America has a long love and hate history with alcohol. It has been with us since the beginning; it sparked unrest and political action in taverns across the colonies, it lent courage to those Patriots that tossed Britain’s significantly less potent beverage into the harbor in Boston, it kept spirits up when it looked like the Cause of Liberty in the New World was but a bittersweet dream. It treated battlefield wounds in the American Civil War and fueled the Roaring 20s. But our relationship with spirits hasn’t always been so bubbly. The laughably ironic Whiskey Rebellion, brought into the world by distillers angry about excessive regulation and quashed on orders of George Washington himself, was the first sign that the newly formed US government wouldn’t always be so friendly with booze. Prohibition, of course, is the first thing that comes to mind when people think of alcohol and the US government. But as is true for all of history, there is much to learn from the past that we can apply to the present.
I mentioned several key roles that hooch has played in early American history, but I think that the importance of it, while humorous, cannot be understated. Our most famous Founding Fathers didn’t just imbibe in them (to excess, I might add), many of them brewed or distilled their own, and even formed their own businesses around them. George Washington owned five whiskey distilleries, which turned out over 10,000 gallons of whiskey and brandy a year and grew to become the biggest liquor producing companies in Virginia by the time of his passing. Thomas Jefferson had 2,000 acres of vineyard, in a failed attempt to recreate wines from Europe that he was very fond of. James Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution”, attempted to create a Federal Brewery. I believe Samuel Adams may have had something to do with beer as well? The list goes on ad nauseam, but suffice it to say, the Framers were big fans of brewing, consuming, and selling the sauce.
More importantly, though, the impact of alcohol on the average Colonial citizen in the time of the Revolution was key to its success. Unlike modern-day bars or Pubs, Taverns weren’t just for grabbing a drink with friends after a day of work. Taverns served as a place to blow off steam, to meet with key heads of the community, and to discuss politics of the day and exchange ideas. This being the case, Taverns quickly became hotbeds of criticism and building rage against the Crown, a rage that simply could not be bottled. Impassioned speeches were made by lantern light, rum and beer flowed, and the first Patriots were born. Do you think a bunch of grown men would dress up as Native Americans, form a mob, and storm one of His Majesty’s ships to throw his tea into the harbor without the influence of alcohol?
Fast-forward to the time of Michael Jackson songs, giant cell phones, and awful Mustang models, when Budweiser and Miller were essentially the only well-known beer companies in the US, two industry titans that secured their dominance of the market with the help of government regulation. They had similar taste, similar marketing, and no need for additional innovation. Fewer than one-hundred brewing operations existed in the whole country. But the early 1980s brought a huge wave of deregulation to the beer industry, acting as a catalyst for new companies, flavors, jobs, and some amazing beer. A revolution of a far different kind was now taking place, and it would change the face of the American brewing industry, and the American economy as a whole, forever. Over the next three decades, the industry grew from one-hundred brewing operations to over five-thousand! The craft beer industry alone pulled in $23.5 billion in 2016, adding to a total of $107.6 billion for the overall beer industry in the US, with no regulatory cap in sight.
This, of course, doesn’t even take into account the legion of middle-aged and recently retired men that began buying home-brew kits, attempting to breath new life into old recipes in garages across the country. Homebrewing kits can be found everywhere, from hardware stores to Amazon. Instructions, recipes, and advice can be garnered from thousands of books, videos, and forums across the internet. Beer, wine, mead, and even liquor are constantly being experimented with and improved by average Americans every day. On the private sector side, walk into any grocery store or Wal-Mart in America, and you see at least one whole aisle devoted to different beers alone, with new brands and brews all the time. Walk into a more specialty store like World Market or Trader Joe’s, and there is much more than that. Drive into towns of all sizes and you’ll find a dedicated microbrewery or a restaurant that prides itself on selling its own beers brewed on location, all with a different twist.
Thousands of new flavors, tens of thousands of new businesses, hundreds of thousands of jobs, and billions of dollars were created, and that is cause enough for rejoicing. But that is just the tip of a cold, delicious iceberg. The ultimate point here, the takeaway, is the beauty of the Free Market. Just by deregulating a small corner of one given market, and allowing relatively unbridled free enterprise take the lead, exponential growth has taken over in a far smaller amount of time than could ever have been expected. It costs the government (i.e. taxpayers) less, consumers are happy, producers are happy, and it even boosts the economy on every level. What’s not to like? Perhaps most surprisingly of all, there was no blood in the streets or mass poisoning of consumers. Except for maybe a little over consumption of frothy, malty happiness. So what are you waiting for? Go support your local microbrewery (and economy), buy a home-brewing kit, pop a top, and start getting blasted! After all, it’s what the Founding Fathers would have wanted.
– William Gadsden