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The Minnesota Lager Beer Act (1860)

After being recognized as a United States territory on March 3, 1849, Minnesota played a more active role in the country’s growing alcohol temperance movement. The population of the state exploded, and the negative impact of consuming alcohol was among the issues blamed for the immoral acts taking place in its increasingly dense cities. A call-to-action rang out to institute a more efficient system to define municipal laws and sustain order. The hope was that regulatory changes would help the state overcome societal ills associated with its unchecked liquor problem.

A legislative measure was enacted to exert some control over who sold alcohol to the public. The first act was approved on October 27, 1849, and required locations that marketed “spirituous, vinous, or intoxicating liquors… in quantities less than one quart” to purchase a license from their county commissioners board. Over the next ten years, the laws were revised to change the cost to obtain a license and the quantity requirements that necessitated purchasing one. 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 that required establishments selling intoxicating liquors to pay a more substantial fee than those that only sold lager beer.

When Minnesota became a state on May 11, 1858, public perception was that lager-style beer had only minimal intoxicating qualities. In the eyes of many, it was a healthy alternative to higher alcohol-by-volume (ABV) liquors, a fact that helped make beer drinking an increasingly popular activity. The lower alcohol content made beer more socially acceptable than stronger liquors. Temperance advocates were fiercely opposed to alcoholic beverage consumption of any kind, but were seemingly powerless against the ‘beer invasion’ and Minnesota’s developing brewing industry.

The temperance movement of mid-19th-century Minnesota was driven by middle and upper class ‘native’ citizens and motivated by their religious sensibilities. They believed that drinking alcohol was an immoral act that negatively impacted society and that only total abstinence from alcohol would bring a return to social order. Ending liquor consumption increased personal health and productivity, leading to economic success and the growth of the economy. There was also a religious component. In the eyes of temperance advocates, alcohol stole men away from their families and corrupted both women and children in the community. Furthermore, those that drank on the Sabbath shunned the requirements of their religion.

Germans that immigrated to Minnesota in the 1850s brought with them an affinity for lager beer. However, the taverns and beer gardens they patronized were more than just spots to drink. They were critical parts of the cultural identity of their community, places for them to interact with family, friends and fellow countrymen for business or pleasure in an inclusive, relaxed environment. Locations not only offered lager beer, but 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 implementation of a 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 the growing popularity of lager beer. In 1850 12,116 bushels of barley were sold, that number rose to 125,130 bushels by 1860.

In the end, culture and economics won the day. On March 8, 1860, a state law was passed that created an even more significant legal distinction between ‘pure lager beer’ and ‘intoxicating liquors.’ Called the Minnesota Lager Beer Act, it removed the licensing requirements for locations that sold only lager beers manufactured in the state. The legislation aimed to promote the consumption of pure, unadulterated lager beer “and (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, there were more than 23,000 Germans in Minnesota. They accounted for nearly sixteen percent of the state’s population. Almost one out of every seven Minnesotans that voted in the 1860 presidential election was of German descent. Strength in numbers gave the state's German immigrants considerable political clout, and they used it to apply political pressure to try to convince politicians to support their platform.

The 1860 law promoted beer made in Minnesota, and the proliferation of lager beer saloons after its passage implied success. The West End of Saint Paul alone had fourteen such locations. However, in spite of what was considered a compromise between the parties involved, temperance groups remained impassioned about the dangers of alcohol consumption. Immediately after its passage, advocates began to pressure the state legislature to change the law. 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. However, German influence remained. Saint Paul, with eleven breweries and a large concentration of German citizens, was exempted from enforcing the new law.

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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