Sharp-witted Benjamin Franklin once observed there were two guarantees in life – death and taxes. Simple,but irrefutable, that statement touches every facet of life. Franklin’s two constants have continuously shaped everything we love, fear, anticipate, dread, and enjoy – including beer.
From ancient times to present, beer, like us, has never escaped far from the shadowy twins known as the taxman and the grim reaper. Civilizations of antiquity and history’s earliest records tell the tale again and again of death, taxes and beer.
In the beginning, brewers of the Fertile Crescent helped establish the beer-rich fabric of civilizations in Mesopotamia and Babylonia. More than a drink or mere dietary staple, beer had a major role in religion, commerce and culture. Soon thereafter it became a form of currency; goods and services were purchased, and Tariffs were collected, in beer. Life without it was unthinkable, and thus, beer was taken seriously. Considering beer a stabilizing factor for his kingdom, King Hammurabi of Babylonia, didn’t leave the quality of such a valuable commodity to chance. In 1750 BC, he issued a royal decree forbidding anyone to tamper with beer. Penalties were severe, any brewer found guilty of watering down beer was ordered executed. Death and beer were linked; taxes would follow.
As the kingdom of Egypt rose along the banks of the Nile, it was built on a solid foundation of beer. Realizing this, and faced with the enormous cost of monuments, pyramids and tombs, the Pharaohs instituted one of the first formal beer taxes. They reasoned it would fund public works and curb drunkenness. Interestingly, beer was thought so valuable it was established as one of the ways to pay the tax.
Tied so closely to beer in life, the Egyptians refused to believe they couldn’t take it with them. As a common part of burial customs, the wealthy arranged for meals augmented with jars of beer, packed around them in their tombs, provisions for the journey to the after-life. Truly affluent Egyptians, uncertain of the length of death’s trail, made additional preparations. In these tombs, archeologists have discovered all the ingredients for beer, and the vessels necessary to transform it into a type of graveyard, mini-brewery.
Across the ocean in South America, emerging cultures were also adopting beer into their traditions. Religious leaders prepared human sacrifices for their role with beer and other intoxicants before leading them to the altar and death.
If death were by natural causes, beer also had a role. Some tribes cremated their dead and used the ashes to ‘finish’ the beer. Women brewers in these cultures held a position of honor, and were laid to rest with their brew pots and tools around them.
Societies of northern lands crafted their own unique, beer beliefs. Viking poems narrate heroic tales of warriors, killed in battle, who after death enter Valhalla. There they toasted earthly accomplishments by washing down sides of meat with large horns of ale, served by the beautiful and buxom Valkyries.
Viewing death in combat as the highest honor, northern peoples often protected their beer to the very gates of hell. Scottish legend tells of the ‘Picts’ a clan that specialized in the brewing of ‘Heather Ale’. Known for ferocity in battle, they successfully defended their tiny kingdom against a number of enemies, including the Romans. Eventually however, a rival tribe conquered them.
Cornered at the edge of a cliff, the Pict king, last member of his tribe who knew the secret recipe, was offered leniency if he divulged the formula. Considering his options for only a moment, the king turned away from his captors and flung himself off the cliff, choosing death over the disgrace of revealing the secret of Heather Ale.
As modern European society evolved, and turned from a multitude of gods to Christianity, they retained many of the old, venerated customs. It was a clever strategy, by slightly altering the original intent, it made conversion familiar, and thereby more comfortable. Christians of the Medieval years acknowledged the certainties of death and celebrated each loved ones passing with “death meals” (also known as heritage meals.) A widespread practice of the day, it was a gathering of friends and relatives of the deceased on the seventh and thirteenth days after death. As a combination of grieving, celebration, and send-off, it was an extended ceremony of prayer and mass, frequently punctuated with beer drinking and remembrance.
Providing comfort however, wasn’t the sole objective of the clergy. Throughout the dark and middle ages the church expanded its social influence and solidified its political power. Touching nearly every part of life, the church gave special attention to beer. Beer had become the dominant drink of northern Europe and the clerics recognized it as a reliable source of revenue.
