The Final Days of the Volstead Act and the Return of Real Beer (Mar 22 — Apr 7, 1933)

Matt Reicher

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President Roosevelt Signs the Relaxation of the Volstead ActPolitico

“I think this would be a good time for a beer.” - President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, (March 12, 1933)

On March 13, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent a two-sentence letter to Congress. In it, he requested they enact "legislation for the immediate modification of the Volstead Act."

Eight days later, legislators passed the Cullen-Harrison Act. It amended the legal definition of intoxicating liquor from .5% alcohol by weight, as defined in the Volstead Act of 1919, to beer and wine with a concentration of 3.2%. It also placed a federal tax on legal alcoholic beverages. The President signed the law, known as the Beer-Wine Revenue Act, on Wednesday, March 22. It was scheduled to go into effect at 12:01 a.m. on April 7, 1933.

Roosevelt and politicians on both sides of the aisle agreed the repeal of Prohibition would provide the country a much-needed economic boost. The 21st Amendment, which called for the end of National Prohibition, was adopted by Congress on February 20. 1933, but getting thirty-six states, the required three-quarters majority, to ratify the legislation through state conventions would take time. The purpose of the Cullen-Harrison Act was to use extra tax revenue to help fund social programs Roosevelt looked to institute.

In short, the added monies would help put the people of the United States back to work.

Now that the Federal Government had determined a new path for the failed Prohibition movement, each state was left to decide whether they'd allow 3.2 beer within their borders. On March 25, 1933, only a few days after Roosevelt had affixed his signature to the Cullen-Harrison Act, the Minnesota Legislature enacted a measure to permit the manufacture and sale of 3.2 beer. On March 27, 1933, the legislation was signed into law by Governor Floyd B. Olson, allowing Minnesota to join the list of states who would license the legal sale of 3,2 beer when the new federal law commenced on April 7.

Minnesota's new beer bill was a stark contrast to the legislative hurdles that littered the state's nineteenth-century Temperance Movement intoxicating liquor regulations. While saloons once contended with expensive business license fees, newly approved state requirements were in comparison nominal charges. Liquor licenses which once cost upwards of one thousand dollars a year could now be had for well under one hundred. An off-sale permit, covering 3.2 beer purchased and consumed off-site, was five dollars a year. On-sale license prices were municipality dependent but began as low as ten dollars a year.

With Governor Olson's signature, Minnesota became one of the first nineteen states, plus the District of Columbia, to approve the public sale of beer. Federal officials expected the five dollars per barrel tax spelled out in the Cullen-Harrison Bill to bring one-hundred and fifty million dollars into the national treasury each year. As the date approached, conversations shifted from political discussions about projected financial windfalls to the building hysteria in anticipation of the moment 3.2 would once again be available. The lead-up seemed to re-invigorate a country in dire need of a collective emotional lift after being mired in the Great Depression for many years.

Each of Minnesota's nine licensed breweries was well-positioned to meet customer demands. The passage of the Cullen-Harrison Bill allowed them to begin building up their stock of 3.2 beer. By April 6 - called "New Beer's Eve" - each company had about thirty-five thousand barrels of beer stored away with the capacity to produce hundreds more each day. More than seven million gallons of beer were ready for distribution. This amount was enough to supply each person in the state with three-and-a-half gallons.

Internal revenue and prohibition agents were on-site collecting the five dollars per barrel tax. Case lots were taxed in thirty-one-gallon increments.

Brewery districts throughout the state bustled with activity on the day before the return of beer. Delivery trucks were loaded and parked in lots next to the breweries, ready to take to the road the moment the clock struck 12:01 a.m. on April 7. In the Twin Cities, public celebrations began before the clock struck midnight. Streets became so congested brewery officials had to call in special police to help maintain traffic. German societies in Saint Paul toasted Roosevelt and the return of "happy days."

While detractors remained, supporters were excited to welcome back 'real' beer. For those in support, April 7 was to be a great day. In only the first few hours in Minnesota, beer sales brought in one-hundred-thousand dollars in revenue to the government. Nationally the economic impact was much the same. On the first day of legal sales, officials estimated that breweries sold more than one million barrels of beer.

All-in-all, it was a happy day across the nation for many of the seventy-million Americans that took part.

At 3:33 p.m. MST on December 5, 1933, buoyed in part by successes that had begun on April 7, Utah became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the 21st Amendment. Proponents achieved the necessary three-quarters majority approval required to enact the 21st Amendment. This action signaled the repeal of the Volstead Act and the end of National Prohibition. The more than thirteen-year ban on intoxicating liquor had ended.

'Real' beer had officially returned.

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Historical researcher and content creator for the Minnesota Then Beer and Brewing History Museum.

Hugo, MN
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