Cheers to Beers!
It’s National Beer Day! But unlike so many random drinking holidays, this one is actually rooted in American history.
Lots of weird drinking practices and legislation came out of Prohibition - but an especially interesting loop hole to the US being a dry country arose on April 7, 1933.
At that time, Prohibition was nearing its end (it would be repealed on December 5 of that year), but it was still the law of the land. However, FDR was decidedly NOT a teetotaler and promised to modify the Volstead Act (the act which carried out the 18th Amendment - basically enforcing Prohibition). So, as the country waited for the passage of the 21st Amendment to end the “noble experiment,” a drinking work-around was passed:
“On April 7, 1933, the Cullen-Harrison Act, named after the legislation's sponsors, went into effect and for the first time since 1920 the purchase, sale, and consumption of beer and wine with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent, was legal.” (from congress.gov)
But why 3.2%? As per NPR:
Hearings were held and the political process worked out a standard that could gather the necessary votes — 3.2 percent alcohol by weight.
"The compromise ended up being 3.2 and it frankly, it's an arbitrary number. There's nothing magical about it," says Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.
Ogle says that after the federal government legalized all liquor, the 3.2 percent alcohol by weight standard took hold in many states as a middle course between allowing alcohol and not — a sort of temperance light.
So, 3.2% beers became big business. Even after the repeal of Prohibition, and for many years thereafter, 3.2% beers were all you could get at grocery stores, convenience chains, and bars in certain areas. In some states in general, you could only consume 3.2% beers - period.
(Side note: If you’re familiar with The Hold Steady, you’ll know that they occasionally reference a “three-two bar” in their songs. Being from Pennsylvania and not having any of those, we had no idea it was a thing until recently! But Minnesota and other locales passed ordinances prohibiting the sale of beer over 3.2% alcohol at bars and other spaces - establishing the “three-two bar,” and providing a fun reference for Craig Finn - a native Minnesotan - in his lyrics.)
And what of 3.2% beer now? Wouldn’t you know that Minnesota is the last state with 3.2 laws on the books. There are two three-two bars left in Minneapolis. But, it’s harder and harder to find 3.2% beers nowadays, as the major players stopped producing it as the last remaining holdout states dropped their laws in the last few years. Maybe by next year’s National Beer Day, there might not be any left.
So on this National Beer Day 2022, raise a glass of the stuff that got Americans back to (legally) consuming alcohol prior to the end of Prohibition!