While the craft-beer industry is full of talented up-and-comers, there are a handful of breweries who survived one of the darkest—and supposedly driest—eras in the American brewing industry: Prohibition. The Temperance Movement sought to crack down on all the booze-guzzling heathens, and while pointing at the alcohol industry with one hand and clutching their pearls in the other, they shut the industry down.
Unemployment soared after the breweries closed their doors. To make ends meet, many unemployed brewery employees turned to organized crime to keep food on the table, which, unsurprisingly, kept the underground liquor industry going stronger than ever. And to be clear, it wasn’t illegal to drink the beer (people had time to stockpile beforehand), but it was illegal to manufacture, sell, and distribute it. But with a little ingenuity—and a whole lot of luck—some breweries survived. Many of them are thriving today, and so are some of their Prohibition side projects.
To celebrate Repeal Day (December 5), we want to share seven of the most common industries the breweries turned to.
Ice cream, everybody’s favorite post-breakup vice, has a lot more in common with beer than we’d imagine, production-wise. The massive tanks that once brewed beer mixed milk, sugar, and other goodies. And the refrigerated trucks used for distribution were outfitted to distribute ice cream. Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling both sold ice cream, and after a decades-long hiatus, Yuengling recently took it up again.
America experienced a surge in bread baking…or did they? The malt industry took off during this time, with many breweries manufacturing canned malt syrup. Some cans included helpful instructions for how to use the sugar and yeast, you know, to avoid fermentation. Each can was reported to have produced fifty pints of beer. Some of the breweries who produced malt extract were Schlitz, Pabst, and Miller.
It’s just like beer, but not really. While near beer had the same ingredients as banned beer, it had a much lower ABV (less than 0.5 percent) or no alcohol at all. Some beer lovers were content to sip on the beer-flavored drink, but most others weren’t, so they sought out bootleggers or just made their own at home (no offense to Miller, Yuengling, and Schell’s, who all produced near beer). And while many breweries took up the near-beer industry, others had “fermentation accidents” that produced much higher-ABV beer. Oops!
It wasn’t much of a stretch for breweries to convert their equipment to make soda, and that’s just what Miller, Anheuser-Busch, and Schell’s did. Because who doesn’t love a good ginger ale or root beer? (People who want beer instead, that’s who.) Still, the soda industry surged during Prohibition, in part because many spiked their soda with liquor, resulting in soda fountain liquor rings. The unfortunate side effect of this practice was that many suffered alcohol poisoning, permanent bodily damage, and even death from the super-powered spiked soda.
And now we come to the breweries who turned to some less conventional means to stay afloat. Coors became the biggest ceramics manufacturer in the world, producing lab equipment, spark plugs, and defense products (to name just a few) under their CoorsTek brand.
Lion decided to convert their tanks to produce dye under the Noil name, and in an interesting twist, many dye manufacturers became bootleggers.
Pabst produced cheese, which pairs beautifully with bootlegged beer—they sold their cheese division to Kraft once Prohibition ended.
And let’s not forget the rebels who said, “Screw you” to the establishment and kept doing their thing. Our pearls are off to you, Wiedemann and Schell’s (and those of you who are well outside the statute of limitations but remain coy about your activities during this time). Expand your horizons, get tips for brewing award-winning beers, and keep up with the latest trends in brewing and craft beer with a subscription to Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Subscribe today!