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John Barleycorn Must Die

Ancient Sumerian texts seem to hold the key to everything important in our lives, from the gods and demons in the movie Ghostbusters to the first record of beer in human history. While I have never claimed to be as civilized as the Sumerians, I can still party like it’s 1999… B.C.

That wasn’t always the case. Texas as a whole, along with seven other states, held on to Prohibition well after it was federally ended in 1933. Many counties in these states are still “dry”. The north side of Pasadena, Texas, for Christ’s sake, only as recently as November 2005 voted alcohol back. But that’s still not the end of Blue Laws. To this day I can’t march into Kroger and buy beer or wine on Sunday morning. Like that’s not the time you need it most!

But there is a brighter side to island life. The late 1800’s saw a large influx of German immigrants. And with them came the trade of brewing beer. Adolphus Busch, of all people, bought the property at 33rd and Church. In February 1897, the Galveston Brewing Company started operations.

The 18th Amendment brought on hard times. The brewery maneuvered through history and finances, producing root beer and ginger ale as the Southern Beverage Company starting in 1918, and Triple XXX in 1927. Beer was relegated to contraband production or homebrew.

We all know about the heady days of the Free City of Galveston. That outlaw mentality made legends of such places as the Balinese Room and Moulin Rouge. But brewing skills were also kept alive in the backyards and carriage houses. Personal consumption was not banned by Prohibition. And those daring enough could keep themselves well satisfied, with the personalized touch that would later mark microbreweries.

Religious and medical exceptions were also made. Foreshadowing the plethora of Rolling Stone ordination, rabbis and priests of questionable faith sprung up overnight. A doctor’s credentials were harder to counterfeit, but not their permission. It is no coincidence that the famous Old Galveston Club stood behind a drug store front.

It is also no coincidence that Franklin Roosevelt ended Prohibition in 1933 with the 21st Amendment, allowing the entire country to self-medicate after the long years of the Great Depression. The populace was so elated that they allowed him to serve as President for 12 years, longer than anyone else.

The manpower and the know-how lost to Prohibition and the Depression came roaring back. US industry geared up for a war that was slow to come to our shores. But in eight short years, millions of hungry stomachs and strong backs readied the US for combat. And of course, beer did its part, on BOTH sides of the lines.

Under new ownership in 1934, Galveston-Houston Breweries offered Magnolia beer. She showed promise, changing her banner in 1940 to Southern Select. In that single year, while Milwaukee’s Schlitz powerhouse was nearing 2,000,000 barrels, Southern Select sold 228,439 barrels, over 10% of Schlitz’s career production.

The post-War years, however, were not as kind. The Falstaff label took over the Galveston plant in 1956. Falstaff had been the first brewery to operate breweries in more than one state, and became the third largest in the country by the 1960’s. But the greed we now associate with the 80’s overtook them early.

Despite a favorable Antitrust ruling in 1973, Falstaff lost market share, and was acquired by Pabst in 1975. Falstaff’s plants around the country started closing in 1979, reaching Galveston in 1982. By 2004, only 1468 barrels of the label were sold. In May 2005, Pabst discontinued sales of the label altogether.

The last Sea Aggies to play hooky on Falstaff’s Observation Deck have either retired or crossed Masefield’s final bar. Damn, that’s dark! But the building continues to dominate the skyline, second only to the ANICO building in stature.

They say you can tell what was important in a culture by the tallest buildings in its cities. Medieval Europe had its cathedrals. Farming communities across the country have their grain silos. Big cities have their financial buildings.

But Galveston has beer, Goddamnit! Falstaff may not be operating as a brewery today, but we remember! It lives in our hearts in the nostalgia of Pearl, Lone Star, and Dixie. And it lives in our spirit. It is the go-to beverage for a hurricane party. And, as Eileen Donlon so aptly observed, when there’s a hurricane, there’s nothing like a local beer.

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