Fitger Brewing Company
Fitger’s Post Prohibition
October 1933 saw the death of August Fitger. While he mourned Fitger, Beerhalter Sr. busied himself reconfiguring the brewery to make nothing but beer. By the time Anneke made it back to the brewery, business was thriving. The brewery had repackaged its product as Fitger’s Natural Beer, advertising it as “naturally better!” In 1936 the brewery shipped 417 train-car loads, its all-time record.
Anneke never fully recovered from the accident. Anneke asked Arnold Fitger to take charge of the Duluth operation. Arnold Fitger visited Duluth as often as he could, for the most part he operated the brewery, in his words, by “remote control” from California where he ran several other businesses. He also put his faith in brewmaster Beerhalter Sr., giving him full control of the brewing operation and telling him to “go full speed ahead.”
Beerhalter Sr. introduced Nordlager in 1937. The new beer cost one-third as much as Natural, a price-point product designed to reach a less-affluent market. Unfortunately, Anneke’s health did not improve, and he died on October 20.
Arnold Fitger then bought Anneke’s shares of stock, gaining controlling interest in the brewery. He named Beerhalter Sr. the company’s president. Beerhalter Sr. continued to improve plant operations and experiment with new styles of beer. In 1939 Beerhalter Sr. repackaged Fitger’s Natural as Rex, one of the brands it acquired from DB&M in 1930. The new brand came with a new tagline “Naturally Brewed, Naturally Better.”
During World War Two rationing forced the Fitgers and other American breweries to tightened their belts by using alternative grain and reusing whatever it could, down to the bottle cap. In 1942, Arnold Fitger died, and the Fitger family estate took ownership of the brewery, keeping John Beerhalter Sr. in place as president. By then Beerhalter’s sons had joined the firm: John Jr. in the brewhouse, Erwin in charge of the Pop Shop, and J. Richard managing sales. A 1944 stroke struck severely restricted Beerhalter Sr. from working, and John Jr. took over as brewmaster.
In 1948 the Fitger board named Beerhalter Sr. chairman and John Jr. president. During the 1950s, national consolidation of breweries began taking a toll on Fitger’s sales. Perhaps recognizing it couldn’t compete nationally, Fitger’s established its product as a northern Minnesota beer, with advertising taglines including “The Best of the Great Midwest,” “The Call of the North,” and “Brewed on the Shore of Lake Superior.”
In 1951 the Fitger family sold the brewery to John Beerhalter Sr., longtime Fitger secretary-treasurer Walter Johnson, and accountant Bert Jeronimus. To increase sales, the brewery introduced a less-expensive beer named Twins Lager for the Twin Ports.
ohnson retired in 1960. The Beerhalter brothers then ran the brewery, trying various schemes to keep Fitger’s afloat while conglomeration continued to close breweries across the country. None worked. In a letter to stockholders in December 1966, Beerhalter Jr. reported the brewery’s net profit for the year was $1,605.99, about $13,000 in 2022 dollars. Soon thereafter, the brewery had to pay for grain before truckers would unload it—Fitger’s had no credit.
In 1967 the Beerhalters made a move that they, their father, and August Fitger would have hated: using liquid hops to cut costs. It was a desperate move—and poorly calculated. It not only changed the beer’s taste, but even when filtered left behind particles, making the beer even more unappealing. Many loyal Fitger’s customers became disgruntled and switched to other brands of beer.” Some employees even refused to work in the bottle house. The practice ended swiftly, but Fitger’s reputation had already tarnished.
And then the Beerhalter family turned on itself. J. Richard Beerhalter’s son Robert, a dentist, acted as agent for his mother Cecelia, who had inherited her husband’s company stock. In 1968 Dr. Beerhalter joined a confederacy of minority shareholders who ousted his uncles. They named Dr. Beerhalter the brewery’s new president, but his complete lack of experience in the brewing industry did nothing to vitalize the brewery.
The company ended its in-house distribution, subcontracting to get its beer to the local market. The dentist soon found himself up to his teeth in debt, with no cash for ingredients, advertising, or payroll. Meanwhile, trust between the brewery and distributors outside of Duluth and Superior began to dissolve.
On top of that, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) had contacted the brewery, demanding that Fitger’s stop dumping contaminated water leftover from the brewing process into Lake Superior. By 1969, the once state-of-the-art brewery was polluting the very same Lake Superior water that made its beer so special. The problem could be solved by connecting the brewery’s waste-water discharge to the city’s sewer system, but that would be expensive.
In an attempt to raise funds to pay for the connection, Dr. Beerhalter entered into a complicated agreement with businessman John Ferris that eventually gave the brewery to Ferris. Ferris replaced Dr. Beerhalter as president after purchasing all of Cecilia Beerhalter’s stock. And then the Minnesota Highway Department planned to demolish the brewing complex to extend I-35 through downtown Duluth. The brewery hung on until September, 1972. And for the first time since 1881, there wasn’t a beer on the market that contained even a single drop of Lake Superior water.
Duluth preservationists, however, managed to save the Fitger’s facility and other historic buildings. In the 1980s the complex was converted to a hotel and retail center and was the birthplace of DUluth’s craft brewing industry in 1994.