Sussex County’s complex history with beer

MILFORD — Prohibition, like going broke, happened slowly at first and then all at once. It was the result of decades of lobbying driven by a combination of a fear of immigrants and the religious turmoil associated with the turn of the 19th century. It also was fired by a competitive saloon culture that started pushing alcohol when beer became too unprofi table. In the early 20th century beers would franchise saloons, providing all the gear from bars to spittoons in exchange for exclusivity. The result, not unlike today’s drugstore chain wars, was that Miller, say, could not abide an uncontested Schiltz saloon in a town. The result, especially in the bigger cities, promoted the assent of cheaper alcohol and a marked increase in drunkenness, but that isn’t how it was in the years after the Dutch settled Delaware.


Mispillion River Brewing in Milford cultivated its reputation as a destination brewery by adding food trucks, regular entertainment and a fi re pit as enticements for people to come and enjoy themselves at the brewery. Here, head brewer Ryan Maloney loads up spent grain for a farmer to use for feed. Special to The Chronicle

Because of its ability to produce maltable barley, the Dutch viewed Delaware as a potential beer exporting colony. This hope was dashed not long after it rose when they lost the colony to the British. Delaware was a diverse Dutch colony and remained so under the Brits, providing access and opportunities to the Germans, French and northern European immigrants. For the first 200 or so years of its existence, Sussex County inns were above the fray the cities saw. Taverns mostly made their own beers and sold what they made over the bar in pints or growlers. For this reason, as Prohibition heated up, the residents were ambivalent about Prohibition. Temperance, however, was a different story.

In the run-up to Prohibition, there was a counter movement that wanted people to be able to drink, but wanted them to drink less, or at least to be drunk less of the time. They worked both with and against the Prohibitionists crafting laws that would make it harder to buy alcohol at will and also to regulate how much could be produced and for what reasons. The piecemeal legislation was aimed at regulating mostly the small producers in the region, taverns that produced their own beer, distillers and vintners.

The Prohibitionists eventually prevailed by inventing what we today call the “ wedge” issue. They engaged in a national campaign to unseat any politician who wouldn’t commit to voting for “capital T” total Prohibition. They were successful in 1919, but at a cost. Rural places became hotbeds for illegal stills. Liquor was easier to hide, easier to transport and had a higher profit margin than beer. In fact, once the rules of Prohibition were made clear, many people didn’t understand that beer was to be part of the ban. They thought the ban would mostly be on spirits, as characterized by the blanket moniker Demon Rum.

As crime soared and upstanding citizens openly imbibed there was a sense that Prohibition actually was working to undermine the rule of law. Women and children had been painted as the victims of the Demon Rum culture, and it was their stories that helped further Prohibition’s cause. In New York, socialite Pauline Sabin inaugurated a coalition of Republican and Democratic women to fight to undo Prohibition called the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform. She found an ally in Alice duPont who helped spread the organization throughout Delaware. Although neither the Sabins nor the duPonts were friendly to President Roosevelt, they sided with him to try undoing Prohibition.

The Milford Chapter of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform was active in helping repeal Prohibition, but the consequences were significant. Although Prohibition was repealed, not of the Temperence compromise laws were. Since no small producers were left, the rules stayed in place until the 1990s, when craft beer started rising in Delaware with the ascent of Dog fi sh Head and, eventually in Milford, Mispillion Brewing Company. Each new brewery or brewpub had to work with the Delaware legislature to undo the Prohibition- era laws that made brewing and distilling illegal. Delaware generally, and Sussex County particularly, have become brewing destinations because of the various stakeholders’ abilities to undo the Temperance compromise legislation.

Tony Russo is a beer columnist for and author of Delaware Beer: The Story of Brewing in the First State, from History Press. Follow him @Ossurynot on Twitter

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