How Dry We Weren’t: Lager, Liquor and the Law

While Minnesota had no distilleries when Prohibition arrived and few wineries to speak of, Minnesota was an important brewing state. Of the nearly seventy breweries open before World War I, almost half had shut down before the Volstead Act took effect. Some shut down shortly afterward, but about two dozen companies stayed in business with new products. Some switched to dairy products or candy, but many counted on “near beer” to pay the bills and keep the brewmaster from leaving. People joked that whoever called it near beer “was a poor judge of both distance and beer,” so it found a limited market. The most common use of near beer was to spike it with alcohol to restore the kick. G. Heileman Brewing Co. in La Crosse actually introduced a brand called Spike, with a railroad worker on the label for a cover story. Since the dealcoholizing step was the last part of the brewing process, some breweries made occasional batches of real beer. These were typically in rural towns, like New Munich and Mantorville. Stories of beer being moved through the caves near the Schmidt brewery in St. Paul and out through neighboring houses are possible, but unconfirmed. Attempts by federal agents to raid breweries in Minnesota during Prohibition were often thwarted by local law enforcement agents who were either sympathetic to their neighbors or had a financial stake in the business.

People with bumper stickers advocating the repeal of the 18th amendment (prohibition)

People with bumper stickers advocating the repeal of the 18th amendment (prohibition)

Part of the reason that near beer was generally unsuccessful was that beer, wine and liquor were relatively easy to make. With wartime demand for grain gone and prices in the dumps, farmers had a lot of spare corn and barley and a real financial incentive to make a value-added product with it. The best-known moonshine region in the Upper Midwest was centered on Holding and Avon townships in Stearns County, Minnesota. Named after the preferred corn variety, “Minnesota 13” became nationally famous and was sometimes even requested like a fine wine. For people in urban areas, grocery stores carried cans of malt syrup by such firms as Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, and Oshkosh Brewing Co., for baking purposes only, or so they said. Many of these syrups contained hops, which would probably have made for some disgusting tasting cookies. Hardware stores stocked up on equipment for brewing and distilling and, in some cases, would help fabricate stills for their regular customers. Sales of corn sugar and yeast rose dramatically during the 1920s. Buying 300 pounds of corn sugar every week or so was a bit of a giveaway.

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A Blind Tasting beer festival

Taste & Rate 48 Minnesota Oktoberfests

Sept. 20, 2019 | 5:30–9pm
Upper Landing Park
Tickets: GA $40 | DD $20