Needle beer: A poke at Prohibition-era brew

IMAGINE ORDERING a nice, cold pint of beer in a bar, but before the foam has a chance to settle, the bartender pulls out a syringe and gives the glass a squirt of alcohol.

Forget about careful brewing methods or even enjoyable flavor. Just choke down your dose of ethyl alcohol like it’s medicine.

This was needle beer, and it’s the way America drank its suds during Prohibition, whose ban on beer came to a close 83 years ago today.

The practice seems alien in our age of fine craft-beer cuisine, but it was an everyday fact of life for a man who wanted to wet his whistle during the Roaring Twenties. All alcoholic drinks were illegal under the 18th Amendment, of course, but as with all such laws, there was a giant loophole:

Near beer, or de-alcoholized beer.

Technically, it wasn’t really beer; the labels called it “cereal beverage. ” It was completely legal and was sold locally with such names as Puritan and Birell.

One food authority of the time described it as a “wishy-washy, thin, ill-tasting, discouraging sort of slop. “

W.C. Fields famously cracked, “The man who called it ‘near beer’ was a bad judge of distance. “

How anyone could stomach it is anyone’s guess. But near beer was widely available, as was pure alcohol that had been distilled ostensibly for industrial use.

It didn’t take a genius to put the two together.

Though newspaper reports describe the widespread technique of spiking (or “thumbing”) individual glasses of beer, needle beer got its name from the illegal practice of adding straight alcohol by piercing cork-like keg bungs with horse syringes.

Armed with the giant syringes, organized gangs turned needle beer into a full-scale industry, running hidden operations at near beer breweries or warehouses.

Philadelphia in particular was notorious for its needle-beer syndicate.

In a series of newspaper articles in 1929, Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the Volstead Act’s most aggressive prosecutor, described how the city’s so-called Malt Brothers built a network of frontmen and delivery services to facilitate needle-beer distribution.

Willebrandt wrote of one beer racketeer who called himself the “fastest beer shooter in the state of Pennsylvania. ” With crooked Prohibition agents alerting him to coming raids, the gangster bragged that when the G-men left town for an hour, “he would shoot enough beer to hold them for a month. “

Adding alcohol to near beer did not magically transform the stuff into something palatable.

One old-timer in an oral history of Prohibition described it as “like drinking a bottle of 44-D cough syrup. “

In California, a federal judge made headlines by dismissing charges against a defendant accused of selling the illicit brew because needle beer was unfit to drink and therefore did not technically qualify under the 18th Amendment as an actual beverage.

Bad flavor was only the start.

Sometimes the beer had been spiked with antifreeze or Sterno or ether. Even worse was Jamaica ginger extract, a medicinal ethanol solution that, consumed in large amounts, could cause a paralytic condition known as “jake leg. ” (If you’ve ever seen Walter Brennan as an alcoholic in the classic film To Have or Have Not, you’ve seen jake leg. )

Beer drinkers had few other options, so needle beer became an accepted part of American culture. Jimmy Durante talked about it in the movies. Novelist Eudora Welty wrote about mixing it with bathtub gin. Newspaperman A.J. Liebling ordered up 25-cent glasses in Times Square.

As quickly as it grew, needle beer disappeared almost immediately on April 7, 1933. On that day, the Cullen-Harrison Act legalizing low-alcohol 3.2 beer went into effect. The following December, ratification of the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition completely.

With no reason to enhance that odious near beer, needle beer was laid to rest.

Until now. No story of needle beer can be complete without an actual taste. So I headed off to Acme for a bottle of Clausthaler nonalcoholic amber, and then to Rite-Aid for a syringe. I figured 50cc of 40-proof Tito’s Handmade Vodka would do the trick.

Spritzed into a mug, there was no notable change in appearance.

The flavor? It tasted like carbonated malt juice with a shot of vodka.

We’ve all had worse.

But, thankfully, these days we have a choice.


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