Thursday, April 11, 2013

Rolling Out Those Barrels . . . Again

Sometimes what goes around really does come around.

When I was a teenager quite a few small Wisconsin 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 heritage.

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

A recent University of Wisconsin history note says the state had 85 breweries in the 1930s. By the 1980s, only 10 remained. None of the 10 was considered “small.”

Local breweries gradually disappeared because the large operators mechanized operations
Nowadays, name it, and someone is brewing it.
and exercised superior advertising muscle. As elsewhere in corporate America, mergers and buyouts reduced the number of big breweries. Miller is the only national brewery operating in Milwaukee today.

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 Milwaukee famous,” dropped out of that competition in the late 1950s and declined until it finally ceased to exist as an independent.

As Wisconsin natives, 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.

All Milwaukee 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 Wisconsin. As 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 Michigan 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 else.


Kay Dennison said...

As I think you know. I'm a descendent of German immigrants who settled in Wisconsin and yeah, I do like my beer!!

PiedType said...

Growing up in Oklahoma, Coors, based in Golden, Colo., was the beer of choice. It was not distributed nationally, however, and when I moved to the East Coast, it was not available. When the time came to move from Atlanta back to OKC, the moving crew, who happened to be from Okla., showed up bearing a 6-pack of Coors for us. They got a big tip!

schmidleysscribblins, said...

My grandfather brewed his own beer...during Prohibition. Interesting post. Dianne

Tom Sightings said...

Microbreweries are a new trend around here as well (new as in the last decade or so). Our local favorite: Captain Lawrence Beer. Ain't bad. And the kids all like that renewed old favorite Pabst Blue Ribbon, now known affectionately as PBR.

Kay said...

Gosh! This brings back the memory of us going to the Miller Brewery in 1975. It was so much fun.

Dick Klade said...

Pied, I also recall when Coors was somewhat of a cult beer only available in a limited area. We could buy it in Utah, and my brother-in-law who lived in Oregon occasionally asked us to ship a case to him. Oklahoma remained a "dry" state when I was in the Army there, but you could buy almost anything you wanted--bootleggers were all over the place.

Lowell Laitsch said...

For two of my years in the Sigma Nu house I was one of three brothers who ran the house beer business. The business consisted of a refrigerator and a number of cases of Hamms, Schlitz and Blatz. The cost of a bottle of beer was twenty-five cents and the business ran on the honor system. You simply took a beer out of the refrigerator and put a mark on the sign-up sheet attached to the refrigerator. (Rod Eisele was the partner responsible for keeping the refrigerator full, I picked up the empties and our third partner was an accountant major who handled the monthly billing.) Bill Hempel was our best customer and Blatz was by far our best seller.

Dick Klade said...

Small world, indeed, Lowell.. . Probably shortly before your combine took over the refrigerator at Sigma Nu, Marv Lane and I ran the business for a year. We also charged 25 cents a bottle, but I think we only stocked Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Good to hear from you, old pal.