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Return of ‘Real’ Beer (Mar 22 — Apr 7, 1933)

On March 13, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent a two-sentence letter to Congress. In it, he requested that they enact “legislation for the immediate modification of the Volstead Act.” Eight days later legislators passed the Cullen-Harrison Act, amending the legal definition of intoxicating liquor from .5% alcohol by weight, as defined in the Volstead Act of 1919, to beer and wine with a concentration of 3.2%. Ir also placed a federal tax on legal alcoholic beverages. The law, alternately known as the Beer-Wine Revenue Act, was signed by the president on Wednesday, March 22. It was scheduled to begin at 12:01 a.m. on April 7, 1933.

Roosevelt and politicians on both sides of the political spectrum agreed that the repeal of Prohibition would help provide a much-needed economic boost to the country. The 21st Amendment, which called for the end of National Prohibition through the repeal of the 18th Amendment, was adopted by Congress on February 20. 1933, but getting thirty-six states, the required three-quarter majority, to ratify the legislation through state conventions would take time. The purpose of the Cullen-Harrison Act was to use additional tax revenue to help fund a bevy of social programs that Roosevelt looked to institute to put the people of the United States back to work.

Now that the Federal Government had officially determined a new path for the failed Prohibition movement, each state was left to decide whether or not they’d allow 3.2 beer within their borders. On March 25, 1933, only a few days after Roosevelt had affixed his signature to the Cullen-Harrison Act, the Minnesota Legislature enacted a measure to permit the manufacture and sale of 3.2 beer. On March 27, 1933, the legislation was signed into law by Governor Floyd B, Olson, allowing Minnesota to join the list of states that would license the legal sale of 3,2 beer when the new federal law commenced on April 7.

Minnesota’s new beer bill was a stark contrast to the legislative hurdles that littered the state’s nineteenth-century Temperance Movement intoxicating liquor regulations. While saloons had once contended with exorbitant business license fees, newly approved state requirements were in comparison decidedly nominal charges. Liquor licenses that had once cost upwards of one-thousand dollars a year could now be had for well under one-hundred. An off-sale permit, covering 3.2 beer purchased and consumed off-site, was five dollars annually. On-sale license prices were municipality dependent but began as low as ten dollars a year.

With Governor Olson’s signature, Minnesota became one of the first nineteen states, plus the District of Columbia, to approve the public sale of beer at 12:01 a.m. on April 7. The five dollar per barrel tax spelled out in the Cullen-Harrison Bill was expected to bring one-hundred and fifty million dollars into the national treasury each year. As the date approached, conversations shifted from political discussions about projected financial windfalls to the building hysteria in anticipation of the moment that 3.2 would once again be legally available. The lead up seemed to re-invigorate a country that had been in dire need of a collective emotional lift after having been mired in the Great Depression for many years.

Each of Minnesota’s nine licensed breweries was well positioned to meet the demands of its customers. The passage of the Cullen-Harrison Bill allowed them to begin building up their stock of 3.2 beer, and by April 6 - called “New Beer’s Eve” - each had about thirty-five thousand barrels of beer stored away with the capacity to produce hundreds more each day. More than seven million gallons of beer was ready for distribution, enough to supply every person in the state with three-and-a-half-gallons. Internal revenue and prohibition agents were on-site collecting the five dollars per barrel tax. Case lots were taxed in thirty-one-gallon increments.

Brewery districts throughout the state bustled with activity on the day before the return of beer. Delivery trucks were loaded and parked in lots adjacent to the breweries, ready to take to the road the moment the clock struck 12:01 a.m. on April 7. In the Twin Cities, public celebrations had begun before the clock struck midnight, and streets were so congested that special police were required to help maintain traffic. German societies in Saint Paul toasted Roosevelt and the return of “happy days.”

The line that separated those for and against alcohol consumption for years was left unchanged by the passage of this legislation. While detractors remained, supporters were excited to welcome back ‘real’ beer. For those in support, April 7 was to be a great day. In only the first few hours in Minnesota, beer sales brought in one-hundred-thousand dollars in revenue to the government. Nationally the economic impact was much the same. On the first day of legal sales, it was estimated that the equivalent of over one million barrels of beer was consumed. All-in-all, it was a happy day for many of the seventy-million Americans that took part.

At 3:33 p.m. MST on December 5, 1933, buoyed in part by successes that had begun on April 7, Utah became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the 21st Amendment, achieving the necessary three-quarters majority approval required to enact the 21st Amendment. This action signaled the repeal of the Volstead Act and the end of National Prohibition. 'Real' beer was back, and the more than thirteen-year ban on intoxicating liquor had ended.

Bibliography available here.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 International License.

Matt Reicher

Matt has a BA in history from Metropolitan State University and a MA in museum studies from Oklahoma University.

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Return of ‘Real’ Beer (Mar 22 — Apr 7, 1933)
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