Taxes on beer during that era were levied in the form of licensing fees. It was an indirect tax, targeting the production of Gruit, the mixture of herbs brewers used before the introduction of hops. Laws dictated by the church limited the availability of Gruit to brewers. Only those Gruit houses approved by the church could supply the ever-growing number of breweries with the ‘secret’ mixture.
In a way the church was doubling beer’s payoff. It incorporated beer into a broad number of church functions, ensuring the congregations attendance, and it made money, through the control of Gruit, on every barrel consumed.
Church authorities didn’t necessarily purchase the beer used in ceremonies and feasts. Often it was obtained by the other type of taxing called ‘tithes.’ Church documents from the Bavarian brewing center of Freising, dated in 815 AD, specified an annual payment of “…one young wild boar, two hens, one goose, and one load of beer.”
Payment of beer tax in any form was sober business. In Aix-la-Chapple, the council of 1272 confronted the non-payment of beer tax with extreme penalties. Brewers found guilty of avoiding or cheating on taxes were punished by chopping off their right hand. Wisely, the council also saw there was cheating in the alehouses.
Tavern keepers had been avoiding the beer tax by importing beer without paying the tariff. To stop this, the council stipulated that any tavern avoiding the tax was to be destroyed. England adopted similar laws, and in 1625 declared that any tavern keeper failing to pay the annual licensing fee was to be whipped. A second offense was subject to a month in jail.
Over the centuries, as beer further secured its place, authorities increasingly relied on revenue they collected from beer. Eventually the escalating tax rates brought about another sort of death, this time to the breweries. Taxes imposed by Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X in 1543 pushed brewers into open revolt. It gained them a temporary reprieve, but before long taxes were raised again.
In town after town, brewers felt the vicious bite of taxation. The situation in the city of Hamburg, Germany illustrated the effect. In the late 1500’s the city boasted more than 1500 brewers, but over the following century, as taxes soared, one brewery after another folded, until by 1698 only 120 remained. It was a story repeated throughout Europe and later spread further.
Never idle, death kept another date with beer in England. For centuries English politics had been discussed and debated in the ale-houses of London. Generally, the various political factions would meet in a favorite tavern, discuss the issues at hand, hoist a few mugs and be on their way. All seemed routine, but on the night of October 31, 1715 members of two rival political groups, the ‘Hanoverians’ and the ‘Jacobites’ unwittingly scheduled meetings for the same taproom. Fighting erupted and soon spilled into the streets. In the days that followed violent street brawls resulted in mounting casualty lists and the fighting became known as the ‘Mug House Riots.”
London also suffered one of the world’s worst brewery disasters. On October 16, 1814, London’s Meux & Company Brewery was conducting the daily routine of making beer when an employee noticed a metal band on one of the giant wooden holding tanks seemed misaligned. It was. Later that day the band snapped, bursting the 22 foot high, 4,000 barrel vat. Its contents slammed into the adjacent tank, rupturing it, and the combined wave of beer crashed through the brewery’s stout, brick walls.
Without warning, the neighborhood was engulfed in a tidal wave of beer. Startled, the patrons of the nearby ‘Tavinstock Arms’ tavern were frozen in their tracks when a river of beer swept through the door, flooded the taproom, and collapsed the floor, plunging customers and bar maid into a cellar rapidly filling with beer. It was a scene repeated throughout a five-block radius. While some residents fled to upper floors, others rescued neighbors from houses reduced to rubble, but still more took advantage of the disaster by gleefully diving into gutters flowing with beer. When the foam cleared, twelve lay dead, crushed in the path of the escaping beer. Eight more also perished from what investigators labeled “death by alcohol coma.”
Mass beer related deaths weren’t limited to England. In 1855 Chicago was growing fast and trouble was brewing. The city’s immigrants were enflamed by an administration filled with prejudice. Pushed to the limits of tolerance, the final insult was a city proclamation forcing a Sunday closure of ethnic beer halls. Owners felt the law discriminating and illegal, on the following Sunday they ignored the statute, opened the beer halls, and were promptly arrested.
