Commercial Beer Brewing in Duluth (1850s–1970s

A postcard of Fitger’s Brewery c. 1900-1915. The artwork came from the company’s letterhead and includes some buildings that were never constructed, and a roof-top garden above the offices that was also never completed. (Image: Zenith City Press)

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 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 (a descendant of Luce/Busch), Duluth Brewing & Malting Company, and People’s Brewery.

August Fitger in 1915. (Image: Scott Vesterstein.)

Fitger’s Brewery
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.

The 1882 M. Fink & Co.-Lake Superior Brewery, which would become the first home of Fitger’s Brewery. (Image: Zenith City Press)

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 & Malt c. 1897. (Image: Darby Patterson)

Duluth Brewing & Malting
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.

Duluth’s Peoples Brewery c. 1908. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

People’s Brewery

Over the decades since it ceased operation, many have come to believe that Peoples Brewery was born of socialist ideas brought to the region by eastern European immigrants to “resist the evils of capitalism”—in fact, that’s what was believed when this book was first published. Recent research indicates that that was likely not the case.

In October 1906 the Duluth News Tribune reported that promoter F. C. Toelle was seeking investors for a brewery—something he claimed to have done in seventeen other communities across the U.S. Toelle was trying to raise $300,000 at $100 a share, and many of those who invested were “retail liquor dealers”—saloon owners—likely interested in a way to increase profits. (The idea of a company started by a group of investors, rather than a few capitalists—along with the socialist implications of the brewery’s name—likely led to its creation myth.) Within a year, however, Toelle left town after placing an ad in local newspapers stating that “the project would be abandoned.”

Pat Doran, Frank G. Sandstedt, Michael J. Gleeson, and other investors pressed on without Toelle, building a brewery at 4230 West Second Street. Sections of the facility stood five stories high and were faced with brick and Bedford stone trim. It first produced beer in June 1908 with Sandstedt as president and Ernest A. Koenig as brewmaster. The brewery operated from 1908 until 1920—and paid dividends to its shareholders each year—when Prohibition stopped production of beer. It bottled and distributed soft drinks, including 7-Up.

People’s 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

Brewing revived

Commercial brewing in Duluth was revived in 1994 with the opening of the Lake Superior Brewery, which was first located within the repurposed Fitger’s Brewery Complex. Since then several brew pubs and microbreweries have found success in Duluth, including Fitger’s Brewhouse inside the Fitger’s complex, the Canal Park Brewing Company, Bent Paddle Brewing Co., Blacklist Artisan Ales, and Carmody Irish Pub & Brewing, established by Eddie Gleeson, a grandson of Peoples Brewing co-founder Micheal J. Gleeson. Dave Hoops, former brewmaster at Fitger’s Brewhouse, announced in 2016 that he would be opening a brewery in Canal Park in 2017.

Updated January 2013.

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