The Rage for Rice Beer

Written By David S. Shields

Originally Published in the Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2014


On July 1, 1893, the Dispensary Law went into effect in South Carolina — the creation of agrarian governor Ben Tillman, who agitated the prohibitionist sentiments of upstate South Carolina Baptists and Methodists into the support of a scheme in which the state became the sole purveyor of alcoholic beverages. Grocers, bars, hotels, and wholesale manufacturers were in an instant legislated out of business. Tillman had opted for the Dispensary rather than outright prohibition because of the river of revenue it brought into the state’s hands. It also served as a pretext for enlisting an army of constables and spies to harass those who opposed his anti-cosmopolitan, anti-Charleston world view.

The Evans Dispensary Bill defined an alcoholic beverage as any liquid with over 2.5 percent alcohol. The Palmetto Brewing Company of Charleston, a self styled ‘soft drink’ company that had begun manufacturing a rice brew acceptable in prohibitionist Southern locales in 1888, began manufacturing oceans of “Rice Beer” — a light beer with an alcohol content under the legal ceiling. 

It was a creation of political circumstance. “Up to this date our people have been innocent of the taste of rice beer, but now they are to learn what it is how it tastes.” (Charleston News & Courier, Oct. 12, 1893) 

Cases of rice beer were distributed to the hotels and restaurants throughout South Carolina. Charleston, Columbia, and Darlington embraced it particularly. Governor Tillman immediately saw the rice beer boom as a challenge to his monopoly. He pointedly refused to have the alcoholic content of the beer tested and arrested persons who dispensed the beverage, using his constables as attestors against the brew, declaring that it gave them the same buzz as lager beer.

In the face of the arrests the Palmetto Brewing Company went on a publicity offensive. Issues of the Charleston News & Courier, The State, and other anti-Tillman papers ran the following attestation: “We have noticed in the newspapers much comment on Rice Beer, especially so in the last few days, where much stress is laid on the percentage of alcohol it contains. It appears that there are certain persons in this State who are making much capital out of these reports. We desire by this notice to inform our patrons that we are the sole manufacturers and patentees of Rice Beer, that our Rice Beer comes within the law, that it does not contain sufficient alcohol to produce intoxication, consequently it is a non-intoxicant. The percentage of alcohol is also within the line laid down by the State board of control, newspaper reports notwithstanding.” (News & Courier October 11, 1893, p. 5). The notice then suggests that Tillman’s agents salted the samples purporting to be rice beer.

Repeatedly those arrested for rice beer when brought before the courts were exonerated, and Tillman’s agents subjected to ridicule by judges and opposing attorneys. The farcical character of the prosecutions reached a climax at the State Fair on November 9, 1893, when Tillman and a phalanx of his agents attempted to arrest a fair merchant, W. B.Meetze who was doing an immense rice beer business on the grounds. When Meetze declared that he preferred death to be arrested like a cutthroat without a warrant, a large sympathetic crowd coalesced, and the danger of spontaneous riot caused a stand down and later charges of resisting arrest.

The ridicule that descended on Tillman’s enforcement apparatus in the wake of the Meeke confrontation made him realize that the ambiguity of the law would lead to an unending stream of cases in which the State could not win conviction. He had to change the law. This was done in December of 1893. The remodeled Dispensary Act gave Palmetto Brewery 30 days to dispose of stock. A state-controlled lager beer brewery was constructed next to the Palmetto facility with an invitation for anyone to come through its doors to secure beer. (News & Courier, January 20, 1894, p. 8). In April of 1894 the arrest of Charlestonian Vincent Chicco and the confiscation of his stock of rice beer and bar paraphernalia created a martyr for the anti-Dispensary forces. In the wake of the Chicco case, the resistance to the law in the city became endemic. Arrests would never result in convictions. A netherworld of illegal saloons numbering at least 150 establishments sprang up. In this world rice beer gave way to harder stuff. By spring of 1894 the brief rice beer boom was over.

So how did rice beer taste? The problem with answering this question is that the most ample testimony on the subject of rice beer consumption derives from Tillman’s spies given in court depositions. Their purpose was to claim that rice beer was as intoxicating as lager beer, and that no discernible difference in effect existed between the two. (See “Trial Justice Court,” Charleston News & Courier September 23, 1893.) The other descriptions derive from Cramer & Kersten of the Palmetto Brewery. This company conceived of rice beer as one of the beverages to be dispensed in the burgeoning world of soda fountains — a.k.a. as a “soft drink.” Hence it described rice beer as ginger ale and ginger beer manufacturers touted their wares, or Coca-Cola did its product as a “delicious and healthy beverage.”

“It fills a long-felt want for a stimulant and appetizer that is not intoxicating; pleasant to the taste, contains nourishment and specially of weak and delicate constitutions. It has the taste of lager beer of the finest flavor: besides to add to its purity and medicinal qualities is specially made of our celebrated world-renowned original Artesian well water.” (Charleston News & Courier, May 4, 1888, p. 2).