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How America’s Iconic Brewers Survived Prohibition

January 29, 2019 in History

By Christopher Klein

January 17, 1920, marked a dark day for American brewers. At the stroke of midnight, America became a dry country under Prohibition, with over a thousand producers swiftly banned from selling their chief commodity: alcohol.

Prohibition forced brewing companies to adapt or die—and many did. According to Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, out of the more than 1,300 brewers in operation in 1915, no more than 100 survived. However, they included some of the most iconic names in brewing—such as Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Miller, Pabst and Yuengling.

“What separated the companies that made it from the ones that didn’t is what they had to begin with at the start of Prohibition,” Ogle says. “The Pabst, Busch and Miller families had all invested in real estate holdings across the United States.”

These now-dominant companies had also expanded into making non-alcoholic drinks some two decades before Prohibition became the law of the land, including soft drinks, malted milk and fruit juices. “They understood that if they wanted to stay competitive, they were going to have to make not just beer but beverages that non-alcoholic drinkers wanted,” says Ogle.

At the start of Prohibition, many brewers pinned their hopes on non-intoxicating beers that were legal under Prohibition as long as they had less than 0.5% alcohol content. But it turned out that near beers weren’t near enough for many consumers. They wanted the real thing, and when the proliferation of bootlegging and speakeasies made real beer easy to come by, the near beer market tanked.

Ogle says not many brewers expected Prohibition to last as long as it did: 13 years in total. “They thought they would be fine if they could hang on for two or three years. But by 1925, it’s clear the near beer industry was a total bust, and more and more brewers shifted into bottling other beverages.” Brewing companies even reconfigured their production lines for dyes, which were in short supply after World War I.

The sale of malt syrup and yeast also helped brewers stay afloat. Prohibition banned the sale of beer, but not the ingredients for making it. Although malt syrup was advertised as a baking ingredient, many buyers used the extract to make beer. An in-store cardboard sign display for a Budweiser-brand barley malt syrup even featured a grocer winking knowingly …read more


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