Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as the 32nd president of the United States on March 4, 1933. Just more than a week later, he asked Congress—which had repealed Prohibition a few days before his inauguration—to sign legislation that would legalize the sale of 3.2 beer. The required ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment was still eight long months away when Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act on March 22, 1933. Within two days, beer makers were gearing up to refurbish plants and begin manufacturing. On April 7, two cases of beer were delivered to the White House, a gift to the president from a brewer, and across the nation, people were raising their glasses to drink their first legal beer in 13 years. More than 80 years after the passage of the Cullen-Harrison Act, 3.2 beer continues to be at the center of legislative action in some states.
By the 1930s, most Americans—including those who had once thought a ban on alcohol would reduce crime, poverty, and shattered families—had realized the “noble experiment” had resulted in most ignoble effects, among them widespread political corruption, increased public intoxication, and a loss of jobs and tax revenues that the country desperately needed. The vast majority of the American public favored the repeal of Prohibition, and both an anti-Prohibition plank in the 1932 Democratic platform and Roosevelt's public commitment to repeal struck a positive chord. Despite the public's eagerness for repeal, the new president knew that the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment by the required 36 states would take time.
Roosevelt had called for a modification to the Volstead Act to authorize the manufacture and sale of beer in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in June 1932, and the delegates had responded enthusiastically. The president must have hoped Congress would respond with the same degree of enthusiasm when he requested them to make the changes he had outlined nearly a year earlier. Congress responded quickly. They were able to do so because, while the Eighteenth Amendment outlawed intoxicating liquors as beverages, it was the Volstead Act that set the legal alcohol limit. The modification changed the legal definition of intoxicating beverage from 0.5 percent alcohol by weight to 3.2 percent—the same as most pre-Prohibition beer. The “3.2” in 3.2 beer represents the percentage of alcohol by weight, which means that there is about 4 percent alcohol by volume in the beer. Roosevelt signed the new legislation, known as the Cullen-Harrison Act, into law on March 22, 1933.
No doubt that the symbolic effect of the new law on those disillusioned by Prohibition was significant, but the real effects were also of major importance. Almost immediately, brewers in Milwaukee hired 600 workers, and beer makers in New York planned to spend $22 million on their dilapidated plants. The news was good for automobile manufacturers, too, who soon had orders for $15 million worth of new cars and trucks needed by brewers and their wholesalers. On April 7, when the new definition took effect, brewers began delivering thousands of barrels of 3.2 beer to bars, taverns, and clubs. In the first 48 hours after the beer taps opened, brewers paid $10 million in federal, state, and municipal taxes (more than $178.5 million in 2013 dollars).
Prohibition was not officially ended. It remained the law of the land until December 5 at 5:32 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, when Utah became the 36th state to ratify the amendment—almost eight months after Michigan became the first state to ratify. Pennsylvania and Ohio had ratified earlier on December 5. The winemakers and the distillers had to wait until December to begin legal operations again, but during the eight months (specifically between April and June), some unemployed people gained jobs, governments collected $5 a barrel in taxes on 3.2 beer, and beer drinkers enjoyed their favorite refreshment. The results of the beer bill were quick and positive, and they stirred embers of hope within a nation.
Congress's modifications to the Volstead Act gave states the right to further regulate the sale and distribution of beer and wine. Some states continued to limit alcohol sales to certain populations to 3.2 beer long after Prohibition ended. Before the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 pressured states into raising the legal drinking age to 21, several states allowed 18-year-olds to buy 3.2 beer. Clubs that served 3.2 beer were particularly popular in college towns, where a substantial portion of the population was over age 18 but under age 21. Oklahoma is of particular interest because that state's 3.2 law led to a 1976 Supreme Court case Craig v. Boren.
According to a law shaped by gender distinction in ages of majority that dated back to before Oklahoma became a state, the state allowed women to purchase 3.2 beer at age 18 but prohibited men from doing so until they reached age 21. Future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then counsel to the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, offered to file an amicus curiae brief (filed by someone not a party to a case but interested in the legal doctrine at issue). Ginsburg argued that the Oklahoma statute reflected outdated stereotypes about men and women. The Oklahoma law was struck down, and all 18-year-olds in the state could legally purchase 3.2 beer until Oklahoma changed its law to conform to the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Craig v. Boren has been cited frequently in constitutional sex-discrimination cases for the more than three decades since.
Although Craig v. Boren is the most famous 3.2 beer court case, it is not the only one. Four states—Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, and Oklahoma—all have 3.2 beer regulations that make it the only beer that can be sold in grocery stores and convenience stores. Some of these states also forbid liquor stores from selling food items and specialty glasses. Colorado has the additional restriction of limiting persons and corporations to a single license to sell alcohol, eliminating chains from the business of selling alcohol and restricting grocery and convenience chains to one store in the chain or corporate group that is allowed to sell alcohol within the state. All other stores belonging to the chain are limited to the sale of 3.2 beer, which is considered nonintoxicating. Challenges to the 3.2 limitations are ongoing in most of the states where they exist. In a separate issue, alcopops (made with near-beer), a malt beverage with a tiny percentage of alcohol, are flavored with alcohol-based additives that give the beverages their sweet taste and bring them up to an alcohol by weight level that is the equivalent of 3.2 beer. Alcopops have been the cause of court cases and legislative battles in Nebraska, California, Illinois, and other states.
See Also: Alcohol by Volume; Alcopops; Cullen-Harrison Act; Drunkenness, Legal Definitions of; Eighteenth Amendment; Prohibition; Roosevelt, Franklin D.; Twenty-First Amendment; Volstead Act