Monday, January 16, 2012

A shadow falls...

Part of learning about beer involves learning about history -- the origin of styles, the evolution of production technologies, and the sociology of consumption. Hence, I point out the beer-related significance of January 16: on this day in 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. The Volstead Act, which laid out the legal specifics enforcing the amendment, kicked in a year later, effectively prohibiting the production, sale, and transport of intoxicating beverages in the United States.

Kind of boggles the mind, doesn't it? The era that followed is notorious for its turmoil and violence, and for popularizing compound words like "bootlegging," "speakeasies," "rum-running," and "AlCapone." The social experiment of Prohibition, while arguably "noble," was a miserable failure, achieving essentially the opposite of its aim to reduce crime and strengthen social order.

Fortunately, reason eventually prevailed and the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st, but we will always have this fourteen year chunk of American history to contemplate as an example of the dangers of unbridled reactionary zeal (even if it did masquerade in this case as "progressive").

Another reason to detest Prohibition: the criminalization of the country's thousands of traditional local breweries laid the groundwork for the rise of the giant corporate macrobreweries when production resumed in the '30s -- a stubborn problem the craft beer movement has only begun to chip away at in the last couple of decades.

Recently the era has been hauled into the public eye by Ken Burns' Prohibition documentary, as well as the popular HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Hopefully its lessons are clear enough to the contemporary observer. As Tom Regan toasts in Miller's Crossing before knocking back a shot of whiskey: "To Volstead!"

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