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

Some of the “wildcat operations” were large ventures that would be the envy of modern homebrewers. One secret brewery in La Crosse, where illegal beer was more common than in Minnesota, included an electric refrigeration system, four 450-gallon fermenters, two 500-gallon mash kettles, two bottlers, a capper and other equipment, all in a system of tunnels under a neighborhood home. A raid on an Upper Midwest moonshine outfit in Krain Township unearthed two 400-gallon stills and a total operation valued at $15,000 in 1925, an extraordinary amount of money for the times.

Some of the real-life methods used to conceal brewing, distilling, and bootlegging might be considered ridiculous if featured in a movie. Aside from tunnels, which sometimes caved in unexpectedly, stills were hidden in milking rooms, silos, and even in manure piles. Since cooking moonshine or homebrewing gave off an unmistakable smell, hiding the equipment with a strong odor had multiple benefits.

"Vote yes, make Minnesota dry" pro-constitutional prohibtion billboard, St. Paul

“Vote yes, make Minnesota dry” pro-constitutional prohibtion billboard, St. Paul

The products were hidden in pianos, outhouses, sometimes even in churches and schools. The need for speed on the part of bootleggers led to a number of advances in speedboat and automotive technology. While the development of NASCAR by southern bootleggers is most famous, Midwestern mechanics were also expert at souping up an engine or designing a lift kit to make sure the extra weight of the moonshine wasn’t noticeable. Of course it wasn’t all fun and games – several hundred Minnesotans spent time in Leavenworth federal prison for their offenses.

Related Post: A legal Minnesota Martini

Selling illegal liquor was often a word-of-mouth business, but the network of sellers, transporters and speakeasies developed a set of code phrases like “rotgut,” “coffin varnish” and “tarantula juice.” Some of these even appeared in newspaper and radio ads. While the mobster aspect of Prohibition requires its own article, gang members did everything from operating breweries to bribing law enforcement to rubbing out rival bootleggers. If law enforcement shut down production in one state, the transportation network simply expanded to meet the need, all requiring increased organization and internal discipline. Mobsters made fortunes at the expense of a public willing to pay the price.

One price the public was not willing to pay was the cost of enforcing the Volstead Act. Officials confiscated 35,200 illegal stills nationwide in 1929, but this was a literal drop in the bucket. Prohibition commissioner James M. Doran insisted he needed $300 million to enforce the law properly, an amazing amount for the 1930s, especially for taxpayers rocked by the Great Depression. Ultimately, Prohibition died in the face of increasing protests from society about the distortion of the justice system and the economic reality that legalization could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue and put thousands of people back to work. Among the first acts of President Franklin Roosevelt was to sign legislation declaring that beer and wine of less than 3.2% alcohol were non-intoxicating and could be permitted by the states. On April 7, 1933, Minnesota and Wisconsin joined seventeen other states in toasting “New Beers’ Day.” While full repeal of Prohibition would not take effect until later that December, nine Minnesota breweries, twenty-three Wisconsin breweries and others around the country began shipping genuine beer again.

While some of this article is based on my research for Land of Amber Waters and my upcoming book on brewing in Wisconsin, there are several sources that I used for the non-beer content, and which are good sources of further information. Daniel Okrent’s Last Call is the best history of Prohibition; Minnesota 13, by Elaine Davis, collects the amazing stories of moonshiners in Stearns County. Drinking in America, by Mark Lender and James Martin is a good general history. Paul Maccabee’s John Dillinger Slept Here links the gangsters of the Twin Cities to the local landmarks where they conducted business and hid out from the law.


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