As many readers have probably noticed (at the grocery, neighborhood watering hole, chain restaurant, general popular culture), craft beer is booming. While going way back to the 1870’s there were nearly as many local breweries as today, for much of the 20th century it was the same old choices, nationwide. In fact, there were only 284 breweries in America in 1990. Fast forward to 2015 and there are over 5,300 (all with their own variety of imperial, thrice-hopped, coffee drink-infused goodness)! For some of our younger readers, there’s never been a time when craft brews weren’t the norm. But for most of us, we remember a different time indeed…
Look familiar? That’s a pretty decent variety of beers for c. 1930-2000.
Except, it’s not. As many multi-decade beer drinkers probably remember, almost every region of America had their go to brews of choice, all-local, often bordering on the size of a successful craft brewery today. In fact, you can still grab many of these down home brews if you look hard enough. Check out some of our favorite old-school craft beers below, or, in other words, here are ten local beers from before they were cool. (Best served by an old croaker, in a room that hasn’t seen light nor updated the decor in about half a century…)
1.) National Bohemian or, “Gimme a Natty Boh, hun!”
Part of the trifecta of “Crabs, O’s, and Boh’s,” this Chesepeake stalwart has been the official sponsor of the Baltimore Orioles since 1965. This beer is perhaps best known for its monopoly-man, monocled, mascot who goes by the name of Mr. Boh. You can still find Natty Boh’s throughout Baltimore, D.C., and parts of Virginia. As with a number of beers on our list, National Bohemian was founded in the late 1800’s and at least nods their head to the beer-rich Bohemian region of Germany. Though National Bohemian beers weathered the prohibition and the coming three quarters of a century, the beer followed suite with many beers on our list and has been merged into larger and larger beer companies over the years. Presently the rights to National Bohemian beer are owned by Pabst, who are held by a Russian beer and soda conglomerate by the name of Oasis Beverages.
2.) Schlitz, or The Vitamin D Beer
Founded all the way back in 1849, this midwestern staple is one of a number of classic Milwaukee brews. In line with the German lineage of most of the beers on our list, Schlitz was founded by Augustin Krug. Joseph Schlitz, his bookkeeper bought the brand (as well as the also well known Stroh Brewery Company) when Krug died two years after its creation. Officially the largest brewery in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, the brand was known for rising to prominance through a proposed donation of thousands of barrels of beer to the population of Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Their famous tagline also still has a ring to it, “when you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer!” As with a number of breweries on our list, Schlitz was eventually bought out by Pabst, who has subsequently been bought out by the Russian firm Oasis Beverages. One can still enjoy a number of the brands stalwarts, however, including “Schlitz Gusto” beer and Old Milwaukee.
3.) Narrangansett Lager
Founded all the way back in 1890, ‘Gansett Lager has been the largest brewery in New England for the first half of the 20th century. The brewery, known for their down home marketing line of “Hi neighbor! Have a ‘Gansett!”, managed to capture the hearts of millions (and repel the hearts of millions more) as the long time sponsor of the Red Sox. As with many longtime breweries, survival of the brand was a long and winding path. Sold to Saint Louis-based Falstaff brewery in 1965 for almost $20 million, all brewing in Rhode Island was shut down by the early 80’s. Where locals had touted that “straight from the barrel” and “seedless hops” taste, many complained of a deteriorating taste as the beer began brewing in Indiana. For the beer historian in all of us, Narrangansett has recently been revived to some extent. Bought by local New England investors in 2005, the beer is once again made in the region and can be purchased throughout New England.
