The night before Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, millions of college students returning home will flood watering holes around the nation in one of the busiest bar nights of the year. Many will undoubtedly order a beer, looking for a break from the political debates that have rocked campuses and Capitol Hill in recent months.
But beer is not the break from politics that it is often touted to be.
In fact, breweries have taken a stance on the same controversial issues that have divided college campuses. Just recently, Alligator Brewing in Gainesville, Fla., attempted to empty a Richard Spencer talk by offering free beer to any customer who turned in a pair of unused tickets for his controversial event at the University of Florida.
Alligator used beer to speak out against modern-day white supremacy, and in doing so built on a long history of using beer as a weapon against perceived oppression, whether from fringe groups or the government itself. Beer, like food, fosters democratic engagement. Creating and consuming beer has led to debates over morality, law, diversity and capitalism in the United States. And as a tool for political organizing, it has helped individuals express and safeguard their rights.
For centuries, beer has been more than a social lubricant. It has been political stimulant.
Beer, in fact, was central to the founding of our country. Taverns were more common than churches in Colonial society. They were hubs of political and social life where people ate, drank, heard local news, argued about it, held public meetings and conducted business transactions.
Controlling alcohol, a substance which was considered healthy nourishment during this time, also became a mechanism for imposing social order. Laws regulated when, where and at what price beer and other alcohol could be sold, as well as whom a tavern could entertain. These were deliberate efforts by the governing elite to prevent intermingling between races and classes, control women’s behavior, ban vices like gambling and otherwise enforce moral codes.
And yet, the transformative potential of taverns and alcohol cut both ways. While some used them to preserve the status quo, others wielded them to enact radical change. Consider, for example, Samuel Adams (the fiery patriot, not the craft beer brand), a maltster who used Colonial drinking culture to generate support for independence. He, along with John Hancock and other patriots, used taverns around Boston to organize the Sons of Liberty and plan acts of resistance against the British crown.
So intertwined were watering holes and politics that between 1785 and 1790, when New York City was the capital of the fledgling United States, a Manhattan tavern housed the Departments of State, Treasury and War.
Beer continued to be both a tool of social control and of political resistance throughout the 1800s. Temperance reformers viewed alcohol as the chief source of crime, poverty and insanity in society, and campaigned feverishly to reduce the nation’s staggering alcohol intake (which averaged more than twice what Americans consume today). Their first targets were relatively potent distilled liquors, but by the 1850s they deemed beer, the “juice of rotten barley,” to be just as evil. They pushed for legislation, called Maine laws, which would ban all forms of alcohol.
In Chicago, lawmakers regulated not just the beer itself, but the saloonkeepers who sold it, and who were predominantly German immigrants. Believing their rights to be under attack, the city’s sizable German population fought back.
Led by a local German brewer, Chicago’s beer drinkers organized scores of petitions, raised funds to help those arrested under the laws and campaigned against Illinois’s proposed Maine law. Beer gardens and halls were vital hubs for their grass-roots effort, and when the city remained intransigent, they became gathering points for an armed march on city hall. The conflict escalated in April 1855 when 1,000 German and Irish immigrants clashed with police in the streets of downtown Chicago. Police forced them back and subsequently raided several beer saloons within the vicinity, arresting any immigrant they thought to be part of the mob.
In the end, the brutal police response shifted the balance of power among voters. Chicago’s Lager Beer Riot ignited a passion for politics among the city’s German population, whose ballots killed the Maine law in Illinois and would constitute a powerful voting bloc for decades to come.
Even without riots, legislators were forced to take brewers seriously because brewers translated their loyal customer base, made up mostly of immigrants, into political clout. For example, in 1862, the federal government passed a new tax on beer (among other things) to help finance the Civil War. Brewers around the country formed the United States Brewers Association to negotiate government interference in their industry. Foreshadowing modern lobbying, the USBA succeeded in lowering taxes on beer by forming the first such trade organization in the country.
But it was ultimately Prohibition, not taxes, that heightened the conflict between the government and brewers. When the temperance campaign successfully pushed the 18th Amendment across the finish line, beer became a weapon of resistance.
Yes, Al Capone reportedly ran six illegal breweries in Chicago, but it was August A. Busch who recognized that the legal sale of beer could also be effective in exposing the government’s hypocrisy with its national ban on alcohol. While sailing to Germany in 1922, Busch was amazed to see beer, wine and spirits flow freely once the ship entered international waters, despite being owned by the United States Shipping Board, a federal agency.
“This,” he declared in a letter to his son Adolphus Busch III, “makes the United States incomparably the biggest bootlegger in the world.” Adolphus promptly launched a media campaign that rocked President Warren Harding’s administration and forced USSB Chairman Albert Lasker to admit that the U.S. government wasn’t as dry as it expected everyone else to be.
Though the 18th Amendment avoided repeal for another decade, the Busch-Lasker controversy led to spirited debates about the legal limits of Prohibition, as international shipping posed a significant gray area regarding the transport or sale of alcohol, and thrust the federal government’s inability (or unwillingness) to enforce the law into the media spotlight.
Then and now, beer contributes to societal debates over morality, law, diversity and capitalism. It provides a ready gathering point for political activists as well as motivation to action. Throughout 2017, factions within the beer industry lobbied Congress for tax reform, culminating in a drastic excise tax cut for brewers in the proposed Senate GOP tax plan. Meanwhile, a string of craft brewery buyouts by large conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch-Inbev and MillerCoors have led to conversations both frantic and intense about business ethics, beer quality and the role of consumer choice in shaping capitalist markets.
Humorously named protest beers like “Slacktivist” and “Make Earth Great Again” can be both political and profitable. But craft brewers also collectively donated $73.4 million to charitable causes in 2016.
Beer is also generating debates about diversity and inclusion within its ranks. Individual brewers have drawn very public criticism over beer names and labels that are deemed sexist, and craft beer has long been perceived to have difficulty attracting nonwhite, nonmale demographics. Though some progress has been made in addressing these issues within American beer circles, they refuse to disappear entirely.
Like it or not, beer is, and will continue to be, a political stimulant — just as it has always been.