Commercial Beer Brewing in Duluth (1850s–1970s)

From Lost Duluth: Landmarks, Industries, Buildings, Homes, and the Neighborhoods in Which They Stood, copyright © 2011, Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota. Image: X-Comm.

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People’s Brewery. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

As the financial panic gripped the nation in 1857, H. S. Burke, Gilbert Falconer, Harry Fargo, and J. Gottlieb Busch found themselves unemployed in Duluth Township. Gottlieb had brewing skills, so he and his companions set up shop on land lent to them by Sidney Luce at First Street and Washington Avenue in what was then Portland Township. They named an adjacent creek, from which they drew water for brewing, “Brewery Creek.” The Luce/Busch Brewery was the first in the Zenith City, but more would follow. Breweries that came and went including Klein & Kiichli (1859–1861), Gustave Kiene (1869–1876), Kreimer Brothers (1871–1872), Camahl & Busse (1874–1875), Benjamin Decker Brewery (1882–1884), W. Franke & Co. (1884–1885), C. J. Johnson / Scandia Bottling (1901–1906), West End Malt Ale Co. (1910–1914), and E. F. Burg (1907). The most successful of all these were Fitger’s Brewery, Duluth Brewing & Malting Company, and People’s Brewery (pictured at right).

Although it produced a wide range of beers (including a cream ale, a stock ale, and a wheat ale) the Luce/Busch Brewery itself barely survived Duluth’s tough economy of the 1860s. In 1865, Luce sold the brewery to Nicholas Decker. Decker died in 1875, and two years later his family leased the brewery to Michael Fink. In 1882 Fink hired August Fitger to run his brewery; less than half a year later Fitger and his partner Percy Anneke bought the Brewery from Fink and changed the name of the Decker Brewery to A. Fitger & Co. Lake Superior Brewery.

Fitger and Anneke had much greater success than their predecessors. The company grew throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, adding buildings and employees to their facility at 600 East Superior Street as the years progressed. In 1890 the brewery installed Minnesota’s first ice machine. Sales continued to grow.

That growth stopped abruptly in 1918, when Prohibition shut down beer manufacturing and sales. Fitger and Anneke scrabbled to keep the brewery operational and Duluthians employed. They sold their Brewery Saloon to bartender Joseph Wisocki. Wisocki would later rename the saloon The Pickwick after a non-alcoholic beverage made by Fitger’s that mixed well with the bootleg liquor many patrons brought to the saloon themselves. During Prohibition, Fitger’s made candy, distributed cigars, and manufactured non-alcoholic beverages. Their most popular brand was Silver Spray, and they turned part of the brewery into the Silver Spray Boxing Gym.

Fitger’s survived Prohibition to become a major regional brewery, but they couldn’t survive the post-war consolidation and expansion of breweries such as Miller and Budweiser. On September 19, 1972, the final shift reported to the bottling house.

Fitger’s had no serious competition in Duluth until 1895,  when brewmaster Reiner Hoch established the Duluth Brewing & Malting Company (Hoch would later be joined in Duluth by his business partner Charles Meeske after their brewery in Marquette, Michigan, failed). In 1896 Hoch hired Duluth architect John J. Wangenstein to design a six-story brick building at Twenty-Ninth Avenue West and Helm Street. The massive building featured arched windows and at least three towers and was trimmed with stone quarried at Fond du Lac.

Duluth Brewing & Malting was one of the few breweries in the country which had its own malting plant (the only other one in Minnesota was at St. Paul’s Hamm’s Brewery). Most other breweries purchased malt for their beers and lagers. Some of the more well-known beers Duluth Brewing & Malting produced included Moose Lager (and its low-alcohol cousin, Our Tame Moose), Castlebrew, Gold Shield, Royal Bohemian, and Karlsbrau. It also manufactured Lovit brand soft drinks. (In the 1920s Fitger’s purchased the Lovit brand along with the rights to all the Duluth Brewing & Malting’s beer labels; of these, Fitger’s produced the Moose and Rex brands, and Rex later became one of Fitger’s most popular beers.)

