What if Prohibition never happened?

One of the Big Ol’ Bad Guys in the beer geek scene, and one which I have specifically mentioned many times is the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, also known as Prohibition. We often point to it and imagine if we could have avoided the failed experiment. Would we have an even greater, booming craft beer scene? Maybe not…


So, the 18th Amendment goes into effect, and what happens? Well, officially, the number of actual breweries drops to 0 in this country. On the Facebook Fan Page for the show (http://www.facebook.com/AleEvangelistShow) I shared an infographic which showed that the number of breweries PRIOR to Prohibition in this country had already started to decline from the mid-1800’s at almost exactly the same rate as the number of breweries began declining AFTER Prohibition.  The obvious conclusion we would be tempted to draw from the graphic is that the decline would just have continued almost without any effect from Prohibition. You can almost draw the line from Prohibition’s start to Prohibition’s end and it seems like it would just continue the decline from 1887. But would this trend have continued without the speed bump that was Prohibition in this country?

The guy who is really responsible for the state of homebrewing in this country is Charlie Papazian. I think it scarcely needs to be said that when it comes to brewing, he’s given a lot of thought to almost everything connected to brewing. He wrote an article last year [1] which details what he thinks would have happened if Prohibition never was. I think he  makes some compelling points, which are borne out by the infographic about.

Namely, he says that we have an insight into how American brewing would have looked without the bugaboo of Prohibition hanging over their heads. In Europe, they never criminalized alcohol, and what you have there is similar to our beer scene in the 60’s and 70’s. Big brewing consolidation has reduced the beer scene there to a stark and barren landscape of a few big brewers and little innovation.

When we read his speculations up against the declining breweries in the U.S.A. PRIOR to Prohibition we see in the chart above, well, they seem to agree. Prior to prohibition, you did have a consolidation of brewing. In less than 40 years, we lost 832 breweries. That is a 41% decrease, and cannot be ignored. Of course, we can’t forget that even prior to Prohibition, many states had enacted their own laws banning alcohol. According to one statistic, by the time Prohibition goes into effect, 65% of the country had already banned alcohol. [2] This certainly didn’t help new breweries get their feet on the ground, and quite likely forced many to shutter their doors. (My own ancestor, Brigadier General Neal Dow practically singlehandedly enacted prohibition in the State of Maine in 1851. I have been doing my level best to undo his work.)

It seems hard to accept that Prohibition might actually have helped to usher in what has become the golden age of brewing we’ve been experiencing in this country for 30 years. However, sometimes it takes drastic measures for people to realize what they had. It took Shays’ Rebellion (among other situations) to remind our founding fathers just what they had fought for in the Revolutionary War and to help drive us toward the U.S. Constitution. Without drastic measure of Prohibition, would we craft beer geeks have the kind of zeal that we have today? Would we have the more than 2,400 breweries we have in this country today? Papazian thinks not, and I think the evidence we have bears it out.

[1] – http://www.examiner.com/article/beer-what-if-prohibition-never-happened
[2] – http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3383

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