The Pioneer Breweries of Duluth & Superior

An 1864 advertisement for Duluth’s first brewery. [Image: Zenith City Press]

Sidney Luce never intended to live in Duluth. In fact, the city didn’t even exist when he first arrived at the Head of the Lakes in 1856. He had traveled from Ohio to Superior, Wisconsin, to look after some investments “without any intention of remaining any length of time,” according to Luce himself. Luce ended up staying for the next twenty years, becoming one of Duluth’s most important pioneers. He also established a business that became the longest-surviving manufacturing concern in the history of the Zenith City, lasting more than 110 years—a brewery.

As Luce himself would later remember: “The season of 1859 was like its predecessor. There was nothing doing to relieve the stringency of the times. Our population was steadily decreasing, and to retain what remained was a matter of anxiety. In canvassing the mat- ter it was found that there were four single men out of employment, one of them being a practical brewer. He suggested the building of a brewery, as the four could do all of the construction and carry it on. As this seemed likely to add a little to our enlivenment I encouraged the project by giving them a location and otherwise assisting. The location was on what was then called Washington Avenue, on a small stream. The company was composed of H. S. Burk, Gilbert Falconer, Harry Fargo and J. G. Busch.”

Those men—Henry S. Burk, Gilbert H. Falconer, Harvey “Harry” Fargo, and J. Gottlieb Busch—had not come to the Head of the Lakes to make beer. Burk was a farmer, Fargo a carpenter, and Falconer a boat builder. John Gottlieb Busch was not a practical brewer, as Luce suggests, but a cooper. His barrel-making talents no doubt put him in close contact with beer manufacturers in his native Germany, and he likely picked up some brewing experience.

With lumber borrowed from Luce they built their operation between East First and Second Streets along Washington Avenue in Portland Township. The site was directly adjacent to a stream from which Busch drew water for brewing, and soon thereafter locals began calling it Brewery Creek. The brewery itself was referred to as the Luce-Busch Brewery, and later the J. G. Busch & Co. Brewery, the Washington Avenue Brewery, and sometimes “Duluth’s pioneer brewery.”

An ad for Louis Kiichli’s brewery in Superior. {Image: Zenith City Press]

Meanwhile Oneota residents Louis and Henry Kiichli opened their own brewery in Superior also in 1859. The Kiichli brothers set up shop at 346 East Second Street as a “manufacturer and wholesale and retail dealer in lager beer.” Two years later Kiichli moved his brewery to Sixth Avenue East and Third Street or “Near Third Street on L Avenue, now Central Park.” Both locations were adja-cent to what was called the “big slough,” later called Faxon Creek, which now runs underground from Central Park to the bay. Kiichli used water from the slough to make his beer. The new location improved the product, as the Chronicle reported that “the beer made there is of much better quality than the last two brewings at the old place.”

Superior pioneer John Bardon—son of James Bardon, namesake of Duluth’s Bardon’s Peak—spoke about Superior’s early breweries in 1933 and mentioned their contribution to the struggling local economy: “The industry also stimulated the local growing of hops, rye, and other grains. Wild hops grew on all the local streams and in the valleys and were picked by Indians and whites for ready sale to this new brewery. Hand made kegs gave employment to local coopers, who also had been making kegs for salted whitefish and trout.” He also mentioned that Kiichli’s brewery “was always credited with turning out a fine product—with plenty of body to it.”

In the mid to late 1860s, Thomas Shiels and Henry S. Sizer built a brewery along the Nemadji River roughly at today’s Thirty-First Avenue and Second Street today) Sizer made the beer and Shiels kept the books. Bardon described Shiels and Sizer’s product in 1930: “It is said the beer was wonderful. The red iron impregnated waters of the Nemadji imparted to this beverage health giving qualities.”

An 1868 adveritisement for the Decker Brewery [Image: Zenith City Press]

Those who found their way to Duluth Township following the Civil War included thirty-three-year-old Nicholas Decker, who purchased the Luce-Busch Brewery; Busch stayed on as brewer until Decker mastered the trade. In November 1969 Gustav Kiene established Minnesotian called the Point Brewery “on Minnesota Point, about a mile below Franklin Square”—about Twenty-Fourth Street and Minnesota Avenue today. Kiene’s operation was the first in Minnesota or Wisconsin to brew with water drawn from Lake Superior.

That same year Kicchli sold his Superior Brewery to Jacob Klein and Victor Decemval in 1869. In October 1870 the Superior Times reported that Klein & Decemval had “enlarged and added many improvements to their brewery in Uppertown. They have built, with stone walls and arched roof, the largest basement cellar at the head of the lake, to be used for storage purposes.” By April the following year they had named their operation the Superior City Brewery.

An 1871 ad for Klein & Decemval. [Image: Zenith City Press]

Meanwhile, Shiels & Sizer’s Nemadji Brewery struggled. In September 1870 Henry Sizer had died, but did not provide a cause of death. On the last day of 1870, the Times reported that the brewery had been leased to John Walbourne, a German brewer from Detroit, and that Walbourne had “made many valuable improvements in and about the establishment, and those who know pronounce his beer first class.” Almost exactly a year to the day after Sizer died, Walbourne accidentally shot himself getting into his duck hunting boat.

