When I was a teenager quite a few small
cities had their own breweries. That wasn’t surprising. German-Americans who
enjoyed their lagers and pilsners were the largest ethnic group in the state.
They still are—in the 2010 Census 42.6 percent of Wisconsinites claimed German
German-Americans founded big
Milwaukee brewers—Pabst, Schlitz, and Miller. German immigrants also brought their brew meister
skills to the smaller cities. I recall some local brands--Oconto, Chief Oshkosh,
Point, North Star, Old Style, Marathon,
Feuerbach, Lithia, Leinenkugel, and Rhinelander. Of the small brewers I
remember, only the makers of Point and Leinenkugel survived as independents
whose products now can be found on supermarket shelves in Wisconsin and some nearby states
says the state had 85 breweries in the 1930s. By the 1980s, only 10 remained.
None of the 10 was considered “small.” University
Local breweries gradually disappeared because the large operators mechanized operations
and exercised superior advertising muscle. As elsewhere in
mergers and buyouts reduced the number of big breweries. Miller is the only
national brewery operating in Milwaukee
|Nowadays, name it, and someone is brewing it.|
I remember when the Chicago Tribune, our family newspaper, published tabulations on the business page reporting the competition (in millions of barrels) between Schlitz and Budweiser for the honor of being the biggest beer producer in the world. Schlitz, which at the time proudly proclaiming it was “the beer that made
famous,” dropped out of that competition in the late 1950s and declined until
it finally ceased to exist as an independent.
beautiful wife Sandy and I occasionally enjoyed the benefits of having
breweries close at hand. When we lived in the Milwaukee area, we took advantage of public
tours offered by Schlitz, Pabst, and Blatz. Blatz was the smallest of the
three, but many Milwaukeeans thought it brewed the best beer.
brewers provided free beers and snacks at the conclusion of tours. At Pabst,
tourists could guzzle four glasses of the company’s products. That certainly
gave visitors a happy feeling about their hosts. Nowadays, it might get you a
DUI citation on the way home!
Although each brewery had something unique in its operation or history, the most unusual brewery feature we learned about was not found in
Milwaukee. It was 18
miles from my hometown in Rhinelander, then a city of about 9,000. When we
visited The Rhinelander Brewing Company, it had not produced beer for many
years and the name was changed. A prosperous doctor had acquired the property
and converted it into a winery.
The original owner was a German-American who incorporated several old-world features into his operation. One was a little park behind the brewery where employees could sip the company’s product on breaks, at lunch, or after work. The park was still there when we visited, but small samples of cherry wine were served elsewhere. Other breweries were known to provide free beer to employees, so the Rhinelander “beer garden” probably was not unique. The one-of-a-kind feature of the Rhinelander brewery-winery was an archway entrance to a large tunnel in the basement of the main building. Our tour guide explained:
“The original brewery owner loved his beer, and he wanted it handy anytime he was thirsty. He had the tunnel dug from the basement of his house across the street to the basement of the brewery so he could quickly make a trip to get a fresh beer even if he woke up thirsty in the middle of the night.”
Ah, the privileges of an old-time brewery owner. The beer tunnel long ago fell into disuse, but “Rhinelander” beer is back. The brand now is produced by one of 30 microbreweries in
Wisconsin. The micros sell less than 15,000
barrels each per year. The big Milwaukee
brewer, Miller, has annual production exceeding six million barrels. Between those extremes are seven Wisconsin breweries classified as “regional.”
In addition to the 30 micros, my old home state now has 31 brewpubs. There was no such thing as a brewpub when I was a young man living in
do the micros, they produce an array of “craft” beers and ales.
Small breweries have been opening everywhere in the
U.S. since a
brewing comeback started in the 1990s. The Brewers Association, which
represents 2,400 breweries and brewpubs, said craft beer set production and
sales records last year, and the number of locations continues to grow.
My new home state of
now has 120 breweries, 19 of them added last year. California, the growth leader, gained 56 new
brewers in 2012. The national growth rate was 12 percent.
You can’t walk through a tunnel in Rhinelander,
Wisconsin, to get your
favorite brew, but you can find one to suit your taste just about everywhere