Wednesday, 31 January 2018

No thank you, Mr Volstead

Human beings are problem solvers.  Other animals may be faster, stronger, or reproduce more quickly than us, but we think our way around problems.  So in 1920, when the Volstead Act outlawed the sale of intoxicating beverages, vast numbers of Americans discovered how easy it is to make alcohol.

Beer was easier to make than spirits, and didn't require any equipment that couldn't be found in a normal '20s kitchen.  This naturally made home brewing an attractive choice.  Making beer* at home was illegal under the Volstead Act, but in practice this part of the Act was too difficult to enforce and everybody knew it.  The Prohibition Commissioner himself admitted that "the government is not in a position to prosecute the non-commercial home brewer."

Prohibition-era beer recipes

The following is a fairly typical prohibition-era home brew recipe, kindly contributed by Stephen Hansen of Stanford University and published online by

  • 1 can Blue Ribbon malt
  • 1 pack Fleishmann's yeast
  • 1 cup rice
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 5 pounds powdered cane sugar
Procedure: In a large (3 gallon) porcelain pan, add 3 quarts water and bring to boil. Add sugar, stirring. Bring back up to boil and add 1 can of malt. Return to boil again and let simmer for 15 minutes. Fill large glass 1/2 full of luke warm water (not over 130 degrees) and add rice, yeast, and salt. Clean crock and fill 1/3 full of warm water. Pour in wort. Add cold water to within 3 inches of top. Add yeast solution and cover. After 6- 10 hours remove foam with wire strainer. Let sit until hydrometer says "bottle." Fill bottles, adding 1/2 teaspoon sugar to each. Cap and let stand 21 days. Comments: Back when I first started making beer (about 20 years ago now) I actually made several batches using this recipe. The results varied from barely drinkable to snail bait. I especially like his comparison in the last line of the original---"This should make 5 cases of pint bottles of beer equal to or superior to Millers High Life."

The crock used in this recipe would have held around five gallons of liquid** and was intended for making pickles or sauerkraut.  Pickling crocks were a common piece of kitchen equipment during the early 20th century.  They were made of thick stoneware which helped to keep the beer at a nice even temperature for optimal fermentation.

Notice the recipe does not call for hops, which were already incorporated into the malt syrup.  Using a single can of hop flavoured malt extract supplemented with corn sugar or regular white cane sugar seems to have been the norm.  Supplementing (or even completely replacing) malt with other types of sugar had been relatively common in the United States during the colonial period because barley was not always available, and during prohibition home brewers revived this traditional practice.

Like their colonial ancestors, Americans of the '20s and '30s couldn't necessarily obtain malted barley.  But they could enjoy the latest modern convenience: concentrated malt extract packaged in convenient tins.

The malt to sugar ratio varied, but all the prohibition-era malt extract recipes I've seen use one can of malt and derive at least half the fermentable sugar from some type of baking sugar rather than malt.  Sugar was cheap, and readily available in large quantities without attracting suspicion from the authorities, but it does not make great beer.  This, in fact, is the main reason why recipes like the above example did not result in a very drinkable product: beer made with so much sugar would have been thin and unpalatable.

I suspect the reason so many prohibition home brew recipes were so similar is that they were all variations on the same original recipe.  If you had bought a can of Blue Ribbon*** malt and weren't quite sure how to turn it into beer, you could write to the address on the tin for a free recipe booklet.  It was a nice printed book containing a wide variety of recipes made with malt extract, and not a word about beer.  A couple of weeks later, you would get a plain brown envelope with no return address in the mail, which contained a mimeographed sheet of instructions for making beer.  This arrangement was in operation right up until the '70s, because home brewing was illegal in the United States until 1978.

Beer for everyone

Regardless of what the beer tasted like, these prohibition-era malt extract recipes were revolutionary.  They were very simple recipes made with inexpensive ingredients which were legal and available at the local grocery store.  Even if you had never made beer before and knew nothing about brewing, you could easily follow one of these recipes.

Using malt extract meant home brewers didn't need to mash their own grains to make wort, and this was important.  Mashing is time consuming, and requires the brewer to have some idea of what they're doing.  It also requires the brewer to obtain malted barley, and creates large quantities of spent grains which then have to be disposed of somehow.  Malt extract makes the brewing process less complicated, and more discrete.

Thanks to malt extracts and recipes that used them, home brewing became quick, easy, and inexpensive.  This allowed home brew to be made on a scale that has not been seen before or since.  It's impossible to know exactly how much home brew Americans made during the prohibition years, but the numbers we do have are staggering.

In Cleveland alone it was estimated that by 1923, 100,000 residents were making beer or spirits.  To put this into perspective, the 1920 census recorded a total of 116,545 dwellings in Cleveland.

In Detroit, the state Bureau of Taxation reported that 14 million gallons of home brew were produced between January and July 1932.  That was just the home brew they knew about.

These isolated data don't give us a comprehensive picture of home brewing during prohibition, but they do illustrate the popularity of home brewing, and the fact that it had become both accessible and convenient.

*  Making wine at home for personal consumption remained legal.  There were exemptions in place for wine due to its use in Holy Communion.

**  Prohibition home brew recipes typically yielded about five gallons, because that was the typical size of a pickling crock.  Even today most home brew recipes will yield about 5 gallons, and I have to wonder whether this is a remnant of the prohibition tradition that has somehow been retained.

***  Yes, that's Blue Ribbon as in Pabst Blue Ribbon.


  1. Fascinating! As a teetotaler, the whole home brew movement has passed me by, so your post has provided me with information I did not have before. Thank you.

    1. You're welcome! I had no idea the history of 20th century home brewing was so interesting until I started looking at malt extracts.