Step back in time with stories from Prohibition for National Beer Day

People applying bumper stickers advocating for the repeal of the 18th Amendment // Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

We have a very important announcement.

Today, April 7, is National Beer Day in America. But this is no run-of-the-mill “National _____ Day” (although it also happens to be National No Housework Day, feel free to observe that as you wish), for this day stands in history as a crucial precursor to the full repeal of the 18th amendment.

With over nearly 6,300 craft breweries in operation in 2017, it’s hard to imagine the U.S. today without beer. But that’s exactly the state of affairs during Prohibition (at least from a legal standpoint). Luckily on this day in 1933, the Cullen-Harrison Act was enacted, which legalized the sale of beer and wine up to 3.2% alcohol by weight. That’s right, we have 3.2 beer to thank for the eventual repeal of Prohibition, which later occurred in December of 1933.

To properly observe this hallowed day, we would like to take you back to Prohibition era with a few of our favorite historical stories. So crack open a cold one and get ready to be schooled in Beer History 101.

 

Beer’s legal? Let’s open a nightclub!

If you find yourself walking along the bluffs of the Mississippi River valley in St. Paul today, you probably won’t see a neon skull and crossbones sign. At one point, however, it marked the entrance to “the most novel café and night club in the country.” Opened by the Foster brothers on April 8, 1933, just one day after the Cullen-Harrison act was signed, Mystic Caverns was promoted by newspaper ads as “St. Paul’s Underground Wonderland,” and encouraged readers to “DINE, DRINK, and DANCE to the rhythmic tunes of JACK FOSTER’S TEN CAVEMEN.”

As legend has it, local gangsters quickly set up shop, starting an illegal gambling operation in the back of the club. But Mystic Caverns run was short-lived as the brothers somehow ran afoul of local law enforcement’s “night club protective association.” They were out of business by the end of 1934.

If that doesn’t sound like a place of a Prohibition-era hootenanny worthy of recognition on National Beer Day, we don’t know what is. Read more…

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A Hamm’s ransom

Left: Notorious gangster Alvin Karpis in federal custody in St. Paul following his 1936 arrest in connection with the kidnappings of William Hamm Jr. and Edward Bremer. Right: William Hamm Jr. circa 1933 // Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Shortly after beer was legalized with the Cullen-Harrison act, one of Minnesota’s most prominent beer families was targeted by local gangsters. On a warm June afternoon in 1933, president of Theodore Hamm’s Brewery, William Hamm Jr., was kidnapped by the Barker-Karpis gang on his walk from the brewery to his quaint 20-room mansion. It’s said that Hamm stayed so calm that the kidnappers worried they stole the wrong man. Within days, after signing four ransom notes totaling $100,000 from an Illinois safe house, Hamm was returned to his home without a scratch. But in spite of his cool facade, Hamm was deeply affected for years after the incident. This kidnapping exposed the issue with long-running corruption of St. Paul’s judicial system, which was infamous for working with known criminals. A year after the kidnapping, a wiretap at the St. Paul Police Department revealed dozens of corrupted officials, most of which either resigned or faced jail time.

So, in a way, Hamm’s could take the credit for exposing a crooked police force and cracking down on local corruption. Sure, we’ll drink a Hamm’s to that! Read more…

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The lost rathskeller of the Minnesota State Capitol

Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Few people may know that, in the basement of our State Capitol, there is a German rathskeller. Finished in 1905 with the Capitol’s third reconstruction, the cellar’s wall were filled with German drinking mottos and pictures of hops, which were painted over in light of growing anti-German and anti-alcohol sentiments at the end of WWI. Interestingly, they were uncovered for a few years in the early 1930s, though several of the mottoes were changed to remove positive references to imbibing. In 1937 they were painted over again and weren’t uncovered until the rathskeller was restored in the 1990s. With the 2013 approval of a wine and malt liquor license for the Capitol, the rathskeller can now is used as it was originally intended: To drink lots of beer, under mottoes such as “Zunächst versorge deinen Magen, Dann trink soviel du kannst ertragen.” (“After you have enough in your stomach, you may drink what you can carry.”) Read more…

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Breweries survive Prohibition

Peoples Brewing Company operated in Duluth from 1908–1957 (this photo was taken sometime between 1934–1937) // Image Detail, Archives and Special Collections, Kathryn A. Martin Library, University of Minnesota Duluth

Peoples Brewing Company operated in Duluth from 1908–1957 (this photo was taken sometime between 1934–1937) // Image Detail, Archives and Special Collections, Kathryn A. Martin Library, University of Minnesota Duluth

Many beer brands died with Prohibition. But certain beers and breweries made it through the other side.

In Duluth, the socialist leaning Peoples Brewing was formed in 1907 by three tavern owners who wanted to stick it to The Man. To fund the project, they would get subscriptions from area saloons and sell shares of the brewery to labor groups—a sort of “labor-based Kickstarter campaign.” Peoples Brewing continued brewing up until 1920 when Prohibition began. From 1920–1933, they produced soft drinks like 7-UP. When Prohibition ended, they brewed again up until 1957, when they fell victim to the price wars brought on by mass-produced beer. Read more…

In Indiana, the “Million Dollar Taste” of the Champagne Velvet Lager has withstood the test of time AND Prohibition. The beer humbly began with brewmaster Walter Braun at the Terre Haute Brewing Co. Quickly becoming the flagship beer of the company, Terre Haute rode Champagne Velvet’s success to become one of the most well-known and widely distributed breweries in Indiana. Terre Haute Brewing folded as a company, but Champagne Velvet has lived on through many iterations—from regional favorite, to cheap malt liquor, and now a staple of craft brewery Upland Brewing Co. Read more…

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Brewing supplies for baking purposes only…

Left: Policemen with distilling equipment found in a raid, c. 1925; Right: Female moonshiners arrested by federal agents near St. Paul, 1921 // Photos courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Left: Policemen with distilling equipment found in a raid, c. 1925; Right: Female moonshiners arrested by federal agents near St. Paul, 1921 // Photos courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

One of the best known moonshine-making regions in the Upper Midwest was in Stearns County, Minnesota. The moonshine made there, aptly named “Minnesota 13,” was recognized nationally and supposedly was often requested like a fine wine. Urban grocery stores carried cans of malt syrup, mysteriously made with hops for baking purposes only by companies like Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, and Oshkosh Brewing Co. Hardware stores started selling brewing and distilling equipment, and would sometimes help their regular customers set them up. Again, mysteriously, 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. Read more… 

A Blind Tasting beer festival

Taste & Rate 48 Minnesota Oktoberfests

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