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Prohibition & Covid: Adapting in the Craft Beer Industry

With Covid and the ever-changing regulations surrounding our craft breweries and beer bars, it has many of us wondering if our favorite watering holes will still be operating when the pandemic finally lifts. Breweries and bars have had to adapt at a lightening speed pace and some have shuttered, some have reopened, and basically all have had to completely rethink their business models; and with autumn looming in the distance, with the potential of the virus to rear its ugly head in an even more deadly way, what happens next is anybody’s guess. The beer industry has gone through some rough times in our modern American history, with probably the most prolific example being Prohibition.

Believe it or not, America had a thriving and active beer industry in the early 1900s. Between 1900 and 1913, production of beer climbed from 1.2 billion gallons to 2 billion gallons, and by 1916, there were 1,300 different breweries operating in the US. By comparison, in 2019, there were 8,386 breweries operating in the US, with 180 million barrels of beer being produced. Each barrel contains 31 gallons of beer, so you can do the math on that one. However, we have to remember the time period, the social mores of yesteryears compared to today, and the general population numbers; in 1900 the US had a population of 76 million people versus 328 million people in 2019.

Prohibition began nationwide in 1920 and didn’t end until 1933 and consisted of Congress passing the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, banning production, importation, exportation, transportation, and all sales of alcoholic beverages. The only exception being wine used for religious ceremonies. During these 13 years of upheaval, it’s a wonder that any breweries, distilleries, or wineries survived at all! But just like our brewing establishments have to get creative and think outside of the box with regard to Covid and state regulations, alcohol producers back then also had to do what they could to survive as well.

Wineries instead produced grape juice and quadrupled production during the Prohibition era. The fact is that when grape juice, unpasteurized, is left to sit for 60 days it will ferment and therefore turn into wine with approximately a 12% alcohol content. Therefore, business survived with a bit of tweak that had people still coming back for more.

Breweries produced a variety of different things in order to stay alive. Out in Golden, CO the soil is rich with clay, and therefore Coors began to make ceramics instead of brew beer. Crazy enough, this change that could have brought doom to the family business, actually created a second business that currently generates more money than the beer itself! CoorsTek, as it’s called today, does about 1.25 billion dollars in sales per year and is the largest engineered ceramics manufacturer in the world creating parts for cars, space shuttles, and prosthetics to name a few.

Pennsylvania’s D.G. Yuengling & Sons Brewery, founded in 1829, turned to making ice cream during Prohibition. Yuengling’s Ice Cream actually expanded during 1929 and 1931 where they opened additional branches of their ice cream company throughout the state of Pennsylvania. In 1930, they changed their name to Yuengling Dairy Products Corporation and began to process and distribute milk in addition to their already popular ice cream. Today, Yuengling’s ice cream business continues to thrive in conjunction with their brewing business.

Anheuser-Busch stuck with beer but created a non-alcoholic malt version of it called “Bevo,” along with other products including corn syrup, frozen egg products, ice cream, soft drinks, and even truck bodies. On April 7, 1933, when Prohibition was repealed, those iconic Budweiser Clydesdales were introduced to the world in Washington D.C. when they delivered the first case of post-prohibition Budweiser beer to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House.

Pabst Blue Ribbon, in-line with its Wisconsin roots, began to make cheese instead of beer! The delightfully silly sounding Pabst-ett Cheese sold over 8 million pounds during Prohibition. When beer production could legally begin again, they sold their cheese business to Kraft in the mid-1930s.

One of our local breweries, the F.X. Matt Saranac Brewing Company, was another brewery that managed to stay afloat during and after Prohibition. Founded in 1888 and originally called the West End Brewing Co., it was the smallest out of all 12 Utica breweries. It only had 12 employees and cranked out approximately 4,000 barrels of beer each year. When Prohibition arrived, they switched production to Utica Club soft drinks and other non-alcoholic beverages. This sustained them until the 18th Amendment was repealed and the West End Brewing Co. became the first in the nation to obtain a license and the first to sell beer – Utica Club. Those other 11 breweries? They ended up not surviving because they didn’t have another product up their sleeve.

The point of this article is, no matter if it’s a virulent disease or politicians with an agenda, things happen and businesses have to learn how to adapt in order to survive, whether that be only offering cans “to-go” or only offering so much seating room. The other point is that people bought the Pabst cheese and they purchased the Yuengling ice cream. Americans didn’t want to see their breweries and businesses go under, so they adjusted their expectations and supported them regardless.

As a consumer, lately I have seen a lot of griping and complaining about shorter hours, not as many beer choices, and the big one: having to purchase a bite to eat with your brew. Times are different and our local businesses are trying to navigate the best they can, so as consumers we can either put up or shut up. Follow along with the rules and support your local breweries and craft beer bars or stay home and quit complaining. The bottom line is that we’re ALL navigating uncharted waters together and the best thing we can do is support one another through it all. & Hey, it could be worse, we could be going through Covid AND prohibition at the same time! (Oof, that’d be a nightmare…)

Be kind, be generous, and stay safe my fellow craft beer lovers! Cheers!

References: www.forbes.com, www.wikipedia.com, www.brewersassociation.org, www.themobmuseum.org.

Kristin Merritt
Just a brief introduction that I’ve joined the Table Hopping crew as your new craft-brew-loving gal who will be bringing you your monthly pour of beer education and the low-down on all things beer related in the immediate CNY area and beyond. Along the way I hope that I can give a few recommendations for your grocery lists, event suggestions and local hotspots for an afternoon out with friends or planning a date, and if not for nothing, perhaps enlighten you with some random knowledge that you can amaze your teammates with at trivia night – or at least give you and your pals a suggestion on what to drink at the bar! I have some mighty large shoes to fill that my friend and fellow Syracuse Women of Craft Beer member (& founder), Gloria Rakowsky, left for me, but I hope that my style (and shenanigans) will keep all y’all coming back for more each month. Cheers!