Northern Brewing Company

Lithographic postcard of Superior’s Northern Brewing Company, ca. 1905. [Image: Hartel Family]

While Northern was settling its conflict with Premier-Pabst, Rudolph Peterson died suddenly at the brewery. George Ehmann left the Kingsbury Brewing Co. of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, to manage Northern that December, and soon thereafter George Volkert replaced Glockner. Ehmann predicted that Northern’s Select, which Volkner had “changed and improved,” would further increase overall sales. It didn’t. Northern declared insolvency in June 1938—but the brewing didn’t stop for long. In August Victor Nelson, Oscar Johnson, and John Frischler purchased the brewery from trustees.

Nelson took out a full-page ad in the Telegram for a “contract” between himself and the people of Superior promising that Northern would keep brewing beer in Superior, employ only Union men “who live and spend their money in Superior,” use only the nest ingredients and Lake Superior water, ensure its new Northern Pale beer was available throughout the region, do all it could to “bring more business and tourists to the Great Northwest,” and follow all laws to eliminate “anti-social conditions” associated with drunkenness. Thirty-three employees witnessed Nelson sign the agreement, but brewmaster Volkert was gone.
Nelson invested in the brewery, including a new bottling plant and other improvements totaling $40,000. Under his guidance, the brewery’s business stabilized. When the U.S. entered World War II, Nelson struggled not only with wartime shortages, but with keeping a reliable brewmaster on the payroll as well. He finally found Joe Hartel in 1943. Hartel was a journeyman brewmaster who began in his trade when he was sixteen in his native Regensberg, Bavaria.
Hartel took charge of Northern’s entire operation and soon developed a reputation for brewing quality beer. For the next eighteen years he would keep Northern Beer a strong and popular regional brew. Hartel also indulged his new boss. After the war Hartel packaged some of the flagship Northern Pale as “Vic’s Special.” By 1950 Northern was producing 25,000 barrels of beer each year, the peak of its production.

Seventy-five-year-old Northern president Victor Nelson decided it was time to retire in February 1956. He sold the brewery to liquor distributor Northwest Liquor Co. of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, owned by Peter Slomann. Slomann named Robert E. Rooney Northern’s new president. Rooney knew the brewery and its market well, as he was already president of Northern Liquor, a subsidiary of Northwest Liquors, based in Superior. Soon Vic’s Special was replaced by Bob’s Beer, named for Rooney.

As the 1960s began, the loss of Rooney and Hartel marked the beginning of the end for the Northern Brewing Company. Rooney died in July 1961, the same year Hartel suffered three strokes, leaving his entire right side paralyzed and forcing him to retire. Peter Slomann took Rooney’s place as president and tapped Harry Husold to replace Hartel in 1962, but longtime Northern employee Joe Linsky handled the day-to-day brewing operation. But Husold replaced the high-quality Bavarian hops Hartel insisted on with the least expensive hops he could find. Many loyal Northern drinkers switched brands.

At the time Northern’s distribution included all of Wisconsin, Duluth, and the Twin Cities. Byrne also remembered that once a week two truckloads of Northern Beer was sent to Milwaukee. Sales dropped further after liquor stores and distributors returned a bad batch of beer “by the truckload.” It cost Northern many loyal accounts—and Husold his job.

Slomann hired Henry Rothmann as Northern’s full-time brewmaster and plant manager. When Rothmann took over annual sales were already down from 25,000 to 18,000 barrels a year. Under Rothman, sales declined substantially as local drinkers gave up on the hometown beer.

Northern stopped brewing in December 1966 and announced its closure the following February. Tracing its roots back to the original 1890 Klinkert Brewery, Northern had served Superior for seventy-seven years.
Minnesota’s Cold Spring Brewing Company purchased the Northern label and accounts and kept the name alive until 1995.

The brewery remained unoccupied for several years until various businesses, including a thrift store and an appliance recycler, tried to reuse it. Most of the brewery—including the office, taproom, cooperage, and part of the brewhouse—was demolished in the 1980s; the rest of the brewhouse came down in 2002.

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