Friday, July 23, 2010

Portrait of Prohibition

For a while now, Victory Brewing across the Delaware River has trumpeted April 7th as a festive occasion, a moment to dance upon the grave of Prohibition and its crash 77 years ago.

Lo these many years hence, and amid the national craft beer craze, the folks over in Downington, Pa., have turned the demise of Prohibition into what is ultimately, after all is said and done, an annual marketing campaign, served with a shot of history, some special-occasion throwback-recipe beers, and release parties at bars whose locations are kept secret (sort of), à la speakeasies. "All citizens are urged to honor the day with a Victory beer" goes Victory Brewing's sloganeering.

April 7, 1933, of course, is the date upon which legal – albeit weak (3.2% alcohol by weight) – beer returned to the steins and mugs of US citizens. And it was the break from the starting gate toward ratification that December of the 21st Amendment, which essentially took a Sharpie and wrote Oops in giant, fat letters across the 18th Amendment, that action itself an unprecedented event.

Call it the Volstead Act, the Noble Experiment or the Terrible 13. But, really, whatever you call Prohibiton (1920-1933), just don't call it over and done with, since it left a lasting imprint upon American culture.

If you want to gain that understanding, peel back the many layers to what made America go dry and really dig into an issue that was seismic (yet has often been distilled into jejune retellings), then check out Daniel Okrent's Last Call, The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

A fresh, in-depth account of the era, Last Call is a perfect book for craft beer enthusiasts, the kind of folks whose thirst for better beers runs parallel with their appetite for knowledge, their need to delve deeper.

Okrent graciously fielded some quick questions via email this week for a Q&A here.

BSL: Why do we as a culture harbor an oversimplified, even romanticized view (i.e., gangsters and speakeasies) of Prohibition? Is it truly because of the cinematic retellings and because, as history, it’s served to us in a shot glass when to really understand it, it calls for a pitcher?

DO: What most Americans know about Prohibition was delivered in abbreviated, romanticized, and dumbed-down packages – i.e., in Hollywood films and television shows. The Untouchables bears as much a relationship to the reality of Prohibition as The Flintstones has to the reality of the Stone Age.

BSL: We were once truly a country of irresponsible drinkers ... how does that shape our attitudes toward legal drinking today?

DO: I'm not sure it does; our historical memory is awfully weak. In 1830, the average American over 15 years of age drank the equivalent of 90 fifths of 80 proof liquor annually; today, we drink barely a third of that. Comparing the two eras is almost impossible.

BSL: Prohibition’s effects go far beyond the three-tier system of legal booze under which we enjoy a cocktail nowadays. Given that, what’s the most dramatic or central thing from it that continues to touch Americans' lives today?

DO: It's probably something as simple as the mixed drink. During Prohibition, the quality of illegal liquor was so dubious that it became necessary to dilute the goods with tonic, orange juice, ginger ale – anything that would mask the wretched taste of the booze itself. The other: men and women drinking together. The pre-Prohibition saloon was a men-only sanctum; the Prohibition era speakeasy was open to all comers, and really introduced mixed-sex social drinking to much of America.

BSL: Does Prohibition represent the pinnacle of government interference? And if that’s true, then why don’t we hear it used (or see it widely used) as an example to argue against government interference. For instance, you don’t really hear Republicans ripping on Democrats right now, saying their ideas will be as meddlesome, troublesome and ultimately fail like Prohibition did.

DO: I can't think of a greater intrusion into the lives of the average Americans than Prohibition. But you don't hear politicians citing it today because it was so extreme, and such a failure. Its current political relevance appears most vividly in the arguments over marijuana legalization, such as the ballot measure Californians will be voting on in November.

BSL: Does today’s Tea Party movement and the forces that surround it mirror any elements of the Prohibition movement? Are we witnessing similar political skirmishes and class wars and encountering similar personalities driving the debate?

DO: There's some similarity, primarily in the us-against-them nature of the political battles – they're not just about specific issues, but really about who is going to control the country. On the other hand, the Prohibitionists succeeded because, unlike the Tea Party, they confined themselves to a single issue. The closest analog today would be the National Rifle Association, which doesn't care what a politician thinks on any issue except gun control. And I believe that unrelenting focus is why the NRA is the most successful, in their own terms, of today's political organizations.
About Daniel Okrent
A writer, editor and baseball historian, Okrent is credited as the originator of Rotisserie League Baseball. He's the author of Nine Innings; The Way We Were: New England Then, New England Now; Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center; and the collection of his New York Times columns as Public Editor #1, a look back at his stint as the Times' first ombudsman, when he was called upon to help repair the newspaper's credibility following the Jayson Blair plagiarism/fabrication scandal that bubbled up at the Times during the spring of 2003.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Iron Hill Maple Shade, a year later

Iron Hill will mark the first-year anniversary of its Maple Shade brewpub on Saturday with a fitting soiree that runs from 1 to 5 p.m.

That's brewer Chris LaPierre in the video above, shot June 26th during the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild festival. Below is what Chris put out in his email notice to Iron Hill devotees and mug club members about Saturday's happenings:

As usual we'll show our appreciation with a complimentary buffet from 2-3 p.m. and raffling off a slew of prizes at 4 p.m. As for the beer, (can't forget the beer!) we've got a lot of special stuff saved up for you. ... we'll be tapping our Anniversary Ale (Sour Cherry Belgian Dubbel), Christmas in July (our Winter Warmer that's been aging in a used Bourbon barrel since the holidays), and vintage kegs of English Strong Ale and Flemish Red. I've even got a special cask for you (I haven't yet decided whether to tap the last firkin of Dark Situation or the last pin of our Bourbon Quad).
Follow this link to see what it was like on that inaugural day of business when Iron Hill opened its first location in New Jersey and became the first new brewing enterprise in the Garden State since Krogh's up in Sparta jumped into the game in 1999 with a 5-barrel system.

Iron Hill's reputation with its eight locations (spread among Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey) is one of great beer. But its backstory is about three Jersey guys who had to leave the Garden State to pursue their vision just to be able to return to their home state with that vision. (Are you listening Gov. Christie? IH's saga concerning high-cost, commerce-unfriendly New Jersey is not unique.)

But the expansion has been rewarding.

The Maple Shade location has become one of Iron Hill's busiest (are you sorry you spurned them like you did, Sagemore plaza in Marlton?), drawing a lot of beer enthusiasts from throughout the South Jersey region. And that's happened despite the rather confounding interchanges with Routes 73 and 41 that lead to the brewpub.

Iron Hill's success says something else about South Jersey: That it truly was looking for another player in its beer scene.

And South Jersey scored big time.