Northern Brewing Company

Northern Brewing Co. employees in front of the brewery, ca. 1898. [Image: Pete Clure]

The Superior Inland Ocean newspaper announced on February 19, 1898, that “the old Klinkert Brewing Company has been entirely reorganized under the name Northern Brewing Company. The incorporators are L. Rueping, Frederick Rueping, Fred J. Rueping and L. A. Erhart. The capital stock is $150,000. Mr. Erhart is the manager and is now living in Superior. He was formerly the mayor of Fond du Lac, Wis.” Brewing historian Hoverson suggests Louis Erhart actually resigned his posi- tion as mayor to run the new brewing operation in Superior. Besides managing the plant, Erhart also served as the company’s secretary and treasurer. There is nothing to indicate Erhart had any experience operating a brewery; in Fond du Lac he had owned and operated L. A. Erhart Cigars. Northern first labeled its bottled beer as Northern Special Brew.

Northern merged with the West Superior brewing Company in 1901, a move that would reduce labor and management costs. Brewing would move to Northern and the West Superior facility would be used for cold storage. That year Erhart hired John R. Kuehlthau as brewmaster. At about this same time Northern started bottling its flagship beer, Blue Label.

Northern found the support it was seeking from Superior’s booming population, and in 1901 announced that a Milwaukee architect was busy at work on plans for a “fine brick and stone building for brewing purposes” that would double Northern’s capacity. Newspapers reported that the new, “much larger” brewery along Catlin Avenue would be “modern in every detail.” The brewery promised its revamped facility would be “the best in this section of the country.” It could produce 25,000 barrels a year and would employ thirty-five men. The News Tribune reported that while Northern had a sales branch in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and its beer was sold from southern Wisconsin to western Minnesota, the “major portion of the product of the brewery is consumed in Superior.”

Despite the bigger brewery, Northern couldn’t keep up with demand. The next year it grew again, adding a new, four-story brick brew-and-mill house. When complete, the new facility stretched 510 feet along Eighth Street and 160 feet along Caitlin Avenue and could produce 25,000 barrels a year. Within three years market growth required a new storehouse and another addition. The firm also purchased property for a new bottling works along Eighth Street, but construction was delayed for several years. When it was complete, the brewery installed glass-lined storage tanks purchased from Anheuser-Busch.

Besides its equipment, Northern invested in real estate, buying up Superior properties “suitable for saloon purposes” for its own tied houses. Beginning in 1906 the company went on a spending spree, buying up Superior hotels and saloons and building even more saloons. By 1909 Northern owned so much real estate it had become Superior’s largest depositor of property tax. In 1910 year Northern constructed its new bottling house.

Five years later Northern’s owners spent $15,000 for an addition to the brewery. The investment proved unwise—in 1916, Superiorites voted to ban the sale of alcohol. Retail liquor sales in Superior came to a halt. Northern could still manufacture beer, but it couldn’t sell any of it in its hometown, its largest market. In July Northern introduced a nonalcoholic drink called Bingo they hoped to sell in Superior and other dry communities and set about retooling the brewery to manufacture the drink. There is no description of the beverage, but it more than likely was a near beer or cereal drink.

As Prohibition approached, the Rueping family sold the Superior brewery to a group of local men. Louis McKinnon stayed on as plant manager and John Kuehlthau remained brewmaster, and both were also likely chief among the local investors. Like his counterparts in Duluth, Kuehlthau learned to make soda, but the plant wouldn’t reopen until November 1922, after it had retooled and obtained the proper licenses to produce cereal and carbonated beverages.

Northern’s near beer turned out to be much closer than near on July 29, 1924, when federal agents stopped Superior resident Robert Delahunt and found several kegs of strong beer in his car. The beer came from Northern. Near beer is made by making strong beer and boiling it to reduce the alcohol content, and someone at the brewery had filled kegs with strong beer that had not been converted to near beer. Federal agents searched the brewery after Delahunt’s arrest and found more strong beer in kegs. The Wisconsin Office for Prohibition Enforcement revoked the brewery’s license to manufacture nonintoxicating beverages and convicted Delahunt of violating the Volstead Act, the law covering the enforcement of Prohibition. Delahunt sat in jail for a year, and Northern sat idle until Prohibition ended in 1933.

J. S. Cochrane returned to his former job as Northern’s engineer and fired up the boilers on March 22, 1933, for his new boss, Rudolph Peterson. Peterson, a former Tower Avenue saloon operator, reorganized the brewery in 1932. John Stariha served as vice president, former manager Louis McKinnon returned as secretary-treasurer, and McKinnon’s son Frank signed on as a driver. Northern did not announce the name of its brewmaster.

Blue Label was back on shelves by October 1933 with a new ingredient: pure Lake Superior water. Because its water had become brackish, Northern had to stop drawing from its artesian well for brewing and began using water from the Superior Water, Light & Power Company’s system, which drew water from an intake pipe that jutted into the lake from Minnesota Point.
Walter Glockner took over as brewmaster and superintendent in February 1935. Soon after Glockner got to brewing, Northern hit a snag with its packaging. While it had long called its premier beer Blue Label, Premier-Pabst—makers of Pabst Blue Ribbon— objected to the potential consumer confusion created with Northern’s use of the name and the image of a ribbon or scroll used on labels. Not only had Pabst trademarked Blue Ribbon and the use of blue ribbons on labels since 1898, but in 1920 the company had also trademarked the name Blue Label for its malt extract. Yet Northern’s use of Blue Label on strong beer predated Pabst’s malt extract.

The solution was a compromise: Northern would stop using images of a blue ribbon on packaging. If it wanted to continue calling its beer Blue Label, the label itself could not be blue. The words Blue Label could be printed in blue ink, but they could not be set in the same typeface used on Premier-Pabst products. Premier-Pabst even agreed to reimburse Northern for the cost of having new printing plates made for its revised labels. At this time Northern chose to change Blue Label to Northern Select Beer—and used a yellow label to advertise it.

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