On April 7, 1933, the Cullen-Harrison Act was enacted allowing U.S. citizens to purchase or sell beer containing no more than 3.2% alcohol by weight or 4.05% by volume. And every year on April 7th that occasion is celebrated around the United States as National Beer Day.
The Volstead Act and Prohibition
When the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1919 it prohibited the production, sale, and purchase of “intoxicating liquors”. However, the amendment didn’t properly define those beverages or describe any penalties for violating the law. And thus, it was the Volstead Act enacted in 1920 that defined those drinks as being any beverage containing more than 0.5% alcohol (comparatively speaking, today’s American beers typically have 5-7% ABV and wine has around 12%).
This took many by surprise as they thought the Volstead Act would only prohibit hard liquor while leaving beer and wine untouched. But that wasn’t the case and millions of people were immediately opposed.
Activists had promised that Prohibition would reduce crime, violence, and poverty. And that Americans would benefit from increased productivity and prosperity along with improved health, morality, and better life in general.
But Prohibition failed to accomplish any of those goals. To the contrary, crime and violence increased dramatically as the mob and gangs battled over illicit alcohol distribution. And drinking increased with cocktail parties and romanticized speakeasies. And while not entirely related, poverty had become worse than ever with the onset of the Great Depression.
Roosevelt and the Cullen-Harrison Act
Times were tough and the majority of the population wanted the 18th Amendment to be repealed. In fact, in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned on ending Prohibition. And once he was elected to office, one of his first actions as President was signing the Cullen-Harrison Act.
Prior to doing so, the movement to repeal Prohibition was so strong that many like-minded individuals were elected to Congress along with Roosevelt. These new Senators and Congressmen were collectively called “the wets” and together they formed a majority that took action quickly.
Roosevelt was sworn into office on March 4th, and a little over a week later he called on Congress to legalize low alcoholic beverages. On March 13th, he said that doing so would provide “much-needed revenue for the Government. I deem action at this time to be of the highest importance.
And just over a week later, legislation revising parts of the Volstead Act arrived on his desk. Thus, on March 22, 1933, Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act into law.
“I think this would be a good time for a beer,” Roosevelt famously remarked.
Of course, the Cullen-Harrison Act wasn’t entirely about allowing Americans to drink beer and wine again. The country was in the midst of the Great Depression and resurrecting an industry increased revenue while also adding much-needed jobs.
National Beer Day and New Beer’s Eve
Just over two weeks later, on April 7, 1933, at 12:01 AM, trucks and carriages emerged from breweries bearing cases and barrels of beer for many, many thirsty Americans. The law wasn’t adopted everywhere. 20 states and the District of Columbia permitted it. Several breweries even distributed cases directly to the White House and the Capitol. While 39% of the country was still effectively “dry”, beginning this day, most Americans could legally enjoy a beer once more.
Of course, the Cullen-Harrison Act was not the official end of Prohibition in the United States (the 21st Amendment was ratified a few months later on December 5, 1933), but it was an important moment for beer drinkers and the country as well. Most Americans were poor and didn’t have money to buy alcohol. But on April 7th, they spent a fortune while consuming 1.5 million barrels of beer. And of course, the government got its share, too—collecting $7.5 million in tax receipts on that one day alone.
A pair of individuals who thought the day worth remembering were beer fanatics named Justin Smith from Richmond, Virginia and Mike Connolly from Liverpool, England. Together, in 2009, they created a Facebook page promoting National Beer Day that received a wide following and notice from the industry. And now through constant Social Media postings, the unofficial holiday has become part of the mainstream. In fact, since that time, National Beer Day has been officially recognized on the US Congressional Record and on January 10, 2018, the Commonwealth of Virginia officially established National Beer Day.
Another unofficial holiday observed in conjunction with the Cullen–Harrison Act is New Beer’s Eve, which is celebrated the evening before National Beer Day. Together, the two events recall a time when throngs of beer-loving patrons gathered outside breweries and taverns to enjoy their first legal beer in 13 years.