U is for United States Brewers Association (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)

ROARING TWENTIES - United States Brewers Association - Created at the beginning of the XX Century, the association was so predominantly German that German was the official language during its meeting. That strong connection with Germany was a strong issues during the troubled pre WWII years

UThe Germans had been among the earliest of America’s immigrants. Driven to the US by the political unrest that swept over Germany from 1832 onward, the initial trickle of immigration soon became a flood. By the beginning of the Civil War there were German-speaking regiments in Lincoln’s army. German towns dotted the US. From the 1850s, Cincinnati became the heart and the capital of this German presence.

What set Germans apart from other ethnic groups was their large proportion of highly educated, politically sophisticated, liberal intellectuals in their midst. They brought their culture with them and their beer, together with a generation of men who knew how to make it and how to market it. As for many other immigrants’ cultures, drinking was a social activity, but Germans seemed to have the market-smart to take the highest possible advantage from it.
When the US Brewers Association was founded in 1862, it became one of the most visible manifestations of this community that had a very strong ethnic personality, pride and awareness and a strong drive to keep it alive (the Association’s meetings were held in German).

beer2The Brewers Association had a large network of saloons connected with it, and even if they marketed beer as ‘liquid food’ – so something very different from the poison hard liquor – it was only a matter of time before the Association came in collision with the Anti-Saloon League and the Prohibition movement. It was a worthy opponent too, because it could count on many wealthy members who knew how to market an idea and weren’t afraid to use their money to support it. They also had powerful political connections, just like the League had.
It was a long, harsh battle.

But in the 1910s something happened that tipped the plate on the Anti-Saloon League’s side: WWI broke out in Europe and Germany became the enemy. The Brewers Association, with its ideal of furthering German kultur, started to be depicted as an instrument of German propaganda. There is no evidence the Association ever engaged in anti-patriotic activities, but it certainly worked to keep the US neutral and in that time of war, this attitude became an argument of loyalty that the Anti-Saloon League was fast to grab.
When the US finally entered the war in 1917 and rations on food started, the League protested against the brewers using grain to produce beer.
A strong anti-German sentiment bordering on hysteria swept over the United States. German books were burn in Wisconsin, playing Beethoven in public was banned in Boston, and all through the country, foodstuff and street names of German origin were turn into English, including in Cincinnati.
The Anti-Saloon League capitalised as much as it could on this, working with churches as their standing ground for political action and protesting over the waste of grain (food) to produce alcoholic beverages. The Brewers Association tried to counter using its political connections, its marketing savvy and its network of saloons… but it could hardly convince anybody that its profit didn’t come first.

So it was that WWI became one of the most powerful arguments of the Prohibition movement to push the Eighteenth Amendment thought Congress and one of the more effective weapons of the Anti-Saloon League against one of its oldest, more powerful opponents.

Cincinnati in the 1920s

Cincinnati in the 1920s



Serious Eat – German-American Brewers Before Prohibition

Prohibition in the United States: The German-American Experience 1919-1933 (pdf)

Behr, Edward, Prohibition. The Thirteen Years That Changed America. Penguin Group & BBC Enterprises, London, 1997

Kobler, John, Ardent Spirits. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Da Capo Press, New York, 1973

Okrent, Daniel, Last Call. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, New York, 2010

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About the Author

I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

16 Comments on "U is for United States Brewers Association (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)"

  1. Now this is a part of history I didn’t know! Very interesting, how politics, world events and public opinion played a hand in all of this.
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  2. Well, this was another education in a bottle.. 🙂

    Really, I didn’t realize how intertwined WWI, Prohibition, and ant-German sentiment were! Thanks again for a great read.
    Jeri Burns recently posted…Daily Ghost Post – T is for Types of GhostsMy Profile

    • WWI was a great push for the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment, as well as the Great Depression was a great push for the repeal.
      It was already a global world, wasn’t it?

  3. I never stopped to think about how anti-German prejudice might’ve contributed to Prohibition, even though lots of Germans were brewers. If my great-great-grandpap Hugo had still been living by the time of Prohibition, he might’ve been out of his job as well. (He and his co-worker were killed by a train in January 1910, while delivering beer to their Russian customers for their upcoming Christmas.)
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    • Or he might have brewed near-beer, as many did. Or he might have gone around Prohibition altogether, one way or another, as still others did.
      Who knows?

      (killed by a train? My goodness…)

  4. This is all new information for me, and interesting information at that. Shame about the anti-German craze. I know it’s human nature, but banning Beethoven? I’m pretty sure he had nothing to do with the war…
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  5. How easy it is to whip up irrational hysteria! I wish we could say things had changed, but I’m not convinced they have.
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  6. So if WWI hadn’t happened, prohibition probably wouldn’t either because the two power houses of political power would have remained at loggerheads, neither with the advantage. I wonder what the world would be like today if WWI hadn’t happened, or even what America would be like had Prohibition not been pushed through?
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    • Those are tricky questions to ask, in my opinion. There is never one single reason why something happened, historically. Every single event is the result of complex, interwouven, interdependet, far-coming other events. I think that taking away one of those events might have changed the path of history, but in very few cases a particular event (like WWI) would be erased from history just becaue one thing didn’t happen.

      Same with Prohibition. The particular situation that led to Prohibtion (as I tried to depict) was very complex and composit. WWI was important as the event that tipped the scale, but I think if that hadn’t happened, another event would have done the trick. As I see it, it was a situation that was going that direct and would have gone that direction, one excuse or another. Same WWI.

  7. First time visiting here and this was a great article to start. Pieces of history that I hadn’t heard about, but it doesn’t surprise me that it unfolded this way. Political spin is certainly not new. Prohibition was an interesting era and this was a unique piece of it. Thanks for a great article. I’ll be back to read more.
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    • Hi Rene and thanks for stopping by. I’m happy you enjoyed my article.
      I find Prohibition such an intriguing time, and I’m trying to illustrate why in my AtoZ Challenge 🙂

  8. Well, this is a fascinating turn of events…I didn’t know about the German angle to this. This is what I love about history – all the spaghetti-like connections of cause and effect. 🙂
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    • I always say history always makes sense. There is always a reason why soemthing happen. Sometimes, connection aren’t so apparent, but nothing ever happens in history without a reason.

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