Prohibition Era Home Brew: the Basic Facts!

stoneware crock

Prohibition was a law that was held in contempt by most of the law enforcement officials in the USA, and just about the entire civilian population.

Just sit back and imagine it: a law passed to ban something that almost anyone with even a grade school education could make for themselves.

Home brewing has a long tradition that goes back centuries: most people brewed their own beer in ancient times. The idea of large commercial breweries is, historically, a fairly recent one.

And that's what the people did: they brewed their own beer again, and in massive amounts. Home brewing became a huge industry. While technically illegal, home brewers who made beer for their own use were never prosecuted.

Everyone has a family member who made bootleg home brew during Prohibition. We have all heard the same stories: about how bad the stuff tasted, about bottles exploding in the night, and about at least one relative who figured out how to make good home brew, and kept making it even after Prohibition ended.

Prohibition lasted for 15 long years. In its wake, it produced a contempt for law and society that has still not abated.

Prohibition ended because it was realized that 1) criminals like Al Capone were making millions in illegal alcohol sales, and 2) alcohol could be taxed heavily. There's nothing that politicians love more than new taxes. Once the idea of taxing alcohol caught on, Prohibition was doomed.

At first, beer was legalized. Wine and distilled spirits soon followed. Whether anyone really believed that legalization would stop with just beer is debatable.

It is interesting to note that one reason to end Prohibition was to end the huge income organized crime got off of alcohol sales. The day Prohibition was repealed, there was a problem: there wasn't enough beer available to fill the needs of all the taverns that opened. Who did the taverns go to to get their beer? They went to someone who had plenty of beer: Al Capone. The repeal of Prohibition meant a huge one-day windfall for Al Capone.

In Prohibition's wake, home brewing as a hobby pretty much died for several years. It took decades to become a well-established hobby again. Home brewing still hasn't reached the heights of popularity it did during Prohibition.

It didn't help that home brewing was still technically illegal until about 1978. The reasons for home brewing being illegal are bizarre: there are people who were worried that home brewers could distill their beer and make whiskey. You can't make whiskey out of beer.

I suppose that someone could have gotten around the law by upping the alcohol content of their brew to about 9%, making it a barley wine and technically not beer.

Like during Prohibition, no one was prosecuted for making home brew for themselves. One local Missouri Senator, Jack Danforth, suggested that home brewers should be prosecuted, but nothing came of it. He never garnered support for the idea, and just in the nick of time, home brewing was legalized.

Today, people can make home brew that is better than commercial breweries can make. Some home brewers have moved on to starting small commercial breweries of their own. It's been a long and bumpy ride.

munton's malt extract             blue ribbon
            malt extract

Prohibition Era Home Brew: The Recipe

There are a lot of Prohibition era home brew recipes on the internet. The main variation is the amount of sugar used. I have combined them all here.

Pick the amount of sugar you want to add; between 3/4 to 5 pounds.  Or, even better, be bold and just use 2 cans of extract. 

I hasten to add that if you make this recipe, you will get a yeasty, cidery tasting brew.  The more sugar you add, the more cidery it will be.  Mind you, this does make a great sparkling cider.  It won't taste much like beer.

The whole point to this is to recreate the home brew that our ancestors made.  I'm sure more than a few of the Prohibition era home brewers used two cans of malt extract, which would have produced a decent beer.  The Anheuser-Busch company was selling cakes of yeast, and if our ancestors had used that and 2 cans of malt extract to the batch, they would have come up with a great brew indeed.

But, for your first try at this, make the traditional version.  It will be the right yellow color, it will fizz, and it will have alcohol.  That was good enough for the old guard home brewers.

Please note that Blue Ribbon Malt Extract is no longer available. A rough equivalent is Munton's light hopped malt extract, 3.3 lb. can.

