Duluth Brewing & Malting

A tin lithographic sign showing the Duluth Brewing & Malting facility, ca. 1910. It is highly idealized. St. Louis Bay was actually located much farther away and on the opposite side of the complex. What is shown as the bay above would have been a block of residential housing between the brewery and Clyde Iron Works. [Image: terry Post]

When Prohibition became law, Duluth Brewing & Malting planned to take advantage of its malting facilities to make industrial alcohol. In 1919 DB&M changed a clause in its articles of incorporation to indicate it would remain a brewery but comply to new limits on alcohol content and expand its offerings: “The general nature of the business of this corporation will be the manufacture of malt and malt liquors and to manufacture and sell denatured alcohol.” The brewery’s name changed to the Rex Company, and it created a beverage division called the Sobriety Company—brewmaster John Lingelbach had learned how to make soda. Lingelbach also produced two near beers, one maintaining the Rex name while the other was called Royal Brew. A third drink simply labeled Sobriety contained no alcohol. The following year the West End company first advertised its Lovit line of soda in a few basic but popular flavors: grape, orange, cherry, and a ginger ale it later labeled Minnesota Club.

Just as Lovit soda was becoming popular in Duluth, brewery founder Charles Meeske passed away after a year-long illness. Carl Meeske replaced his father as the firm’s president, then took full control in 1922 when Reiner Hoch decided that the soda business wasn’t his mug of beer.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Carl Meeske wrestled with more than the failing economy. Brewmaster John Lingelbach had died on March 11, 1929, seven months before the crash. Just over a year later Meeske reached out to Fitgers and offered to sell his competitor everything the brewing owned outside of its buildings—all kegs, cases, bottles, trucks, fixtures, labels, crowns, trade marks, etc. Fitgers also agreed to take on 15 to 20 former DB&M employees. While DB&M’s buildings and real-estate holdings were not included in the deal, Fitger’s got something Meeske would one day regret: the rights to DB&M’s former flagship beer brands, Rex and Moose.

Reiner Hoch had died in May 1930. When the repeal of Prohibition was announced in 1933, Meeske purchased Hoch’s remaining shares in the brewery and Gopher Real Estate from his heirs and reorganized the brewing company under its original name. He then scrambled to resurrect the old brewery with a new team operating new equipment.

Meeske tapped Henry Schmid as his brewmaster and head maltster. Schmid’s brewing crew included twenty-three-year-old Bob Ostern, who took a job in the cellars, the lowest rung on the company ladder, on February 8, 1934. Meeske also updated the 1896 brewery, bringing the plant’s brewing capacity to 125,000 barrels a year. Meeske chose to name DB&M’s its Bohemian-style pilsner beer Karlsbräu, aka Carl’s Brew.

While DB&M initially focused sales to Duluth and northern Minnesota, it eventually reached a wider market. The West End brewery employed seventy-five people in the summer, fifty during colder months. Perhaps DB&M’s great asset was its malt house. The brewery was one of just ten in the nation,that made its own malt. The other 590 had to buy it from someone else, and many bought it from DB&M.

As the decade came to a close, Schmid and his crew adjusted the recipe for Castle-Brew and in 1940, making it lighter as tastes had changed. DB&M began packaging it as Royal Bohemian.

When America entered World War II in December 1941, DB&M turned to producing distiller’s malt used to create industrial alcohol, much needed for the war effort in part to manufacture smokeless gun powder. DB&M received a government contract in 1943, and soon its payroll increased 33 percent. For the next three years DB&M shipped a train-car load of dis- tiller’s malt to plants across the country every three days.

Meanwhile, Royal Bohemian had become extremely popular and remained so for the rest of the decade. For DB&M the 1950s began with the return of Bob Ostern, who had left to attend Chicago’s Siebel Institute. One of the first things Ostern did when he returned was change Royal Bohemian’s recipe, pushing its alcohol content to 5.7 percent. Unlike today’s craft beers, at the time most of the nation’s strong beer rarely contained more than 4 percent alcohol, and those that did—like People’s Olde English 600—were often considered malt liquor. They named the new beer Royal 57.

At a meeting with local food vendors, participants joked people would soon call DB&M’s new brew the “Ketchup Beer,” because the name reminded them of Heinz 57. Ostern feared the name would result in a lawsuit from the condiment giant, so he wrote to Heinz. As he had guessed, they asked him to change it. After just six months, Ostern pushed the beer’s alcohol content to 5.8 percent and renamed it Royal 58. The following year, however, DB&M made a surprise move closing its malt house, reportedly to save money. Since the war, larger regional malting operations had sprung up to serve the ever-growing national breweries. The Duluth brewery likely didn’t use and sell enough malt to justify the cost of operating the facility.
Henry Schmid passed away on January 14, 1954, shortly after retiring. Bob Ostern finally had full control of DB&M’s brewing operations, yet just two years later he accepted an offer from San Francisco’s Lucky Lager Brewing Co. Meeske asked his former brewmaster to return to Duluth in the summer of 1957. Ostern was barely back to the DB&M’s famous kettle when Meeske died.

According to Ostern, when he took over the brewery, DB&M owed stockholders over $90,000 and Duluthians drank more Hamm’s than Royal 58. In June 1960 DB&M announced it had reopened the malt house because the demand for quality malt had increased. Ostern told reporters DB&M intended to again make its own malt and sell malt to other breweries.

Ostern’s ideas for DB&M were placed in jeopardy in 1962 when the state highway department announced plans of its own. The Minnesota Highway Department intended to extend Interstate 35 through Duluth, and the brewery stood right in the proposed path. While DB&M’s 1965 sales topped $1 million, the brewery’s stockholders voted to take the state’s offer and close the brewery on April 14, 1966. After seventy years of operation, Duluth Brewing & Malting closed its doors for good on July 11, 1966. At least Ostern and his crew could take some pride that failure hadn’t closed their brewery. “We didn’t shut down because of poor business,” Ostern would say, “We shut down because of the Minnesota Highway Department.”

Demolition began soon after, but the office, bottling house, and a warehouse were left standing. Today the office building is home to plumbing contractor Carlson Duluth, the warehouse is home to Michaud Distributing, and the bottling house is now an event center oddly named the “Malt House.”

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