During Prohibition, Duluth Brewing & Malting changed its name to The Sobriety Company and turned solely to making soft drinks. But times were tough, and after the stock market crash of 1929 the facility suspended production. As Prohibition ended, Meeske’s son Carl retooled the brewery and hired brewmaster Henry Schmidt. Schmidt would introduce Karlsbrau (or “Karl’s brew,” named for Carl Meeskes) which became the breweries’ flagship brand. After World War II the brewery expanded its market throughout the Midwest and to Alaska and enlarged the plant on Helm Street. The Royal name was revived in 1951 and applied to a new beer with 5.7 percent alcohol, and Royal 57 was born. Because of the Heinz 57 brand, Royal 57 became known as “the ketchup beer.” They quickly changed the name to Royal 58 and advertised it with the slogan “Make a date with 58.”

Despite the popularity of its beers, competition from larger breweries caused the company to cease production in 1966. The Minnesota Highway Department purchased all of the original buildings a year later for the expansion of Interstate 35. The only building still standing is the 1915 bottling works which had been built across Helm Street from the brew and malt houses.

Bolstered by socialist ideas brought to the region by eastern European immigrants, West Duluth tavern owners Martin Smith, F. G. Sandstedt, and Michael J. Gleeson came together in 1907 to form People’s Brewery to avoid having to buy beer from Fitger’s and large national breweries and so they could, according to brewery historian Doug Hoverson, “resist the evils of capitalism.”

People’s was the smallest brewery in Duluth, establishing an office in the Burrows Building. It first produced beer at 4230 West Second Street in 1908 under president Frank G. Sandstadt and brewmaster Ernest A. Koenig. Sections of the new brewery stood five stories high and were faced with brick and Bedford stone trim. At first it sold its beer only to “member saloons.”

People’s Brewery operated from 1908 until 1920 when Prohibition stopped production of beer. It produced soft drinks, including 7-up, during the 1920s and resumed beer production in 1933 when Prohibition ended. Carl O. Hanson reorganized the brewery and began touting its beer as being made with “Crystal Clear-Chemically Pure Lake Superior Water.” Some of People’s better-known brands included Stag, Olde English 600 (a malt liquor originally labelled Ruff’s Stout, Olde English 600 found successful sales as far away as the Pacific Northwest and Puerto Rico), and Regal Supreme, the brewery’s most popular beer. The Regal Supreme label featured a likeness of Duluth’s namesake, Daniel Greysolon Sieur DuLhut, and was advertised with a print campaign describing DuLhut’s exploits in the Western Lake Superior region, including the time he had two Ojibwe executed for the murder of two of his French compatriots.

In the 1950s, Duluth was the only city in Minnesota operating three breweries — until People’s closed in 1956. Most of the building was razed in about 1975 with the exception of a two-story section which was occupied first by Standard Brick and today by the Brock White Company, which supplies brick, stone, and landscape supplies.

Commercial brewing in Duluth was revived in 1994 with the opening of the Lake Superior Brewery, which was first located in the repurposed Fitger’s Brewery Complex before moving to Duluth’s West End. The brewery now makes Special Ale, Kayak Kolsch, Mesabi Red Ale, Sir Duluth Oatmeal Stout, and a variety of seasonal and specialty beers. In September 1995 Fitger’s Brewhouse opened in the Fitger’s complex as Duluth’s first brewpub and is now the highest-producing brewpub in Minnesota. Its first brewer was Mike Hoops, who turned over the reins to his brother Dave when he went to work for Minneapolis’s Town Hall Brewery. Both Hoops brothers have won many brewing awards for their work with the Brewhouse. Since the Brewhouse found success, other Duluth drinking establishments have begun brewing their own beer, including Carmody Irish Pub & Brewing (Carmody is owned in part by Eddie Gleeson, grandson of People’s Brewery founder M. J. Gleeson). A new brewpub, the Canal Park Brewing Company, is slated to open in Duluth’s Canal Park Business District in 2012.