This is a state with a long history of resisting any attempts to stem the flow of alcohol, a state which probably produced more beer than anyone during Prohibition, and yet New Jersey ended up with some of the most confusing and restrictive alcohol and beverage laws that you’ll find anywhere.
Despite the often radical religious nature of the Europeans who came to America there was very little attempt to limit beer or other alcohol during colonial times. It is believed that the Mayflower arrived with a hearty stock of brew. When concerns were raised about alcohol, and these usually came from a pulpit, they were not about drink itself but about excessive drinking.
Things started to change with the growth of the temperance movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. This was largely a Protestant led effort, Catholics and Jews tended to show very little interest in temperance. In New Jersey, it led to the passage of a law in 1906, called the Bishops law, which prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sunday and raised the fees for liquor licenses.
With the passage of this law, many New Jersey taverns closed and locked their front door on Sunday. But not the back or side doors. And in many of New Jersey’s cities, the police force was made up of folks whose preference was taverns over temperance. Two years later, most of the legislators that were closely associated with this law were voted out of office.
The ultimate triumph of the temperance movement was the 18th amendment, Prohibition. All but three states ratified this constitutional amendment in 1919. New Jersey was one that didn’t, the others were Rhode Island and Connecticut. In 1919 Edward I. Edwards was the Democratic candidate for governor. He campaigned with the pronouncement “I am from Hudson County and I am as wet as the Atlantic Ocean.” He won.
Here are a few examples of how New Jerseyans reacted to Prohibition:
- Col. Ira L. Reeves, an army man and supporter of the 18th Amendment, was appointed New Jersey’s Prohibition Czar. He lasted eight months after which he quit and called for repeal of Prohibition commenting that all it did was raise the price and lower the quality of alcohol.
- When the feds tried to raid one Trenton brewery, the local police showed up and arrested them for carrying guns in the city.
- The Jersey Trio (see Beer Barons of New Jersey) operated more than a dozen breweries in New Jersey and in neighboring states. In Camden, they pumped beer out of the brewery to a warehouse by using firehouses in the city sewer line. Thus if there was a raid the brewery only had the near beer that they were licensed to produce in stock.
- When a restaurant in Oradel was raided and the alcohol that was being used for a dinner party was seized, the enforcers had some problems shipping it out. They left the restaurant only to find all of their tires had been slashed.
- Some New Jersey doctors prescribed beer as a cure for nervousness or hysteria. Congress reacted by making “medical beer” illegal as well.
- The Anti-Dry League of New Jersey, which claimed to have 60,000 members, lobbied for the legalization of beer and wine.
In his book Jersey Brew, Michael Pellegrino sums it up: “Prohibition just had no chance in Jersey where people seem to pick and choose which laws really need to be followed, especially when it comes to alcohol consumption.”
FDR finally pulled the plug on the Prohibition experiment in 1933. That ushered in some boom years for New Jersey’s biggest brewers like Krueger, Pabst and Ballantine. Later in the century the number of breweries dwindled in New Jersey due to corporate consolidation and the control by a small number of national brands over the distribution system. And by the end of the 20th century, New Jersey found itself behind most of the rest of the country in developing microbeweries and brew pubs. The the reason was some of the laws that had their roots in Prohibition.
By the 1990’s these laws were no longer about moral or religious issues, but instead were maintained because of the interests of groups who benefited from the restrictions.
New Jersey didn’t have a brew pub until 1995 when the Ship Inn opened in Milford. Before that year it was illegal in New Jersey to sell beer at the location it was made. The first microbrewery in New Jersey, Climax Brewing in Roselle Park, opened one year later. By 2010 there were still only five microbreweries in New Jersey.
It was after new legislation in 2012 was signed into the law that the microbrewery movement really gained momentum. That legislation allowed brew pubs to increase their production and to sell to retail outlets through wholesalers. It also allowed microbreweries to sell beer at the brewery location and permitted the sale of a limited amount for home consumption.
The state legislature is likely not done with the job of updating liquor laws as a number of bills are currently under consideration. There is a farm brewery/winery bill pending that would allow wineries to produce some beer and to sell it for home consumption. It also provides for a cheaper license, between $100 and $300. A brewery food consumption bill would allow customers to bring food into a brewery with them, although the brewery is still not allowed to offer food. Another proposal would streamline the licensing process.
Lest you think all this legislation would put an end to the weirdness of New Jersey alcohol beverage laws, consider these:
- There are 29 different types of liquor licenses in New Jersey.
- Most supermarkets and convenience stores don’t sell wine and beer because of the restrictions on the number of licenses a single corporation can hold
- A bar owner can offer a free drink as long as it isn’t advertised.
- Bars are prohibited from having “ladies nights” as the pricing would be considered discriminatory.
- We have BYOB restaurants but it is illegal to advertise that fact and restaurants cannot charge a cover or corkage fee.
- Strip clubs cannot offer both alcohol and full nudity. If alcohol is served, they can have partially clad “go-go dancers.”
- If you are carrying a bottle of beer or alcohol in a car that had previously been opened, it has to be transported in the trunk.
- A brewery license allows you to sell beer on the premises but only as part of a tour of the brewery.
- It is illegal to charge a flat fee for unlimited drinks except on New Year’s Eve.
Given our heritage, you can imagine what the level of compliance is for some of these.