Artifact Spotlight: Alternative liquor products from Prohibition

Artifact Spotlight: Alternative liquor products from Prohibition

In the 1920s liquor companies found creative ways to make products that skirted the new law

Products such as near beer and malt syrup helped liquor companies to stay afloat during Prohibition. The Mob Museum Collection

When Prohibition started on January 17, 1920, beer brewers, liquor distillers and winemakers were in a predicament. The 18th Amendment made it illegal for them to manufacture or sell their main product, so how were they going to survive?

The Volstead Act, passed by Congress to enforce the 18th Amendment, defined “intoxicating liquors” as any drink with alcohol content of at least one half of 1 percent. It also outlined exemptions related to religious, medicinal and scientific uses of alcohol. While not ideal, this was something manufacturers could work with.

By boiling off the alcohol, Anheuser-Busch created Bevo, a non-alcoholic beer. It was met with lukewarm appeal once bootleggers made beer widely available at speakeasies. The Mob Museum Collection

In 1916, Anheuser-Busch began producing “near beer,” a beverage that tasted like beer, foamed like beer and smelled like beer, but with the alcohol boiled off. They called it Bevo, after the Czech word for beer. At the onset of Prohibition, other companies followed suit: Miller had Vivo, Coors had Mannah and Pabst had Pablo.

Alongside Bevo, Anheuser-Busch also sold a dealcoholized version of its American-style lager, Budweiser, with less than one half of one percent alcohol by volume. The Mob Museum Collection

Unfortunately, demand for these products plummeted as bootleggers, moonshiners and rumrunners made the genuine article widely available at neighborhood speakeasies. Without the intoxicating side effects, beer apparently lost its appeal. But brewers already had the next solution in plain sight.

Beer doesn’t start out alcoholic. Brewers combine ingredients to make a wort, a non-alcoholic soup of hops, barley and water. Beer becomes alcoholic by adding yeast, a microscopic fungus that ferments the wort, turning sugar into alcohol. The Volstead Act only outlawed the fermented product, so beermakers could legally sell the ingredients separately.

Soft drinks, yeast and livestock feed joined near beer and malt syrup as part of Anheuser-Busch’s non-alcoholic lineup. Courtesy Anheuser-Busch Archive

Anheuser-Busch started marketing “Hop Flavored Budweiser Barley Malt Syrup,” advertised for baking bread and making malted milk and candy. The slight sweetness of its American lager translated well into a sweetener. Coors followed its lead and effectively became a malted milk company for the duration of Prohibition. Coors continued to make malted milk until 1957.

While barley malt syrup was marketed as a product for making bread and malted milk, many consumers – bootleggers included – used it for making homemade beer. Courtesy Anheuser-Busch Archive

Yet the most popular use of this product was not as a milkshake ingredient, but as a key component of the bootlegger’s supply chain. By 1926, Anheuser-Busch was comfortably weathering the storm, thanks to the hefty profits lining its coffers (from six million pounds of syrup sold annually).

This is a not a can of syrup but instead a promotional coin bank designed to look like a miniature version of Anheuser-Busch’s barley malt syrup product. The Mob Museum Collection

Winemakers joined brewers in the do-it-yourself market. Like beer, before the aging process starts, wine is just grape juice. To supplement income from sacramental wine, some vineyards sold bricks of grape concentrate. Consumers would add water and enjoy grape juice at home. The Vino Sano Grape Brick gave specific instructions: “To prevent fermentation add 1/10% Benzoate of Soda.” Which is to say, if you don’t add the prescribed preservative, your grape juice will eventually become wine.

Shoppers might have seen this advertisement in the windows of stores that sold Vino Sano’s grape bricks. If left alone, the resulting grape juice would ferment into wine. The Mob Museum Collection

Fortunately for the alcohol industry, this detour would not be the new status quo for very long. Prohibition came to an end when the 21st Amendment was ratified on December 5, 1933, ending the 18th Amendment’s 13-year crusade against alcohol. Distilleries, breweries and vineyards returned to making alcoholic beverages. Many, however, now had a slew of alternative products in their repertoire that they continued to sell well after Prohibition ended.

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