenty-first Amendment “repealed” the Eighteenth, and on April 7, 1933 it became legal to buy and sell 3.2% beer. Only ten Philadelphia brewers had licenses and at the stroke of midnight, immediately following a sudden cloudburst, “wet” crowds throughout the city clamored to buy legal brew. Hundreds of trucks were loaded up at breweries and made their way to deliver the goods. At Schmidt’s, the same police who had been dumping beer down the drain had to protect the brewery from an over-anxious crowd of customers who stormed inside!

Nearly twenty Philadelphia breweries came back after repeal, but many went out of business within the first year. Their numbers dwindled year by year until Schmidt’s closed in 1987. But the remarkable part of this story is that citizens’ rights removed by a misguided amendment to the Constitution were restored through the enactment of another. So this April 7, lift your glass and celebrate 73 years of legal beer!