Manhattan’s New Beer Scene

A Library of Congress website neatly summarized the arc of Prohibition, as follows:

The 18th Amendment (PDF, 91KB) to the Constitution prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors…” and was ratified by the states on January 16, 1919. The movement to prohibit alcohol began in the United States in the early nineteenth century. On October 28, 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act (PDF, 2.03MB), which provided for the enforcement of the 18th Amendment. Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933, with the ratification of the 21st Amendment(PDF, 88KB).

Of course, the reality was much more dense, in that many states had adopted prohibition in all or part of their territory well before the 18th Amendment was ratified. A delayed wartime prohibition measure was also enacted in the fall of 1919, ahead of the scheduled nation-wide liquor ban one year after the 18th Amendment was adopted.

Finally, the Volstead Act provided many practical rules for the working of Prohibition, including by defining what was alcoholic beverage, .5% was the threshold. Various exemptions were provided for medicinal alcohol and alcohol for religious rites. Homes could ferment up to 200 gallons of wine as well, i.e., for private use.

When Prohibition ended, beer was legalized first. The Volstead law was amended effective April 7, 1933 by the Cullen-Harrison Act to allow “3.2” beer, that is 3.2% ABW. There were exemptions again for ale, which could be stronger but lager, the standby of American beerdrinking before 1920, was henceforth permitted by the device of raising the non-alcohol ceiling to 3.2% ABW.

This is equivalent to 4% ABV beer, certainly beer by any definition albeit on the weaker side of the spectrum. English draft beer is about that strength, for example.

The states had to ratify the change in their territory, with some acting more quickly than others. New York acted fast and by the time the menu shown below (courtesy was printed, beer was legal again in Manhattan.



The menu is dated May 23, 1933, less than two months after Cullen-Harrison‘s liberation of the beer business. It is interesting to examine the menu to note that a reasonable beer selection was available despite the short time available to stock up. Clearly breweries had ramped up in anticipation of the legal sale of beer, and wholesaling mobilized quickly to get beer to the restored market, even from overseas as beer from Munich was available, and English beer.

Schaefer of Brooklyn could be supped, one of America’s oldest lagers. Trommer’s all-malt lager, too. And Ruppert, another great New York beer name, long associated with Yankees baseball. Rheingold, of the German-Jewish Liebmann family, was back. Bass Ale in two bottlings too, as often the case before Prohibition.

Pabst and Schlitz from Milwaukee could be ordered, Bud from St. Louis, and Pickwick Ale from the former beer hive of Jamaica Plain, Boston – many shrines of Gambrinus were represented.

The German beer appears to have been Zum Dürnbräu’s, one of Munich’s oldest restaurants and probably also a brewery in 1933 or with a brewery attached.

That was pretty fast, to get beer in from Germany like that. When New York wants something, they get it in the proverbial New York minute…

Even Canada pitched in (quite literally) via Oland’s ale from Nova Scotia, still available today but in the AB-In Bev family now.

The wine offerings seem rather a puzzle, as wine in its conventional sense, along with liquor, was legalized at the end of 1933 with the adoption of the 21st Amendment. The answer is that Cullen-Harrison permitted “3.2” wine. See footnote no. 132 in Thomas Pinney’s second volume of his American wine history.

The footnote gives a recipe for such dilute wine, it sounds like rather a concoction. But the familiar words, Burgundy, Medoc, etc. had a resonance from pre-Pro days.

Pinney writes that German winemakers refused to make such a weak wine for the U.S., but the McAlpin menu seems to offer one, a Moselle, as well as a real Burgundy.

The McAlpin’s menu was mostly American with a sprinkling of German and Italian dishes. The beef stew and beer – the Belgian beef carbonnades – is an unusual touch. Beer rarely influenced the kitchen in American cooking with the exception of the 1870-1920 Welsh Rabbit craze and some post-1950s interest in Beer and Cheddar Soup, a dish I’ve written about earlier.

I’d guess with the novelty of beer’s reappearance, someone thought a dish cooked with beer would attract attention.

The Hotel McAlpin was a New York institution, once the largest hotel anywhere. It still stands, today a residential building.


2 thoughts on “Manhattan’s New Beer Scene”

  1. Pickwick ale lasted into the 1970’s. In the end brewed by Narragansett in Rhode Island. I remember buying it in Connecticut as well as Narragansett’s porter as an 19 year old. The package store owner would look at me with some curiosity when this “kid” special ordered cases of these obscure beers.

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