Al Capone’s killer beer

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WITH all due respect to Yards Brewing and its delicious, new¬†Chocolate Love Stout, released just in time for Valentine’s Day, forget all that lovey-dovey stuff.

Sure, your honey might enjoy its soft, dark pour, its rich kiss of chocolate and its seductively smooth buzz. But we’re hard-nosed beer drinkers, and for us, Feb. 14 means one thing only: the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929.

Real beer drinkers should raise their glasses today to the seven men who were machine-gunned to death in a Chicago warehouse 84 years ago Thursday. They died so you could drink beer.

Think about it: In another era, the victims of that awful slaughter would’ve been mild-mannered brewery reps and deliverymen, happily supplying your favorite tavern with foamy ales and lagers. It was only when jackbooted federal authorities outlawed our favorite adult beverage that these otherwise law-abiding citizens were suddenly and unfairly labeled as ruthless gangsters.

Sure, they had their dark side: extortion, price-gouging, fire-bombings, poisoned moonshine. But whose fault was that?

Why, if Eliot Ness hadn’t been running around busting kegs and padlocking speakeasies, Al Capone might’ve been just another pleasant beer salesman with an unfortunate facial abrasion.

Capone, after all, was one of the nation’s biggest and most successful brewery operators throughout Prohibition.

He learned the trade through his mentor, Johnny Torrio, a simple Italian immigrant who had the foresight to invest in several Chicago breweries on the eve of Prohibition. When beer-making at his Manhattan Brewing Co. was outlawed by the Volstead Act, Torrio creatively rebranded his company as Malt Maid Products.

Torrio continued to brew alcohol, and the feds accused him of fraud. But I ask you: Was his savvy business strategy all that different from the modern-day Coors multinational conglomerate branding of one of its mammoth subsidiaries, Blue Moon Brewing, as a charming little craft brewery?

Sadly, Torrio wasn’t always so savvy, and when he was nearly assassinated in 1925, he fled to Italy and left the outfit to Capone.

I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t this the same line of succession that brought August Busch IV to power in St. Louis as out-of-town interlopers maneuvered to take over the family business?

Exactly! Capone spread his empire by fending off unfriendly mergers and acquisitions while reducing costs and cheapening the product – just like Anheuser-Busch, plus firebombs.

You can’t argue with success. Before he was 30, Capone owned a string of breweries that annually produced more beer than today’s Sam Adams and Yuengling combined.

Of course, you don’t get that big without spilling a little blood. OK, maybe that’s not 100 percent true – as an alternative, Capone might’ve considered a $10 million Super Bowl commercial.

But spilling blood works, too.

That’s what happened on Valentine’s Day 1929.

By then, it was full-fledged war between Capone’s Chicago Outfit and the North Side Mob, led by the equally sagacious Bugs Moran. On that brisk February morning, Moran gang members were lured to a warehouse they had used as a beer depot. In marched Capone’s men, including a couple dressed like police officers. They lined the North Siders against the wall and mowed them down with Tommy guns.

Six died immediately but a seventh, Frank Gusenberg, made it to the hospital for his historic last gasp.

Now, Gusenberg was not what we’d normally recognize as an all-American hero. In fact, he was a barely literate thug known for his prowess with a machine gun. But surely heroes come in all shades, and Gusenberg would seize his moment.

Asked by the coppers to name his attackers, his body riddled with bullet holes, Gusenberg groaned, “Nobody shot me.”

The last words of this valiant beer man are as immortal as Nathan Hale’s “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Gusenberg’s deathbed defiance symbolized the spirit of every righteous beer drinker and ultimately led to the repeal of Prohibition four years later. So, on Valentine’s Day, we raise a glass to Frank “Hock” Gusenberg and his associates. Their sacrifice was not in vain.


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