4.) Rheingold Beer
This classic 1880’s-born beer was a common site around New York City throughout the 50’s. Originally created by yet another cadre of German Americans in 1883, the beer was known as the longtime sponsor of the then New York Mets. From the 40’s through the mid 60’s, the brand build on past prominence through a number of sleek marketing ploys centered around the “Miss Rheingold” Pageant. In this pageant, beer drinkers would vote on which girl would represent the beer brand in advertisements through the following year. It’s noted that among the blue collar following of Rheingold Beer through the period, that the Miss Rheingold Pageant was more highly anticipated and tracked than the presidential election. Also of note is the fact that the first Rheingold girl was of Puerto Rican descent, quite a statement in euro-centric advertising of the time. The choice to reach out to a wide range of ethnicities in marketing efforts potentially stemmed from the brands location in the diverse neighborhood of Bushwick. The brand was also noted as sponsoring the Nat King Cole show, one of the first major brands of the era to jump into sponsorship of the first black entertainer to host a major television show. Though the beers popularity faded dramatically throughout the second half of the 20th century, the brand was bought in 2005 and has since seen a slight resurgence throughout New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey.
5.) Dixie Brewing
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Dixie Brewing held the title of the longest continuously operating brewery in the historic New Orleans. Founded in 1907, the brewing company followed suite with many beer makers and become Dixie Beverage Company through the Prohibition, a period in which super low alcohol “beers” were made in desert and ice cream flavors. Though the brand had fallen into some dissaray as early as 1989 (when they filed for bankrupty), the brand resurfaced several times with new lines of specialty beers. In the mid-90’s the Jazz Amber Light, Blackened Voodoo, and Crimson Voodoo beers were released. In 2005, the levee failure as a result of Hurricane Katrina greatly damaged the iconic tower brewery, and caused the first cease in production at the brewery. Today the Department of Veteran Affairs is building a modern steel tower that will utilize the decorated facade of the brewery. As for Dixie Brewing, they’re still alive and well doing contract brews throughout the southeast. There are also rumors that Tom Benson (owner of the New Orleans Saints) is in talks to buy and restore the historic brand.
6.) Acme Brewing Company
In the aftermath of the massive 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, Leopold Schmidt (owner of the Washington-based Olympia Brewing Company) set out to fulfill a $1,000,000 beer order for a city bereft of its breweries. Already owning two lots of land perfect for a brewery, and facing steep importation costs, Schmidt decided to do Frisco one better. And so the first brewery constructed after the San Francisco fire was erected. While technically a subsidiary of Olympia Brewing Company, the beers were never the same due to differences in water quality. Known for promotional German-made beer steins and promotional materials featuring Ceres, goddess of agriculture, the brand grew pre-prohibition to include Acme Beer , Franciscaner, an Acme Bock and a dark Old Bohemian. As with many breweries in our list, the brewery had to restructure during prohibition, and was one of only two breweries to successfully weather the prohibition in California. Acme survived as the Cereal Products Refining Corporation producing Cereal Malt Syrup, Oro Syrup, Alta Syrup, Cerex Syrup, Peerless Yeast, Peerless Vinegar and fairy ice cream. After the prohibition, the brand is known for perhaps its greatest marketing ploy: the targeting of women. Known for the claim that their beer was “dietetically non-fattening” as well as “quality beer since 1860” (though the family had brewed since then, the business was not incorporated until 60 years later), Acme became a staple beer of the west coast. As with many regional breweries, however, the brand faced slowly eroding market share to national brands throughout the middle of the 20th century. Initially selling out in 1952, the beer was resurrected on a contract basis until the late 80’s. Alas, but Acme sure left us a ton of amazing marketing materials!
7.) Ranier Brewery
Ranier Brewing was consolidated from three other Seattle-region breweries in 1893. The brand has a long and twisting history, moving production to California, then Canada, then back to the Seattle region. In the end, Ranier Brewing was bought out by Pabst (seeing a trend here), and is now produced on a contract basis by a plant in Southern California owned by Miller. That’s only the short of it, however. With prohibition slated to come to Washington on January 1, 1916, Ranier Brewing moved to San Francisco, billing itself out as the “largest brewery west of the Saint Louis.” This bet was short lived, however, with a partial national prohibition put in place to preserve grain for WWI just two years later (and the full national prohibition coming into effect in 1920). A brief move to Canada until the end of prohibition ended (oddly) with the selling off to the rights of the brand in Canada to another. So Ranier lived on as a seperate entity after American prohibition was over and the brewery could return to San Francisco. Meanwhile, the San Francisco brewery had been creating “half beer” through the prohibition, and so was ready for the full repeal of prohibition. In the months approaching the return to normal beer sales, Ranier Brewing’s San Francisco plant stored thousands of cases of worth of high (for the time) alcohol content beer. After WWII the brand had troubles, however, with growing national beer standards. The beermakers attempted to innovate, and left us with a great deal of wonderful promotional material. Though later re-consolidated with a number of Washington brewers, little beer from Ranier Brewery was seen past 1960.
