Beer in New Jersey: All the Laws We Never Followed

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.

beer pitcherDespite 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.police action
  • 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.

Fermentation tanksIt 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.

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24 Responses to Beer in New Jersey: All the Laws We Never Followed

  1. Sabrina Q. says:

    Interesting topic! I’m not a drinker of beer or liquor in general. But, I didn’t know that NJ had that much turmoil when it came to alcohol. I love the list of fact you added at the end. It gave me a good laugh.

    I love in Pennsylvania. We have state stores that can only sell wines and liquors, Beer distributors that can only sell beer in cases. In the last ten years, microbreweries have become all the rage. And, now with craft beers are all the range and can be sold by the bottle but no more than 126 oz (something like that). Wegmans is the only grocery in the area that can sell it. Weird, right? Oh, and we can’t buy beer at state stores either. It’s such a messed up system.

    Thanks for sharing your information.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      Alcohol laws are bizarre pretty much everywhere. Some of the ones you mentioned in Pennsylvania are good examples. They make no sense, but they probably are protecting somebody who is profiting from the restrictions.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. lenie5860 says:

    Ken, loved the witty way you wrote about this boondoggle – certainly gave me a chuckle a time or two. In Ontario craft beers are now being allowed to be sold through the beer stores, imagine that and all beers, I imagine 6-packs are being sold by a limited number of supermarkets – something that I think would appeal more to the highschool crowd than real beer drinkers.
    The background you gave on Prohibition was rather interesting. All in all, a most enjoyable read.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Why does little shock me here? I wish it did. I wish it were in your conclusion, a better state of affairs. But the one word that you used that kept playing in my mind, experiment. That’s what our whole country is isn’t it? An experiment in a republic democracy. Let’s have a drink to that. Or maybe find a bar with free drinks where they aren’t advertised? Good post Ken!


  4. Do you have any idea how much of the weirdness of my college chums from NJ has been explained by these posts? HA! In fact, I’m off to Facebook to share this with a few of them. Love the history lessons, Ken. Keep them coming!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Donna Janke says:

    Very interesting story. It made me curious about the history of liquor laws in my Canadian home province of Manitoba, some of which seem strange and archaic. I found a little bit of information. Manitoba had Prohibition from 1916 to 1923, after which the government remained firmly in control and strongly regulated liquor sales and could track how much liquor one bought. There was a time liquor could not be sold at a place where there was dancing or playing of games or even standing. Things have changed, but I think we have the same rule about open liquor being in the trunk.


  6. Erica says:

    This is so interesting. I went to the Jersey Shore with my friends after high school graduation. This was in the 90s. Well, the town I went to was completely dry. I remember at one point ordering a root beer (keep in mind I was 17 anyway), and the people behind the counter just got quiet because they though I ordered a beer. I thought it was so weird at the time, but I now I see where it might have come from.


  7. Very interesting beer laws you got there. Ladies nights are always very popular where I am from. Brings the people.


  8. Phoenicia says:

    I am not a beer drinker at all and can barely tolerate the smell. By law, in the UK you cannot enter public transport whilst holding visible alcohol. Drinkers get around this by placing the can in a paper bag and bingo – they are allowed on the bus/train!


  9. Ken Dowell says:

    That’s another strange law here. You can drink on trains but not buses or other types of public transportation. The Long Island Railroad has a beer stand on some of its platforms.


  10. Interesting. Not sure why authorities all over the world believe they can make people drink less by implementing laws. In Sweden the laws have actually had the opposite effect. Swedes feel they have to have alcohol when they socialize because to them it shows that it’s a special occasion.


  11. I love this statement,”Prohibition just had no chance in Jersey where people seem to pick and choose which laws really need to be followed”. That basically sums up life in New Jersey. I grew up in Hudson country , believe me, if there was a law there was a loop hole. New Jersey is all about who or what is connected to whom, you have to, “Know a guy, who knows a guy”. I think the , “Beer Barons”story would be a great mini series Ken. Have you thought about pitching the idea t a network?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. klagowski says:

    Three cheers for New Jersey! Amazing that even the police “preferred taverns over temperance,” although I suspect that was the case in many other jurisdictions as well. Here in Ontario, we are still mired in the quaint notion that only a government controlled operation can retail booze. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) is the only retail outlet for booze, although I believe (and hope) its time is running out …

    Liked by 1 person

  13. The laws surrounding alcohol are quite fascinating and speak to how arbitrary many laws can be. Like what is the thought process that goes into deciding alcohol and full nudity can’t go hand-in-hand, but it’s okay if she’s wearing pasties…


  14. Andy says:

    I was unaware that any states had ‘just said no’ to Prohibition. And if New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Connecticut were the ones that said no, that means every single western state – including, embarrassingly, my home state of California – said yes. Let’s hear it for those hip folks on the West Coast, eh?

    One more point: “…people seem to pick and choose which laws really need to be followed…” is as good a definition of patriotism as I could ask for.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Meredith says:

    I got a kick out of reading all these liquor laws! You can’t make this stuff up. I think I’m feeling a bit anxious and hysterical now, better head off to the fridge…

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Beth Niebuhr says:

    Fascinating history. I love the laws you listed. Just why do people think they should tell others what to do. I guess it depends on your definition of what should be legislated. And oh, lovely religions that stir it up some more!


  17. I love beer! Funny enough I am in Berlin at the moment. Drank Berliner Kindl, well known beer in Berlin. Oh wow! I didn’t know that New Jersey had so much turmoil when it came to alcohol. This is so interesting

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Pingback: Beer in New Jersey: The Renaissance | off the leash

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