The Brooklyn Growler

"Life is all skittles and beer." — Tom Lehrer

Prohibition Ale: Speakeasies and Craft Beer

Before Prohibition, American brewery companies often purchased saloons in order to ensure that their beers were on tap. Saloons in the nineteenth century could be rowdy, unlawful places. Gambling, prostitution, grifting, crime – you name it, it probably went down in one of these wretched hives of villainy.

So after the first World War, as the Anti-Saloon League and temperance movement grew, these organizations could point to saloons as examples of how alcohol caused depravity, thus placing brewers at fault and eventually helping to cause the sale of alcoholic beverages to be prohibited by law. (The now-defunct Brewing Techniques has a great history of Prohibition that’s worth a read.)

But, Prohibition (also known as the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act) didn’t prevent people from drinking. If anything, it made them drink more. Speakeasies opened up around the U.S. in the early-20th century to serve alcohol made at illegal distilleries and breweries. Weirdly, a lot of the illegal booze came from Canada and was shipped to the Midwest, specifically to Detroit and Chicago, two cities where the gangster Al Capone controlled liquor distribution.

Before Prohibition many lagers and bocks were popular both with brewers and drinkers. These beers were known for their rich flavors and high ABVs. But during the thirteen dark years of Prohibition, a new generation of beer drinkers grew up on soda and other sugary drinks.

So when beer production kicked back into business, the breweries that had toughed out Prohibition were confronted with people who didn’t want the old hoppy bitters of yesteryear and instead wanted something lighter. Much less, once free to produce and distribute beer again, the large industrial brewers still in existence flooded the market with their beers. Hence, the industrialized, mass marketed, watery domestic that we all know and love to bash. (For more info on the history of industrial brewing in America, I highly recommend reading Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.)

A beer that has happily pounced on the notion of Prohibition and the edgy glamor of the speakeasy is Prohibition Ale brewed by San Francisco’s Speakeasy Ales & Lager. The bottle even has some shifty eyes on its neck. It’s a cute presentation. Prohibition Ale

Other beers from Speakeasy (past and present) have included a Bootlegger Black Lager, Public Enemy Pils, Molls Mild, the Mickey Finn Imperial Red Ale, and the Untouchable.

This is a nice and smoky beer, with an amber color and a really thick head. It’s definitely made by some hop fanatics as there are some nice floral and bitter notes going on as well. It reminded me somewhat of a Bass Ale, except with more bite. It’s still very smooth and drinkable.

After Prohibition many breweries were forced to shut down and their recipes were thus lost. That why whenever a craft brewer comes across a pre-Prohibition recipe, they are quick to recreate the beer using traditional techniques. As near as I can tell, Prohibition Ale is not one of these beers. It’s a new recipe, made in a contemporary style but one that looks back to the sweet and flavorful American lagers that went extinct during Prohibition.

The result is a really nice beer – very drinkable, very refreshing, very complex flavor profile – and it’s worth tracking down. The marketing is a little silly.

Speakeasy’s beers can be found in some select locations in New York. You can find bottles at saloons like the Fourth Avenue Pub, the Keg and Lantern, Toast, and at Tom Colicchio’s Craftbar. The Prohibition Ale is also available at retailers, such as Grab Specialty Foods.

Pictured at the top of this post is the Anti-Saloon League in San Francisco. Historically, the Anti-Saloon League was one of the organizations that led the way for Prohibition. Pay no attention to the sign, though. This is actually the location of the faux-speakeasy Bourbon & Branch. We’ve come a long way.

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