American breweries must have known that the era of Prohibition would not last. Some that were officially shut down from 1920-1933 operated as wildcat breweries making black-market beer. The major brewers got creative, marketing malt syrup as a food ingredient, ostensibly for use in making bread and candy.
Our featured ad from history is from the Val Blatz Brewing Co., which promoted its Bohemian malt syrup with this ad in 1929 newspapers. Other major brands had similar products: Pabst AA Malt Syrup, Budweiser Real Quality Malt Syrup, Schlitz Hop Flavored Malt Syrup, and other smaller brands like Red Top, Ace-High, Red Sun and Black Gold. Budweiser ran its ads in more than 1,500 American newspapers.
“The great demand for this ideal product by bakers and housewives for bakery and food products would indicate that hop-flavored barley malt syrup has met with great favor where palatability and wholesome food are desired,” read one newspaper article in April 1928. Why not? Who wouldn’t go for a batch of Budweiser muffins?
As a marketing move, it was pure brilliance. Brewers published recipe books and ran recipe contests to promote the legitimate uses of the syrup. Newspapers were filled with public relations “articles” touting the many food benefits of malt syrup. Of course, the manufacturers all knew what a good percentage of the product would be used for: home brew. Prohibition agents made raids and arrests, but courts ruled that malt syrup was a legitimate food product and its possession and consumption were not afoul of the law.
The product was popular. In 1929, Louisiana collected $191,877 in taxes on malt syrup (10 cents per can). That meant nearly 2 million cans were sold in the state that year, enough to produce 9.6 million gallons of home brew. Tennessee only had its 5-cent-per-can malt syrup tax in place for eight months in 1929, yet collected $88,695. One newspaper estimated more than 1.7 million cans were sold, enough to make 8.9 million gallons of beer. We can assume some of the uses were for food and not drink, but clearly the malt syrup industry helped keep branded beer alive during Prohibition.
Manufacture and use of malt syrup dropped off rapidly after the repeal of Prohibition. In one national newspaper database, I found 4,419 references to “malt syrup” for 1930. It dropped to 768 in 1935 and 246 in 1938.
As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Bottoms up!
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