In early August 1871 Gustav Kiene’s brewery on Minnesota Point was destroyed
by fire. It took him over two years to get his operation back up and running. Flames threatened another Duluth brewery in 1872. Kreimer’s Brewery—also known as the Western Brewery and the Kreimer Brothers’ Brewery—was located at Fourth Street and Eighth Avenue West, adjacent to Buckingham Creek. August and Paul Kreimer—the brewery’s owners in1873—were brothers of Duluth grocer Charles D. Kreimer. But the Panic of 1873 struck Duluth hard—the Kreimer brewery closed and Decker suspended brewing. Kiene kept brewing until 1875, when he left Duluth. Neither Superior brewery survived the Panic of 1873.

Nicholas Decker developed tuberculosis and died January 1, 1875. Later that year Michael Fink, a partner in Stillwater’s Wolf, Tanner & Company Brewery, leased the pioneer brewery from Decker’]s widow Mary. Here is a description of the brewery in 1877:

The brewery was a one-story building that was built on the crest of [a] rather long hill. The front part was the brewer’s home; the rear upstairs was the mill and malt storage; then down a flight of stairs to the kettle which was situated over a large brick replace heated by cord wood. The mill was operated by horsepower—that is where we kids used to get a free ride ‘round ’n’ round.’ The mash tub was way down on the ground floor…. One novel feature they had was quite an improvement over the old way of carrying beer up in buckets to the kettle or hand pump—they invented a water wheel. They had a long trough up the creek; water running down would turn the wheel which pumped the beer up into the kettle…. The cord wood pile served as seats for the visitors. In cold winter weather, they would heat a poker and stick it into the mug of beer; that is where the name of “Poker Beer” came from. You should have seen the beer cellar! It was in a dug-out—a regular tunnel. That was the old way of building breweries—up against a hill. They also had an ice house that stood…at 115 North Seventh Avenue East. We kids used to have lots of fun playing in the sawdust. Another interesting place at the old brewery was where the kegs were pitched. We were always welcome to roll the kegs back and forth. Of course, we got a drink of beer for doing that.

An advertisement for Fink’s Brewery ca. 1878. [Image: Zenith City Press]

The rustic facility may sound romantic, but the city was growing and Fink wanted to expand.In 1881 he decided to build a new brick facility on Superior Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues East. Fink’s intention was to “put up a building that shall be second to none in the state for the purpose intended, and will furnish it with all the improvements known to modern- brewers.” By then Fink was also serving as a Duluth city alderman, and within months he would also be named a county commissioner. Fink’s new brewing outfit—the M. Fink & Company Lake Superior Brewery—sold its first beer in August 1881. Meanwhile, the sons of Nicholas Decker, along with their cousin Charlie Unden, began operating Duluth’s oldest brewery as the Decker Brothers Brewery.

To keep up the growth, Fink needed to delegate more responsibility. He hired a new brewer in the fall of 1882, though the local newspapers made no mention of the change until February 9, 1883, when the Daily Tribune wrote that its staff was “indebted to M. Fink for a sample keg of his new beer, made by a brewer he lately engaged in Milwaukee and they pronounced it excellent.” The brief article failed to mention the brewer’s name. The new brewer allowed Fink to focus on sales, and his business thrived.

An 1882 ad for the Decker Brothers Brewery. [Image: Zenith City Press]

The Decker Brothers, meanwhile, struggled to keep their brewing operation alive. In October the Daily Tribune used just one sentence to sum up their situation: “The Decker Brothers contemplate the sale of their brewery.” Instead they leased the brewery to bookkeeper William Franke, who had help making beer from Louis Eischstadt and Charlie Unden. They organized as W. Franke & Company and were listed in Duluth’s city directories from 1884 to 1886, but the outfit produced little beer and would be gone by 1886. By the time the decade was out, Duluth’s pioneer brewery—active for twenty-seven years—would be a memory.

Fink probably didn’t worry much over Franke & Co. in 1884, as he had other problems. Conflicts arose between his dual roles as businessman and civic leader, and he was charged with selling beer on Sundays and other ethical violations. Fink’s woes continued into 1885. In April 1885 he lost his reelection bid as alderman. he was out of the politics business and out of the beer business as well. In March the Tribune had made the following announcement: “Yesterday M. Fink sold his interest in the Lake Superior Brewery to Mr. Anneke, of Milwaukee, lately bookkeeper of Schlitz & Co., in that city. It is not expected Mr. Fink will leave Duluth.”

Unbeknownst to most of Duluth, back in 1882 Fink had sold half of the brewery to his new brewer. Together the bookkeeper and brewer—Percy Anneke and August Fitger— developed a company that would dominate the brewing industry in Duluth, Superior, and throughout the region for nearly the next ninety years.

Before the 1890s ended the 1859 brewery Gottlieb Busch built alongside Brewery Creek became a memory. It was hardly a shame brewing had stopped at the pioneer facility, as the waters of Brewery Creek were no longer “pure as a mountain stream.” With more and more houses going up on the hillside above it, and without a sewer system in place, more and more waste material from humans—and the cattle, chickens, goats, and pigs many kept in their yards—washed into Brewery Creek The brewery’s source of beer’s most important ingredient—water—had been fouled. In May 1890, the brewery, along with the house and hotel, came down to make room for tenement flats.