Today, beer lovers across the country are celebrating the 85th anniversary of the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which made alcohol legal again. It’s a historic day for our state and nation, marking the end of the 13-year alcohol drought known as Prohibition. Now, that’s something to toast.
It’s tough to imagine Alabama without our thriving beer scene. No matter the occasion, consumers here can find a variety of adult beverage brands, flavors, and profiles at the tip of their fingers. But we rarely take the time to reflect on the rich history of beer and how our nation came to enjoy a beer as America’s most preferred adult beverage.
That is why December 5 is an important reminder for all Americans to say cheers to the forward-thinking lawmakers and leaders who put in place the timelessly effective state-based alcohol structure that continues to bolster the beer industry in Alabama and across our great nation today.
It was not always so. Leading up to Prohibition, marketplace abuses of alcohol were rampant and communities came together nationwide to protest the unregulated sale and consumption of alcohol, ultimately leading to the passage of the 18th Amendment that banned alcohol altogether across the country. Prohibition, the “Noble Experiment,” was an effort to reduce the chaos and misfortune many Americans felt at the time.
But, from 1920-1933, things actually got worse. Illegally-produced liquor poisoned consumers, causing blindness, paralysis and even death. People began drinking more heavily and consuming liquor of higher alcohol contents when they could. Corruption became widespread and formerly law-abiding citizens began breaking the law. Ultimately, Prohibition as a one-size-fits-all solution was a total failure. And, as lawmakers repealed the 18th Amendment with the 21st, they implemented a new system they hoped would prevent the problems preceding Prohibition, while also promoting entrepreneurship, consumer choice, competition and public safety.
The lawmakers’ insistence on different state models would pay tremendous dividends for today’s modern distribution system. Our evolving alcohol market continues to regulate the manufacture, distribution, and sale of beverage alcohol – fostering competition in the market and promoting fair enterprise at each level of the supply chain.
Today, beer entrepreneurs, our craft brewers and our favorite old-time classics can all rely on the efficiency of this industry to reach new markets, and consumers can expect a vast selection of brands. It’s why we’ve seen the number of breweries skyrocket nationally from 49 breweries in the 1980’s to nearly 7,000 today. Alabama alone is home to more than 40 of these establishments. It’s true that the growth and confidence we’ve seen would not exist without the 21st Amendment.
The expansion of beer has also led to significant economic gains. Here in Alabama, beer distributors are responsible for more than 2,400 jobs, provide more than $173 million in wages and benefits to employees, and pay over $198 million in state and local taxes. This incredible economic contribution is all because of a critical, yet little-known member of the beer industry – America’s independent beer distributors.
Very few people understand the significance of beer distributors. Across Alabama, 39 independent beer distributors work closely with brewers, big and small, and retailers to keep the beer shelves stocked and bar taps filled with your favorite brews. These businesses have their finger on the pulse of local consumers’ interests and constantly introduce new beers to new markets.
They have invested in the necessary resources, like state-of-the-art warehouses to store beer and temperature-controlled trucks to transport it, both innovations that allow brewers to thrive. Beer distributors also level the playing field for smaller, craft brewers by giving them fair access to the market riding on the same trucks as the bigger players.
What’s more is how critical beer distributors are to every local economy across America. They are stewards of their communities, and here in Alabama, they also contribute millions to our neighborhoods through charities, local events, and economic development.
So, as we celebrate the anniversary of the 21st Amendment rolling back Prohibition, we toast the historical roots of beer and the significant contributions of our local beer distributors with the same toast President Roosevelt delivered on this day 85 years ago: “What America needs now is a drink.”
Michael Schilleci is the president of Supreme Beverage Company, Inc., a third-generation beer wholesaler in Birmingham, Ala, and is the National Beer Wholesalers Association chairman of the board.