Use the smaller-sized text Use the larger-sized text Use the very large text

Brewing and Prohibition

Long before Wisconsin became America's Dairyland, Wisconsin was a beer state. Brewing began in Wisconsin in the 1830s, and by the 1890s, nearly every community had at least one operating brewery. Breweries were as much a part of Wisconsin communities as churches and schools. They supplied steady employment to workers, bought grain from local farmers who in turn often fed brewery by-products to their livestock, and they frequently sponsored community festivals, youth groups, and sports teams. Brewing was intimately tied to Wisconsin's people, particularly its German immigrants, who brought their knowledge and skills with them to North America. Despite beer's popularity and importance to community life, from its beginning the brewing industry fought numerous attempts to restrict its consumption and distribution. Nineteenth century temperance activists and, most profoundly, in the twentieth century prohibition legislation both curtailed its influence.

The process of mashing, boiling, and fermenting grain dates back thousands of years. Beer came to northern Europe around 55 BCE with Julius Caesar's Roman legions and by the Middle Ages, it had become part of everyday life because the boiling and fermenting process made it relatively free of contamination. European settlers brought their beer with them to North America. The first commercial brewery opened in New Amsterdam, now New York City, in 1612. As immigration and settlement increased and the population moved westward, breweries followed, and by the 1850s, Milwaukee was contending with St. Louis for brewing supremacy.

Although Owens Brewery is generally considered the first commercial brewery in Wisconsin (opened in 1840), some evidence seems to suggest that at least two others, one in Mineral Point and one in Elk Grove, were operating before 1840. As Owens Brewery grew, its success soon brought competition, not only in Milwaukee, but across the state. Between 1848 and 1849, twelve breweries opened in Wisconsin: Adam Sprecher in Madison, Frederick Heck in Racine, and August Fuermann in Watertown were among the most prominent brewers. By 1860, nearly 200 breweries operated in Wisconsin, over 40 in Milwaukee alone. Virtually every town had a brewery and in some cases, towns formed around breweries.

The growth of the beer industry in Milwaukee was directly related to the city's large number of German immigrants. In the 1840s, Milwaukee began to take on a distinctly German character as waves of immigrants seeking economic opportunity and, particularly, religious and political freedom settled in the area. German consumers' demand for lager, a German brew, greatly expanded the city's beer industry and provided a large customer base for brewers. Many of these German immigrants were experienced brewers, too, saving owners both time and money in training. The skills and experience of the German immigrants combined with Milwaukee's abundant natural resources -- a good harbor, lumber for barrels, and ice for storage -- to make Milwaukee, and Wisconsin, a giant in the brewing industry.

Despite beer's popularity among Wisconsin immigrants and the rapid growth of breweries, alcohol consumption became a controversial issue in Wisconsin. Many of Wisconsin's first white settlers came from New England, which was a stronghold of temperance. Temperance societies formed around the state, and even Milwaukee, the center of Wisconsin brewing, had one (the Sons of Temperance Grand Division) by 1848. Several northern states passed prohibition laws in the 1850s, and although Wisconsin did not go that far, an 1849 law made tavern owners responsible for any costs associated with supporting drunkards. Not surprisingly, Wisconsin's German population bitterly opposed the law, arguing that it undermined individual responsibility and imposed too harsh a penalty on tavern owners. In 1851, the Legislature replaced the law with a milder version.

Several more attempts were made to restrict alcohol production and consumption in the 1850s but no major measures were passed again until the 1870s. In 1872, the Legislature passed the Graham Law, which again made tavern owners responsible for selling liquor to known drunks. Milwaukee's city attorney challenged the law but the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the Legislature had the right to regulate the sale of alcohol. With no luck in the courts, German Americans shifted attention to the politicians themselves, helping to defeat the Republican administration that had passed the Graham Law in 1873. The Graham Law was replaced the following year with a law that encouraged towns to work with taverns to prevent drunkenness. The new version of the law turned out to be a workable compromise for both German Americans and temperance activists, staying in effect for many years

Temperance represented something far more complicated in Wisconsin than a simple battle between those who drank and those who did not. German immigrants often remained strongly attached to their historical and cultural roots, frequently taking uniform stands on political and social issues such as alcohol and German-language education in schools (see "Americanization and the Bennett Law"), and resisting efforts at assimilation to Yankee cultural norms. Moreover, saloons were increasingly seen as urban institutions and came under attack by rural people who sought to resist the problems associated with them. Temperance, therefore, became symbolic of battles between Yankees and Germans, urban and rural residents, and teetotaling Protestants and seemingly more broad-minded Catholics. All of these forces grew in intensity, particularly during World War I when anti-German sentiment was especially strong, and contributed to the passage of national prohibition, the Volsted Act, in 1919.

With Prohibition, many breweries began to make near beer while others began to produce soda, ice cream, and cheese. Some brewers made malt syrup and other products which individuals could use for home brewing. Many breweries eventually had to close--some forever. In 1926, Wisconsin voters approved a referendum amending the Volsted Act that allowed the manufacture and sale of beer with 2.75 percent alcohol. In 1929, voters repealed Wisconsin's prohibition enforcement law, the Severson Act. Pledging loyalty to the "will of the people" as expressed in these referendums on alcohol, Wisconsin Senator John J. Blaine proposed a constitutional amendment for the repeal of prohibition. The U.S. Senate modified Blaine's resolution to satisfy antiprohibitionists and passed the measure without delay. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified and national prohibition ended.

