Thanksgiving traditionally is a time when people celebrate the harvest and other blessings of the year gone by. It is a time when extended families gather with one another to give thanks for good health and, in some cases, to watch football. The Thanksgiving season of 1933, however, had an element of good cheer that had a lot of people in the Northwoods in a celebratory mood. Historian Gary Entz has the story.
National Prohibition became the law of the land when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in January 1919. Wisconsin was a late comer to ratification. Thirty-nine states, three more than the requisite number to enact the law, had already ratified the amendment before Wisconsin did the same.
The Wisconsin legislature understood the law was already a done deal, so Wisconsin’s vote to ratify was little more than accepting the inevitable. Nonetheless, it was not long before political and business leaders throughout the state began expressing regret over Prohibition. Federal officers continued enforcing prohibition laws in Wisconsin, but by the mid-1920s local and state officers viewed the law as unenforceable. Except in cases where there was a flagrantly excessive violation, saloons operated rather openly in the Northwoods.
Whatever the romanticized appeal that homemade moonshine may have today, it was called rotgut for good reason. It was often made in filthy environments, frequently made people ill, and was never as desirable as alcohol manufactured under proper sanitary conditions. To the relief of many an upset stomach, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s winning campaign planks in 1932 was to roll back Prohibition. One of his earliest acts as president in 1933 was to sign the Beer and Wine Revenue Act, which allowed for the legal manufacture of those two beverages. However, because the Prohibition Amendment was still the law, the alcohol content had to be limited.
This is where 3.2 beer comes from. The concept of 3.2 percent alcohol was an arbitrary number pulled from a 1933 book entitled “Toward Liquor Control.” It was viewed as a compromise between unregulated drinking and full prohibition. No one cared about the obvious fallacy behind the argument that 3.2 beer could not cause drunkenness, and in the late spring of 1933 the Rhinelander Brewery immediately started producing a 3.2 Rhinelander Export Beer.
Despite the 3.2 alcohol content, people in the Northwoods were happy to have Rhinelander Beer back for the summer of 1933. Nevertheless, as the Thanksgiving Season arrived and the formal end of Prohibition neared, the Rhinelander Brewery had big news. On Thanksgiving Day of 1933, the brewery issued a formal announcement that when Prohibition ended on December 5, the brewery was ready with higher 4.5 alcohol content beer that was already aging in its vats.
The day before Prohibition ended, the brewery proudly proclaimed that this would be the first Christmas season in years when Northwoods families could enjoy a bottle of beer brewed right here in Rhinelander. A beer, they said, made from the “finest grains and Rhinelander’s famous city water.” There was a rush on supplies, and distributors ran out of every sort of liquor, except for wine, But, as “the boys who know” said back in 1933, “Rhinelander has always been a whisky, gin, and beer town, so little attention has been given so far to legal wine.”
As the higher alcohol content items sold out, sales from the plentiful supply of 3.2 beer continued merrily, as the reports said. Despite the economic Depression, 3.2 beer made 1933 a particularly happy holiday season.