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Friday, December 05, 2008

75 Years Ago

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition in the US. Rather than trying to wax eloquent about a subject I know only marginally, I'll turn the mike over to Maureen Ogle. She has become the Doris Kearns Goodwin of beer, America's historian laureate, and in two articles--one the in US News, another in the Philly Enquirer--she argues that Prohibition wasn't a wholesale failure--it still inculcated in the population a anti-alcohol disposition.

But when repeal came in December 1933, lawmakers celebrated with an orgy of regulations designed less to generate revenue than to maximize the barriers between Americans and alcohol. States, counties, and municipalities burdened manufacturers and retailers with complicated licensing requirements. Lawmakers separated manufacturers from the public by inserting distributors between the two. A welter of laws restricted the hours and days that people could buy drink. New state-owned liquor stores oozed the "alcohol is evil" message. Bottles of gin and wine, and the clerks who sold them, stood inside grilled enclosures that resembled miniature jail cells for the evil spirits. Customers browsed a row of empty containers on the counter—samples of the inmates, slipped money through a small opening, and received the corrupting goods in exchange. Children who accompanied their parents on those trips got the intended message: This stuff is bad!

Put another way, repeal institutionalized the demonization of alcohol. Per capita alcohol consumption did not reach pre-Prohibition levels until the 1970s and then only because the sheer number of baby boomers temporarily elevated it. In the 1980s, the national appetite for drink drifted downward again, prodded in part by a new generation of dry agencies and activists, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the federally funded National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

She concludes that this attitude has resulted in an unhealthy drinking culture that fosters unhealthy habits:
Still, squabbles over restrictions on retailing and wholesaling focus on who gets how much of the revenue, rather than on the values that originally shaped the constraints. It's a vicious, and lethal, cycle: As long as we remain addicted to demonization, we avoid serious discussion about those values. The longer we avoid that conversation, the longer we pass on the booze-is-bad message to our kids, who grow up to pass the message on to their kids. And as long as we teach children to fear rather than respect alcohol, we'll interrupt the silence with periodic spasms of hand-wringing and finger-pointing about campus drinking, binge drinking, underage drinking, and the like. But here's the truth: The "alcohol problem" is of our own creation. We've got the drinking culture we deserve.
It's an interesting argument to be making today, when most of the rest of the beer folks are raising a pint. I tend to agree with her diagnosis, too--the US does have a bad drinking culture. But I wonder if Prohibition was the cause or a symptom. We have an innately Puritanical culture, one that enforces moralism through social approbrium and shame. But this culture goes back 400 years, not 90; the temperence movement emerged as the shaming mechanism that ultimately created Prohibition. Ogle is right to situation Prohibition in a larger context, and mentions the politics that create this environment. But it's not so obvious where the cause and effect cycle starts.

One thing we can celebrate, though, is craft brewing's contribution toward a much more positive, healthy drinking culture. In the 1970s, taverns were little shops of shame--smoky, windowless buildings on the edges of communities. No one considered the flavor of alcohol, just the alcohol/dollar ratio and the cheapest way to a buzz. For food, you got lil smokies--10 for a buck--a meal for men who didn't take time to stop off at Mickey D's on the way to the bar.

Craft brewing changed all that when it introduced us to the art of brewing and its sensual joys. Pubs got moved to the center of communities. They have lots of windows and no smoke, and many of them have kids' menus. They're neighborhood places families go for a nice meal. Mom and Dad have a pint to taste the newest concoction by the local brewer--or maybe they have their favorite pint of IPA. Anyway, craft breweries foster the right things about drinking--flavor and moderation.

Anyway, they do here in Oregon. That's why we call it Beervana. Cheers!


  1. "In the 1970s, taverns were little shops of shame--smoky, windowless buildings on the edges of communities."

    that's good mom was a bartender on and off while i was growing up in Grants Pass at a little tavern called the Red Barn Tavern (named so because, you guessed it, it looked like a big red barn).

    it was the epitome of blue collar bar - populated by loggers, farmers, construction workers, and those professional alcoholics who start drinking at 8 am and don't leave until 2 am.

    my mom used to bring me in when i was a kid and show me off to her friends. i remember the dark lit, smoky atmosphere that housed a couple of pool tables and a jukebox chock-full of country music.

    there was always an air of desperation as well: drinkers hunched over their Hamms (or Bud or Coors or Beer) with their meals of pickled eggs and peanuts.

    it was definately not the kind of atmosphere i thought about hanging out in when i got older.

  2. Thanks for the link, Jeff.

    Minor correction: only one of the op-ed pieces is in US News. The other one is in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It's here:

    Here's to the Constitution!

  3. I'll correct it in the text, Maureen. I actually thought they were both Philly Inquirer, and then I happened to look at the url and saw only one was, but forgot to correct the text. Copy editor!