Minnesota Lager Beer Act (1860)

Minnesota Lager Beer Act (1860)
Juenemann’s Hotel (and Saloon) St. Paul Historical

After Minnesota became a US territory in 1849, the population exploded. Alcohol consumption was blamed for the immoral behavior occurring in its cities. A call-to-action was sounded to establish a more efficient system to define municipal laws and maintain order. The state hoped regulatory changes would reduce societal harm related to its liquor problem.

A measure was enacted to control who sold alcohol to the public. It was approved on October 27, 1849. Locations that sold "spirituous, vinous, or intoxicating liquors... in quantities less than one quart" were required to obtain a license from their county board of commissioners.

Legislators revised the law over the next ten years to change the license costs and quantity requirements that necessitated purchasing one, but the core ideal remained.

On August 12, 1858, the state legislature passed the "Act to Regulate the Traffic in Spirituous Liquors," commonly referred to as the 1858 License Act. It established a tiered-license system requiring establishments selling intoxicating liquors to pay a more significant fee than those selling lager beer.

Public perception was lager-style beer had only minimal intoxicating qualities. In the eyes of many, it was deemed a healthy alternative to higher alcohol-by-volume (ABV) liquors, a fact which helped make beer drinking a popular activity.

Lower alcohol content made beer more acceptable than more potent liquors. Temperance advocates were opposed to alcoholic beverage consumption of any kind but were seemingly powerless against the 'beer invasion' and Minnesota's developing brewing industry.

Middle and upper-class 'native' citizens, motivated by their religious sensibilities, drove Minnesota's mid-19th-century temperance movement. They believed drinking alcohol was an immoral act that harmed society, and only total abstinence from alcohol would bring a return to social order.

In their eyes, ending liquor consumption increased personal health and productivity, leading to economic growth. There were also familial and religious components. Alcohol stole men away from their families and corrupted both women and children in the community. Furthermore, those who drank on the Sabbath shunned the requirements of their religion.

Germans who immigrated to Minnesota in the 1850s brought an affinity for lager beer. But, the taverns and beer gardens they patronized were much more than spots to drink. They were critical parts of the cultural identity of their community, places for them to interact with family, friends, and fellow compatriots for business or pleasure in an inclusive, relaxed environment.

Locations offered lager beer and provided access to food, entertainment, political discourse, and more. They were social institutions considered to be centerpieces of their historical culture. That societal significance contributed to an ardent opposition to the alcohol temperance movement by German immigrants.

By 1860 lager beer brewing had become a budding industry in the state. In 1850, only the Anthony Yoerg Brewery in Saint Paul and John Orth Brewery in Minneapolis brewed lager beer. However, by the end of the decade, Minnesota boasted over two dozen breweries. Each was located near a dense German settlement.

While sales-per-location numbers weren't available before the Federal Excise Tax in 1862, the 1860 state census reported a total sales output of nearly ninety-thousand dollars. Minnesota's farming community also benefitted from the growing popularity of lager beer. In 1850 12,116 bushels of barley were sold. That number rose ten-fold by 1860.

In the end, a culture shift and economics won the day. On March 8, 1860, a state law was passed creating an even more significant legal distinction between 'pure lager beer' and 'intoxicating liquors.' The Minnesota Lager Beer Act removed licensing requirements for locations that sold only lager beers manufactured in the state.

The legislation promoted the consumption of pure, unadulterated lager beer "(to) discourage the use of alcoholic liquors." It was also designed to encourage Minnesota saloons to offer their customers lager beer brewed in the state instead of by out-of-state competitors.

Popular opinion likely helped mold the 1860 law, but politics played a role in its passage. According to that year's census, more than 23,000 Germans lived in Minnesota. They accounted for nearly sixteen percent of the state's population. Almost one out of seven Minnesotans who voted in the 1860 presidential election was of German descent. Strength in numbers gave the state's German immigrants considerable political clout. They used it to pressure politicians to support their platform.

The law also promoted beer made in Minnesota. An increase in lager beer saloons after its passage implied success. The West End of Saint Paul alone had fourteen such locations. Despite what was considered a compromise between the parties involved, temperance groups remained ardent opponents of alcohol consumption.

On March 10, 1862, the License Act of 1858 was amended, making license fees for selling beer and liquor identical. The Minnesota Lager Beer Act was no more. But, German influence remained. Saint Paul, with eleven breweries and a large concentration of German citizens, was exempted from enforcing the updated law.


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