The roots of America’s most controversial beverage

It’s nearing midnight on a Friday, and it’s been a long week.

“Wow,” a young man thinks. “I could really use a beer.”

He drives down a Hollywood, Fla. street, I.D. in hand (real or otherwise), and pulls into a gas station. He grabs his beer, walks to the counter and is perplexed to see the clerk shaking her head.

“No beer after midnight,” the clerk says. “Hollywood ordinance.”

Two days later, the same man walks out his home front door, tickets in hand, to watch the Buccaneers play.

Later standing in the parking lot, he notices thousands of people openly drinking beer. No need to worry about open-beverage laws on this day.

As he makes his way through the stadium, he is bombarded by images that display the power and money behind American beer manufacturers. There are ads everywhere. Budweiser has a sign that looks 100 feet tall. Over in the south end zone, Miller advertises its “best-seat-in-the-house” contest.

The man stops, sees all of the advertisements and thinks, “I’m at a Bucs game, I believe it’s officially “Miller Time.”

He strolls to a concession stand, where a large-bellied clerk wearing latex gloves shakes his head.

“No beer before 1 o’clock,” he grumbles.

Two weeks later, the man is visiting friends in the Carolinas. It’s another Sunday afternoon, and he decides to go to a bar and watch the NASCAR race. As he pulls into the bar’s lot, a grizzled bartender, who is shaking his head, meets him.

“This town is dry on Sundays,” the bartender informs him.

The man scratches his head. There is a race on television for which every major beer company has sponsored a car at a price as high as $15 million a year, yet he can’t purchase a product that he will see advertised all afternoon.

The man’s head swims with several questions. Why are there so many rules surrounding alcohol in the United States? How did beer and liquor companies become so wealthy? And most importantly for the beer-guzzling, football-watching public, where is the balance between the manufacturers’ power and governmental control?

An immediate impact

In the early days of European conquest in North America, the influence of alcohol spread almost as quickly as the new colonists.

While the colonists experienced their first puffs of tobacco, the Native Americans took their first drinks of old-world whiskey.

Some historians will argue the downfall of the Native Americans was centered on disease and the effects of alcohol.

Alcoholism among Native Americans was rampant. Even today, their population, in many places, struggles with high rates of alcoholism.

In addition, alcohol products and their ingredients were a part of taxed colonial trade routes. Those routes became part of the dispute between American colonists and the English crown.

Birth of golden empires

The later half of the 19th century saw the birth of what have become the monsters of alcohol production and distribution. From the Rockies to St. Louis to Milwaukee to Lynchburg, Tenn., new and faster brewing and shipping techniques allowed these companies to begin spreading, at first covering regions and gradually moving nationwide.

1855 – German-born Frederick Edward John Miller migrated with $9,000 and his old-world brewing skills to Milwaukee, Wis. There, he opened the Plank Road Brewery. That burgeoning business spawned several brews that have been distributed nationally.

1863 – A 13-year-old Jack Daniel bought his first still. His Tennessee Whiskey quickly became a hit, earning first prize at a World’s Fair. His process and the distillery have remained much the same. The empire has continued to operate from the small town of Lynchburg, Tenn.

1873 – Adolph Coors came upon the small town of Golden, Colo., and became convinced the crystal clear Rocky Mountain water made better beer. The brewery he created still rests in the midst of the snow-covered Rocky peaks.

1876 – In St. Louis, other German immigrants brought their beer-making skills to the Midwest. The Anheuser-Busch Co. officially released the product that would make it into a national, and international, empire. Budweiser rolled out of the brewery for the first time.

A dark age for breweries, a golden age for the Mafia

As breweries continued to grow in the first part of the 20th century, some groups of people began to rebel against an alcohol culture. In the Midwest, bands of women, unhappy their husbands spent most of their days drunk in bars, began a sort of crusade. There are famous stories of ax- and stick-wielding groups breaking into bars and destroying alcohol.

In 1920, breweries nationwide saw their worst nightmare realized. The U.S. government outlawed alcohol. For the major breweries, it was a lean period until the ban was lifted after more than a decade. Some, forced to create other products, nearly lost everything.

Meanwhile, the Italian Mafia and other immigrant groups took full advantage of the situation. Speakeasy bars and smuggling operations made millions for organized crime members. Al Capone became one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Chicago, if not the nation. Joe Kennedy, father of future president John F. Kennedy, made his family’s fortune smuggling alcohol during this period, working in accord with the Mafia. Joseph Bonano, one of the great New York Mafia chieftains, began his career in this fashion, as well, working at times with Kennedy.

During this time, booze smugglers moved the goods in fast-moving ships onshore. One of these men, who went by the name of McCoy, had a particularly desired blend. Many tried to imitate him, but speakeasy guests still asked for the product delivered by McCoy himself. From there came a term that has entered the American lexicon and seen its roots erased. That term is “the real McCoy.”

Booze running in the South becomes the birth of a sport

Before Mountain Dew was the name a soft drink, it was southern-speak for moonshine. Up in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, moonshine was widely made and distributed. But while this area was the home of moonshine, it was also known as the Bible Belt. Some citizens and the police didn’t like bootlegged alcohol being run through the mountains.

With the cops on their heels, the booze runners souped up their cars and drove them fast through the mountains. Eventually, a competition emerged as to who could make runs faster. Eventually, this competition made its way into a paid spectator event.

As Southern soldiers returned from World War II and took up their old fast-driving, hard-living ways, they became organized into a stock-car racing organization. These old booze runners became the forefathers of modern NASCAR.

From regional to international

The 1950s were an important time for major American breweries. The advent of refrigerated product handling allowed beer to be kept fresh and shipped over great distances. An increase in marketing also made beer company slogans some of the most recognizable advertisements. Many of the major companies spread their operations, creating several new products. Anheuser-Busch also became owner of several theme parks.

Is America Puritanical?

While drinking may be a large part of the American experience, the country still has a reputation for rather strict alcohol laws. Europeans giggle when hearing about open beverage laws. In addition, the 21-year-old drinking age is one of the highest in the world, a full five years higher than Germany’s.

Occasionally, in Bible Belt states, towns that practice prohibition. From where does this strict lawmaking come?

Is it from this nation’s religious roots? Certainly, a vocal part of the voting population is religious. Could it be that politicians want to please the religious voters with stringent alcohol laws?

Or could the answer be more mundane? Certainly town ordinances vary greatly, depending on the make-up of the populace.

The bottom line

Whatever the reason might be, Americans seem to have learned to live with the alcohol culture. For some, it is a fun challenge to try to break alcohol laws. But many Americans may little realize the effect the alcohol economy has on daily life. From bringing sporting events to millions of people, to keeping thousands of businesses, large and small, afloat, the business of alcohol production has, in the past century, become vital to the economy.

Contact Rob Brannon at