Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Today's column

Pitcher This: Imagine a world without beer


Before you read the following lines, be sure that you've got the lights on. And perhaps make sure you're not alone. It could get frightening.

Ready? O.K.

Imagine a world without beer.

Scary, I know. Let alone knot being able to drink the stuff, how could one make beer-battered onion rings or beer-can chicken? How would the Super Bowl turn a profit?

Now that you've (hopefully) stopped shivering, brace yourself again: that world is real — or at least was.

Thankfully, Monday will mark the 75th anniversary of that world's end. On April 7, 1933, breweries produced the nation's first legal beer — indeed, the first legal alcohol it had tasted in more than 13 years. It was on that day that an amendment to the Volstead Act, which had enabled Prohibition under the Constitution's 18th Amendment, took effect. It made legal the production of beer up to 3.2 percent alcohol by weight.

When national Prohibition took effect in 1920, the production of beer, wine, liquor and all other alcohol was outlawed everywhere in the country. The idea was to promote a more orderly society, and alcohol's absence was expected to reduce crime and poverty.

Funny how things turn out sometimes, isn't it?

While the 1920s were by most accounts a boom-time, poverty was far from eliminated, and the economy went bust in 1929. It was a boom-time for organized crime, too, as Al Capone and the like got into the business of distributing bootleg liquor.

Fortunately, the country came to its senses, and enough states ratified an amendment to repeal the ban on alcohol in December 1933.

But long before that, on April 7, Americans toasted alcohol's return with beer. Many breweries stayed in business through prohibition by turning to the production of soft drinks, ice cream and other items. But many didn't survive the outright ban on their former business.

It's a shame that something known as the "temperance movement" wound up dragging the nation into a less-than temperate debate about and ban on alcoholic beverage. The term originally referred to moderating intake of intoxicating beverages.

There's no question that drinking too much leads to bad things. But pushing the country into total intolerance of alcohol didn't do much good either. It did deny people personal liberty, the freedom to exercise their taste and cultural connections to beverages going back thousands of years.

If any good did come of Prohibition, it at least served as a first-hand lesson in the law of unintended consequences. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing — even when the good thing is not drinking.

So as you raise a glass to 75 years of beer's rebirth in America, the best way to do it is in recognition of the dangers of excess — both in consumption and in political certitude. The best way to toast Prohibition's end is in moderation.