1 can Blue Ribbon Malt Extract
1 cake yeast (usually sold in the dairy section)
3/4 lb. to 5 lb. sugar (for a better beer, just use 2 cans of malt extract and no sugar)
5 gallons water

equipment needed:
1 6 gallon stoneware crock, or 1 Rubbermaid waste can, at least 6 gallons, or more

1 large towel
enough crown cap bottles for 5 gallons
crown caps for 5 gallons
bottle capper
siphon hose
long spoon for stirring
kettle that will hold at least 2 gallons, if not more

Clean a 6 gallon stoneware crock (or use a clean Rubbermaid waste can). Pour in 4 gallons very cold water. Boil 1 gallon water. Stir in the malt extract. You will probably need to take the label off of the can and dip it into the boiled water to get all of the extract to come out. When the extract is dissolved in the water, heat to boiling.

Pour the hot extract into the stoneware crock which you have put 4 gallons of water. Check temperature. It should be cool enough right away.  Mix the yeast cake with some lukewarm water, and stir into the crock. Cover with a towel. Leave undisturbed. This should be ready to bottle in a week.

Bottling: Clean enough crown cap bottles for your batch of beer. Siphon into another crock. Stir in 1 cup table sugar. Siphon it into bottles, and cap. Store upright in a dark place. Ready in 2 weeks.

Procedures to increase quality or safety:

If this is your first beer batch, I recommend using plastic soda bottles.  They can hold a tremendous amount of pressure before bursting, and even if they did burst, plastic is a lot easier and safer to clean up than glass.

Go to and look up ale pail and airlock.  Put your brew in an ale pail, add yeast, seal it, put an airlock on and let it do its work.  Bottle when you see there is negative pressure on the airlock.

Standard fermentation time on beer is one week.  Some home brewing authorities suggest waiting two weeks to bottle it.  On my home brew, I wait for a month.  The longer you wait, the clearer your beer will be.

Real old time procedures: None of these are recommended.

At least one old recipe advocated adding 1 tablespoon of salt to the beer when you added the yeast.  I don't see what the point was: it certainly wouldn't improve the flavor of the beer, unless you like salty beer.

Some of the old recipes say that you should float the yeast on toast; that is, spread the yeast on the toast like you would butter, then float the toast on top of the wort (unfermented beer).  After the week is up, you would run the fermented beer through a sieve to capture any remaining toast.  This is not  a recommended procedure: adding toast would do nothing but increase the possibility of infection.

Some recipes recommend putting a light bulb by (or under) the crock, to heat it. This will make the beer ferment faster, but it will at the cost of flavor.

Old-time home brewers would often use hydrometers to gauge when their beers were ready.  The idea was to allow the beer to ferment to the point that there was enough sugar in it for carbonation.  This is a real iffy proposition, as such things as the temperature or bubbles still in the beer can alter the reading. 

Some old-time brewers put 1 tsp sugar in each pint/half liter bottle, instead of racking the beer off and stirring in sugar for the whole batch. For quart/1 liter bottles, 2 teaspoons. For 2 liters: 4 tsp.  For 12 oz. bottles: 3/4 teaspoon.  Siphon the beer directly from the crock into the bottles. Cap and turn each bottle upside down for a moment to distribute the sugar.  This can lead to exploding bottles,


home brewing

A history of home brewing during prohibition.

"Mother's in the kitchen Washing out the jugs; Sister's in the pantry Bottling the suds; Father's in the cellar Mixing up the hops; Johnny's on the front porch Watching for the cops."


popular science january 1921

January, 1921, Popular Science An article about using a hydrometer for home brewing, to make sure your home brew has no alcohol (wink wink).
"The year 1921 finds home brewing among the favorite indoor sports. Our readers will be glad to learn how to eliminate the forbidden kick."


al capone

Recipe for bootleg beer from Al Capone's brewery.

"In addition to six-row malt and rice, the recipe calls for another ingredient that is, well, different. “Soy beans,” says Jones. “Back then, in the Midwest, they were probably used as a filler. And because it was Prohibition, bringing in truckloads of soy beans to a warehouse in Chicago probably didn’t attract as much attention as bringing in truckloads of malt would have.”