8.) Eastside Brewery
An Eastside Brewery Truck running over Galen Gough as a publicity stunt at Wrigley Field, Los Angeles, CA, 1935
Eastside Brewery was created in 1907, when a veteran Bavarian brewer named George Zobelein purchased the Los Angeles Brewing Company and began introducing his own recipes. The recipes were a hit, and made in traditional Bavarian styles, much as the brewery building itself, a quaint structure placed on 20 acres of land on the east side of the Los Angeles River. The brewery was also known for some of the best employer-employee relations of the time. Workers were offered paid lunch breaks (a rarity for the day) and paid vacation (up to 8 weeks after 20 years of work). But perhaps most loved were the 7 minute free beer breaks every hour. Yes, beer was free and unlimited for employees, and they could take it home for a 50% discount. The particularly Bavarian nature of the enterprise continued when the rubber shortage of WWII took most cars out of service. Zobelein’s solution, bring out his giant Belgian Draft Horses to pull his beer around town. Known for a wide range of traditional Bavarian beer styles favored by working men in LA, the Post War Boom wasn’t particularly kind to Eastside. With mounting competition from national brewers Eastside sold out to Pabst in 1948. Though the Eastside Old Tap was revived and sold at the Dodger’s opening day some 20 years later, the revival was short lived.
9.) Monarch Brewing Company
Chicago has never been known as the haven for breweries that neighboring Milwaukee is. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a sizable industry, but the number of breweries in Chicago peaked before 1900, and the few that lasted for any length of time mostly closed during prohibition. Monarch Brewing Company was the longest lasting brewery in the history of Chicago until its demise, formed in 1890 as the Joseph Hladovec Brewing Company. Monarch Brewery made their mark by vastly undercutting the strong Chicago Brewers Association of the time. Where the Brewers Association had set the price of beer at $8.00 a barrel, Monarch was willing to sell theirs for $4.00. As the late 1800’s turned into a recession, and the Spanish-American war caused the imposition of a $1.00 per barrel tax, however, breweries were folding in scores. While Monarch eked through by consolidating with a number of other brewers (a partnership that also ended in bankruptcy), they popped out of the post prohibition era as still one of hundreds of breweries competing for space in Chicago’s market. While Monarch tried different marketing tactics through the 50’s including sponsoring a cop show on the radio and giving away fishing lures to customers who mailed in the backs of bottles, it’s main appeal was that it was cheap, particularly their Bullfrog Beer. From reminiscences online, Bullfrog was lacking taste, but could be bought for one dollar for 6 quarts (that’s about 18 beers per dollar!).
10.) Old Style
Old Style (or it’s precursor Golden Leaf) was originally created in 1872 by recent German Immigrant Gottlieb Heileman. Started in La Crosse, WI, the brewery is greatly associated with Chicago and the great lakes region, where you can continue to find the beer today. The business was family owned from the start, leading to a number of unique arrangements, including one of the earliest female CEOs in history, as well as a 9 year old boy who inherited the business. Unlike many of the beers on our list, the G. Heileman Brewing Company (as the brewing company was still called after its creator) managed to acquire a number of other brands through the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Throughout the 50’s the brand was so popular through the upper midwest and great lakes regions that it was the sponsor of the Chicago Cubs. Though finally bought out by Pabst in the later part of the 20th century, the beer is still produced and loved by many, and even still uses the same mascot, King Gambrinus (a legendary German king said to be the patron saint of beer).