A Much-Abridged History of Denver, as it Relates to Drinking

In 1919, the states ratified the Eighteenth Amendment and Congress adopted the Volstead Act, which made Prohibition the law of the land. An historian charged with writing a history of Denver as it relates to drinking would be excused from thinking that the city’s residents were a sickly lot back then. Taking advantage of a loophole in the Volstead Act, Denver issued over 16,000 prescription forms that allowed physicians to prescribe up to four ounces of alcohol to any patient that had a “medicinal need” for the same.

Denver’s religious congregations jumped through another loophole and routinely claimed “sacramental” exemptions from the Volstead Act, which that allowed them to continue to use altar wine and other spirits, perhaps doing wonders for church attendance at the time. In anticipation of the broader effects of prohibition, in 1917 Denver had the foresight to issue permits to almost 60,000 of its citizens who claimed a personal consumption exemption from laws that were then in effect, allowing each of them to consume two pints of wine and the equivalent of a 24-pack of beer every month.

Colorado’s agricultural heritage contributed to the efforts to keep a steady flow of alcohol into Denver and throughout Colorado during Prohibition. Moonshiners and other illicit Colorado producers used the state’s sugar beet crop to distill grain alcohols under monikers such as “Sugar Moon” and “Leadville Moon”. By 1932, when Prohibition was repealed, enterprising citizens could find alcohol for sale in Denver on almost every street corner. The city’s denizens no doubt raised a hearty cheer on April 7, 1933, when Coors restarted beer shipments from its Golden, Colorado brewery.

Fast forward to the modern era. By last count, Colorado has more than 200 microbreweries and brewpubs that produce their own craft beers and ales. Many of those breweries produce fewer than 50,000 cases of beer per year (which is likely far less than the amount of beer spilled in a single week at any national brewery). Do Denver’s and Colorado’s attitudes toward Prohibition teach us anything about current drinking practices?

Residents of other cities and states certainly took advantage of the Volstead Act’s exemptions, but little data can be found that allows a comparison of Denver’s and other cities’ reliance on those exemptions. Denver had slightly more than 250,000 residents in 1920. As noted, in 1917, 60,0000 of those residents (i.e. almost one-fourth of the city) claimed a personal consumption exemption, allowing them to consume generous quantities of wine and beer every month. The city’s and state’s enterprising citizens also used locally-grown sugar beets to make their own potent potables. If nothing else, Denver’s Prohibition-era history reveals a creative mindset that will search out and find creative ways to quench a thirst. The city’s new microbreweries and brewpubs are just continuing this tradition with new formulas, flavors and tasting rooms that cater to an ever more selective clientele.

The Denver Microbrew Tour will give you a new perspective on the city’s thriving beer and brewing culture and history. Feel free to contact us if you’d like more information or if you want to schedule your own tour with us. Eighty years has passed since the repeal of Prohibition, and you can enjoy the city’s microbrew offerings without looking for a Volstead Act exemption to keep you above the law.

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