Bathtub brew wasn't made in a tub, tasted nasty and was poisonous

Posted: November 09, 2012

THE QUESTION arises: Are you really going to make beer in a bathtub at the Bathtub Beer Fest?

Philly Beer Week has been promising an authentic bathtub brew at next Thursday's festival at the National Constitution Center, as a tribute to its outstanding exhibit, "American Spirits: The Rise & Fall of Prohibition." The idea is to wheel some old-fashioned cast-iron bathtubs into the center and bubble up a batch of authentic, Prohibition-era suds.

Speaking as Beer Week's executive director, I can assure you this idea was the product of an ample infusion of liquid inspiration.

Just two problems:

1. Bathtub booze wasn't actually brewed in bathtubs. It gets its name because the bathtub spigot was the only one in most houses that was high enough to accommodate the large glass bottles needed for brewing and distilling.

2. By all accounts, most homemade beer during the Prohibition tasted awful and was, in the words of one federal authority in 1923, "absolutely dangerous for human consumption."

In other words, bathtub brew is historically inaccurate and potentially poisonous. So . . . yeah, we're really going to make beer in a bathtub!

It'll be a re-creation of the type of beer that would've been made in millions of homes during that awful, dry period from 1920 to 1933. It may be murky and funky-tasting, but George Hummel of Home Sweet Homebrew - the guy who's going to cook it up for us - assures me it will be alcohol.

And that's all that really counted back then.

With breweries shut down nationwide after ratification of the 18th Amendment, beer-drinkers had few options. There was low-alcohol near beer, of which it was said, "The man who called it near beer was a poor judge of distance." There were speakeasies, where the specialty was hard liquor and cocktails.

And then there was malt syrup.

Thick and sweet, it was sold to housewives ostensibly as an ingredient for homemade bread, cake, cookies and other desserts. Much of the syrup, however, was pre-flavored with bitter hops - an ingredient you don't often see in recipes for, say, blueberry muffins or chocolate fudge.

Daniel Okrent, curator of the center's exhibit, said that "a more accurate name would have been 'beer starter.' With the addition of water, yeast and time, the syrup blossomed into real, foamy, alcohol-rich beer."

Uncertain first-timers needn't worry, for directions circulated widely, if informally. One helpful manufacturer cautioned (wink-wink), "Do not stop the bottle with this cork containing this patented red rubber siphon hose, because that is necessary only when fermentation is going on."

It was all completely illegal, of course, but the threat of prosecution was minimal. While serving in Congress, New York's Fiorello LaGuardia once made his own beer on a street corner and dared the cops to arrest him. The New York Times reported they shrugged him off, possibly because the crowd consensus was, "I've tasted worse - likewise better."

By 1929, homemade beer equipment - cappers, siphons, bottles - was sold in an estimated 25,000 shops nationwide. These precursors to today's incense-filled head shops faced little threat from law enforcement officials because the courts at the time reasoned they weren't actually manufacturing or selling alcohol.

Meanwhile, Americans were making 700 million gallons of beer a year.

The syrup itself was made mainly by established breweries desperately trying to stay afloat with alternative, nonalcoholic products. Pabst called its syrup "Blue Label," Utica Club sold a "Bohemian Style" and Schlitz advertised "the malt that keeps Milwaukee famous." Anheuser-Busch put its Budweiser logo on cans and, according to Okrent, sold more than 6 million pounds of the syrup annually.

Years later, Okrent wrote in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Gussie Busch told an interviewer: "If you really want to know, we ended up as the biggest bootlegging supply house in the United States."

When Prohibition was finally repealed, only licensed brewers were permitted to make beer. Homebrewing would remain illegal until the federal government lifted the ban in 1978.

So the Bathtub Beer Fest suds will be legal when the brew is finally served during Philly Beer Week next June.

In the meantime, next week's fest will feature more than 20 breweries pouring the good stuff, including old-fashioned cask-conditioned firkins of ale and pre-Prohibition-style lagers. Festgoers will receive complimentary admission to the "Prohibition" exhibit, where they can see firsthand how America survived those dark years.

Tickets are $45 and are available online at

The parallels between illegal homebrewing and beer sales during Prohibition and today's drug war will be examined during a pre-fest discussion featuring Okrent and Christopher Bracey, senior associate dean for academic affairs at George Washington University Law School.

The program, with separate $10 admission ($7 for members of the center), takes place at 6 p.m. Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling 215-409-6700 or online at

"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at E-mail:

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