Normally peacefully citizens armed themselves and marched on the courthouse. At the intersection of Clark and Randolph streets they were confronted by a company of police. Fighting broke out and gunfire lasted well into the evening.
Organized rebellion also led to the first real beer tax in the United States. From the time of independence, American beer tax was largely indirect, typically in the form of licensing fees and duties on malt and hops. That changed during the civil war. On July 1, 1862 Congress authorized a tax of $1per barrel.
Although brewers rallied behind the tax for the duration of the war, they objected to Congress having set the rate equal to that imposed on distilled spirits. Brewers recognized that grouping them with distillers was an early move by temperance forces in a battle that would stretch over the next 70 years. In that time it would become the most unique, and most despised, feature of American culture.
South of the border, beer was integrated in another much different aspect of culture – one associated with death. Reaching back centuries, Latin Americans celebrated the ‘Day of the Dead.’ Observed each year on November 1st and 2nd, it represents a combination of Aztecs and modern Christian ideas. Based on a belief that departed loved ones return for a visit each year on these days, families prepare weeks in advance for the graveyard festivals.
As a ceremonial act of respect for the deceased, relatives carry elaborate meals, tequila and beer to cemeteries for sharing with the departed. Though recently encroached upon by the more commercialized ‘Halloween’ it remains a significant holiday, celebrated throughout Mexico.
Modern History offered no more chance of escape from death and taxes than in all the previous centuries of human experience. In the US, State and Federal Politicians saw beer as an easy way of bolstering the treasury, and ‘Sin Taxes’ increasingly became a favorite method of raising money.
Use of ‘Sin Taxes’ was insidious enough, but the worst political blunder of the last century was prohibition. The country went dry, breweries died, and so did scores of Americans.
As the beer supply dried up, organized crime stepped in. There was easy money in supplying illegal beer and booze to a public ready to defy their government. In major cities mobsters obtained ownership of the boarded up breweries and barely concealed the production of beer. Inevitably, rival groups clashed over the territories they staked out. Tax-free alcohol sales were profitable, and much too attractive for uncontested surrender. It was a situation that naturally fueled violence, and led to mob-wars, most notably the “St. Valentine’s Day massacre.”
In 1932, while campaigning for the presidency, Franklin Roosevelt made repeal one of his objectives, but indirectly, taxes may have been more important than stopping gangland bloodshed. FDR was certain that reopening breweries, in the middle of the Great Depression, would mean instant jobs for more than 150,000 out-of-work brewers. On the surface it looked as though his motivation was employment and increasing the circulation of money through beer sales, but in his mind, Roosevelt must have been relying on the windfall of beer tax to help drag the government out of its financial crisis. Whatever the reason, repeal and the beer tax helped refuel the economy. It also reintroduced the politician’s friend, the ‘Sin Tax’ which became a mainstay of revenue generating for the remainder of the 1900’s.
In the last years of the 20th century, death too, continued to use beer as his vehicle. During 1996, a herd of elephants in India broke into a rural hut and consumed a fresh batch of homebrew. Becoming aroused in their intoxicated state, they stampeded and crushed several villagers. Sadly, beer and death also touched African nations, where people fashioned inexpensive and illegal beer by mixing home-fermented grain with various substances including wood alcohol and sometimes gasoline. Those drinking the lethal potion suffered a dreadful poisoning, frequently leading to death. It was as if the grim reaper knew they couldn’t resist.
At times we all steal moments from death and taxes. Through various methods we sometimes manage to briefly push them aside. For many, escape is found in a relaxing glass of beer. It’s a short reprieve that doesn’t last. The two dark twins constantly lurk around the corner. Where or when they’ll next strike is unpredictable, but as Ben Franklin would smugly observe, there is one certainty, there’s no escape from death and taxes.
Reprinted courtesy of Gregg Smith
Copyright 2002 North American Brewers’ Association
Quill and Tankard Silver Medal Winner