Today, brewing remains an important part of Wisconsin life, although the brewing industry has changed dramatically from its small community origins. Consolidation and commercialization has brought national, and even international, distribution for some Wisconsin breweries, while a few small brewers have survived through niche marketing and regional loyalty.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vols 3 and 4 (Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Apps, Jerry. Breweries of Wisconsin (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: Reformers organize to curb alcohol abuse in 1840.  Reformers organize to curb alcohol abuse in 1840.
Link to article: A look at the life and legacy of Frances Willard  A look at the life and legacy of Frances Willard
Link to article: A 1930 debate on prohibition enforcement  A 1930 debate on prohibition enforcement
Link to article: Baraboo women launch a raid on town saloons  Baraboo women launch a raid on town saloons
Link to article: Two Milwaukee residents predict the failure of prohibition  Two Milwaukee residents predict the failure of prohibition
Link to article: Wisconsin "drys" push for ratification of national prohibition in 1918  Wisconsin "drys" push for ratification of national prohibition in 1918
Link to article: A temperance society forms in 1835  A temperance society forms in 1835
Link to article: The Anti-Saloon League launches a newspaper, 1905  The Anti-Saloon League launches a newspaper, 1905
Link to article: Prohibition robs Milwaukee of its happiness  Prohibition robs Milwaukee of its happiness
Link to article: Frederick Pabst brings beer gardens to New York  Frederick Pabst brings beer gardens to New York
Link to article: Overproduction leads to a devastating crash for hops farmers in the 1860s  Overproduction leads to a devastating crash for hops farmers in the 1860s
Link to article: A man recalls his years on a hop farm in Sauk County  A man recalls his years on a hop farm in Sauk County
Link to article: Richard Owens opens Milwaukee's first brewery in 1840  Richard Owens opens Milwaukee's first brewery in 1840
Link to article: The famed Schlitz Palm Garden closes its doors in 1921  The famed Schlitz Palm Garden closes its doors in 1921
Link to article: The original home of Schlitz beer in Milwaukee  The original home of Schlitz beer in Milwaukee
Link to article: The "High Life" of Milwaukee's Frederick Miller  The "High Life" of Milwaukee's Frederick Miller
Link to article: Campaign literature from the Wisconsin Prohibition Party  Campaign literature from the Wisconsin Prohibition Party
Link to article: A sketch of the beer barons of Milwaukee, 1892  A sketch of the beer barons of Milwaukee, 1892
Link to book: A souvenir booklet from the Pabst Brewing Company, 1907  A souvenir booklet from the Pabst Brewing Company, 1907
Link to book: A souvenir from the Schlitz Palm Garden, 1896  A souvenir from the Schlitz Palm Garden, 1896
Link to book: A souvenir guide to the Schlitz Brewing Company  A souvenir guide to the Schlitz Brewing Company
Link to book: A promotional song from Fred Miller Brewing Company  A promotional song from Fred Miller Brewing Company
Link to book: National conditions under Prohibition in 1928  National conditions under Prohibition in 1928
Link to book: The federal government investigates prohibition enforcement in Wisconsin, 1929  The federal government investigates prohibition enforcement in Wisconsin, 1929
Link to book: The 1885 Constitution of the Anti-Prohibition Association  The 1885 Constitution of the Anti-Prohibition Association
Link to book: Anti-Prohibitionists argue for the economic importance of the brewing industry, 1885  Anti-Prohibitionists argue for the economic importance of the brewing industry, 1885
Link to images: Images of barrels and barrel-making  Images of barrels and barrel-making
Link to images: A leaflet promotes the benefits of a world without alcohol, 1919  A leaflet promotes the benefits of a world without alcohol, 1919
Link to images: The end of prohibition sparks celebration in 1933  The end of prohibition sparks celebration in 1933
Link to images: Images of brewing and breweries, 1860-1984  Images of brewing and breweries, 1860-1984
Link to manuscript: Detectives investigate drinking in Delavan and Oconto Falls, 1917-1918  Detectives investigate drinking in Delavan and Oconto Falls, 1917-1918
Link to places: The Pabst Brewery Complex in Milwaukee  The Pabst Brewery Complex in Milwaukee
Link to places: Frederick Pabst helps to build a theater in Milwaukee  Frederick Pabst helps to build a theater in Milwaukee

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to book: Wisconsin Blue Books  Wisconsin Blue Books
Link to book: An Italian missionary praises temperance societies  An Italian missionary praises temperance societies

Related Links

Search our catalogs for materials on this topic that aren't yet available online.
Learn more at the Museum of Beer and Brewing
Visit the home of Captain Frederick Pabst
Read more about the temperance movement in Wisconsin

  • Questions about this page? Email us
  • Email this page to a friend
select text size Use the smaller-sized textUse the larger-sized textUse the very large text