Thursday, December 04, 2008
It's The Session, beer blogging on a common topic, and this month it's "the repeal of Prohibition." See all the links soon here.
When I first thought about the topic for this month's Session, I thought about the eerie numerological aspects of the topic. The 18th Amendment being repealed by the 21st Amendment, the legal age of drinking being 18 and 21 in different States and countries, etc. Oooh! Scary! The beauty and symmetry of the concept was completely undermined by the fact that this is the 22nd Session, though. Oh well.
Then, I thought about celebrating the repeal of Prohibition and I got all giddy because...well, because I just happen to enjoy celebrations, in general. Of course my conscience wouldn't allow all that enjoyment without some thoughtful reflection (curse you, conscience!), so I began to wonder what exactly we were going to be celebrating, after all. Is it the end of Prohibition? The ability to drink beer? The revitalization of the brewing industry? I settled on something a bit more general: freedom, itself.
To this end, let's start with the absurdity of an Amendment to the Constitution that outlaws drinking alcohol. Talk about restricting freedom! It boggles the mind. Of course, the Constitution doesn't mention drinking but from what I've read, the development process involved more than a little of alcoholic fuel. I'm also willing to bet that if the Founders had ever imagined some dolt (or some great number of dolts, to be even more unbelievable) would even think of trying such an outlandish stunt, they would have enshrined the right to drink alongside some of our other enumerated rights in one of the first ten Amendments (My vote? Right after the right to bear arms...).
When the right to brew, sell and transport beer was revoked (drinking was actually not prohibited!), there was a very vibrant brewing scene in the United States. There were tens of thousands of breweries in this country before prohibition. Only a few dozen survived the 14 year prohibition. In fact there are probably less than twenty pre-prohibition breweries still in operation today. Almost all of those breweries made lagers, exclusively. Some produced ales. Some produced a range of lagers that would be considered interesting by today's standards but most of today's craft beer fans would consider the beer scene rather dull by comparison. Of course that was no reason to ban them!
After years of alcohol-fueled organized crime, which produced criminal elements that threatened our freedoms and livelihoods but also produced enhanced law enforcement entities and tactics which continue to threaten our freedoms and livelihoods, this farce of an Amendment was repealed. Yay! Interestingly, ten States never ratified the 21st Amendment! Michigan was the first State to do so on April 10, 1933. While I am proud of that fact, I would be much prouder if my State had been one of the two that did not vote for but repudiated the 18th Amendment (kudos, Rhode Island and Connecticut!). This act was something to celebrate more because of the wrongs it corrected than the rights it conferred. I like to think that we all had the right to brew, sell and drink beer as one of our unenumerated rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (hoppiness?).
As a homebrewer, there are actually reasons to celebrate Prohibition, rather than its repeal. Prohibition caused an explosion in the hobby of homebrewing. People brewed beer because they couldn't find any to buy. Like the homebrewing of old times, it became a necessity. The beer produced was often barely drinkable but did produce the desired effect. I imagine there were a few families who worked out pretty good brewing techniques and recipes, some of which may have become family-recipe-heirlooms, but I can't cite an example. Still, the homebrewing scene did not actually flourish under these conditions. Quantity did not equal quality, so to speak. If it had there would have been a variety of malted grains and hops available on a commercial basis, instead of the ubiquitous cans of Blue Ribbon and bags of sugar that everyone remembers hearing about. Given enough time, though, it probably would have grown much more sophisticated.
Fast forward to the future, after the 21st Amendment was passed and prohibition was repealed. Hooray! Breweries started up again and people began toasting their good cheer with the, now more consolidated and consistent, Light American Lagers being legally brewed in this country. Homebrewing went away for a long time. As a homebrewer and a craft beer lover, this was curiously a "dark age" of beer in America (why do we celebrate the Pre-Prohibition Pilsner, if it wasn't somehow better than the post-Prohibition Pilsner?). I'm all for celebrating the repeal of that onerous Amendment but we all need to realize that the repeal did not revitalize the industry as much as consolidate it. The few inventive breweries that existed before prohibition were largely wiped out by the 14 year hiatus. What survived was the thin watery light lagers that we know today. These beers competed for years and years with each other trying to carve out market share with clever ads, against nearly identical beers in different cans.
What I truly celebrate is the freedom produced by a vibrant society that enjoys the more refined and varied styles of beer that are being produced by the craft beer industry, today. Obviously, it is-at least partly-financial freedom that fuels this explosion in beer appreciation. Good beers are extremely expensive compared to mass market beer. Yet, even in these tough economic times, enough people are purchasing them to allow big expansion in the industry. Look at the dozens of 400 barrel fermenters laying outside the Bell's Brewery in Comstock, Michigan (one State recession, anyone?) being readied for installation if you don't think the industry is thriving. People have the time to enjoy good beer and the money to buy it, as well as the time to invest in learning about the subject to better appreciate it. A "nasty, brutish and short" existence this is not!
Homebrewers are no longer brewing out of necessity. They brew good beers because they enjoy the fruit of their labors. They enjoy the artistic elements in brewing and the pride in a job well done. They enjoy the fact that they can produce an excellent product that rivals any commercial example at home. They also would not be able to expend the time and efforts at such a trivial matter without financial and physical freedom. Oh, it's still true that beers brewed at home are cheaper than their counterparts purchased in a store but that's not the real reason homebrewers brew. The differential is not that great. Homebrewers brew because they enjoy the hobby and they want to become better brewers.
So, rather than simply celebrate the end of prohibition, which actually stifled artisinal brewing and homebrewing, I'd like to celebrate the freedom embodied in the act of ending so onerous a restriction on free individual expression. My celebration on December 5, 2008 will salute the flowering of free societies in the world which allows us all the freedom and leisure time to enjoy great craft beer and the homebrewing hobby as we now do. Now we have craft brewers that use the imagination and freedom that a vibrant and free society allows and encourages, to produce beers that continuously inspire and astound us. They are artists of fermentation and deserve all the wonderful rewards that such work receives. The craft beer industry and the homebrewing hobby have enjoyed such fantastic success that it seems impossible that it can continue to grow and expand as it does. Is there a craft beer/ homebrewing bubble that's about to burst? I hope not!
So, when you celebrate the ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5th, as we all should do, celebrate the slow and inexorable march to individual freedom that it exemplifies and not just the right to brew beer again. And realize that this march is far from over. We have a long way to go but at least we can enjoy great beer during the march!