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Monday, October 16, 2017

The First Legal Beer After Prohibition

The image quality is quite lousy, but in this photo from the Seattle Daily Times we see the location of what was believed to have been the first legal beer served in the state of Washington since before prohibition. The brew was served at 12:01 AM Friday April 7, 1933 at Rippes Cafe, an establishment which traced its lineage back to the original Rippes in 1904, and forward to the current Von's 1000Spirits GustoBistro today.

Many people assume that moments like this happened only with the repeal of the 18th amendment in December of that year, but in fact this was enabled by the earlier Beer and Wine Revenue Act (AKA Cullen-Harrison_Act), which made it legal to sell beer and wine of 3.2% ABV and lower (as most beers were in the pre-prohibition era) starting on what has recently come to be celebrated as National Beer Day. Washington was one of 18 states where it became legal for licensed establishments to serve at 12:01am that Friday morning, the earliest point allowed by the federal legislation. In the previous November Washington had passed Initiative 62, repealing all state liquor prohibitions except the one forbidding minors, and clearing for the renewed flow of beer in all but a few cities and counties preserved a "local option" against it. By the morning of that April 7th, the Seattle City Council, in consultation with the chief of police, had approved around 150 licenses of various types for serving beer and wine -- most of them to restaurants and only one or two for "beer parlors," which were initially restricted from serving after midnight.

While Washington's state-wide prohibition had banned beer since Jan 1, 1916 (by 3am that morning a saloon owner had already been arrested for serving), it came as a surprise to many people across the countrythat beer and wine had been prohibited in the first place -- even after the passage of the 18th amendment. The amendment refers to "intoxicating liquors," a phrase generally taken at the time to be confined to hard spirits. So when Congress later passed the Volstead Act over Woodrow Wilson's veto and defined the phrase to include beer and wine, this came as a shock not only to the general public but to many brewers. (wikipedia)

On the first day of relief from the act, as would be expected, supply was not up to meet the demand. At the time there was only one brewery in Seattle (the Hemrich plant on Airport Way) and the Columbia Brewery in Tacoma. Actually having beer to serve at 12:01 generally required restaurant owners to purchase and transport the supplies themselves, fighting through "a jam of hundreds of automobiles and several thousand persons," despite the fact that breweries were not allowed to sell directly to the public. The supply appears to have essentially run dry around 11am, even as trucks from Tacoma and trains from San Francisco and St. Louis departed at midnight to relieve thirsty Seattlelites. Some trucks were accompanied by an impromptu escort of motorists, honking their horns and shouting as they tracked the brew to its destination.

The shortages also took advantage of the unwary with scams such as "needled beer" -- near beer injected by the seller with alcohol and carbonated water, and sold on ice with a story like "this came from Spokane by motor truck." (Seattle Times 4/8/33). In the legal joints lucky enough to get a supply, beer sold for 5 cents a 7 oz glass "below the line," i.e. in the "skid road" joints south of Yesler, and in the "uptown" establishments at 10 cents for a 10 or 12 oz glass. Details are spotty on which places had or did not have beer at the outset, but in addition to Rippes some of the establishments licensed to sell by the very first day were the Virgina Inn, Smith Tower, the Arctic Club, and a bar of unknown name at 7320 Greenwood (the original location of the 74th St Tavern and now Herkimer Coffee.

Of course the limits on ABV and the ban on hard liquor ended officially later that year, with the repeal of the 18th Amendment. The 21st Amendment was officially effective Dec 15th, but few people waited for that after ratification was official on Dec 5. In Seattle, the City Council would continue providing licenses to establishments that the police approved until Jan 23, 1934, when the state passed the Steel Act, establishing the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Over 80 years later, on November 3, 2015, the city of Fircrest Washington voted to allow serving alcohol by the glass, thus ending the last dry community on the west coast.