A series of press stories out of Syracuse, NY between 1932 and 1937 tells the story how one venerable pre-Prohibition brewery, Zett’s, returned to the market with a splash only to flounder within a year of start-up.
How this could happen for a brewery with such promise is hard to understand. True, most of the local heroes that returned to business in the 1930s left the scene within a decade or two. Haberle-Congress lasted longest, until 1962.
But to last only a year, how could that happen? Zett’s was founded in 1855 or 1858 (accounts vary) by Xavier Zett, a German immigrant. His great-grandson George Zett 3rd, a trained brewer, was part of a consortium formed to bring the brewery back in 1933.
Louis Wehle of the newly-revived Genesee Brewery in Rochester, NY played both an investment and managerial role in the new Zett’s, and was President and a director. George Zett 3rd was a senior officer, and other prominent businessmen were involved in management and stock ownership, with Wehle/Genesee having a controlling interest.
Their investment funded an impressive upgrade of the historic brewery and what seemed an effective advertising campaign.
Yet, by 1935 Zett’s Brewery was in federal bankruptcy proceedings. In the wake of the financial difficulty, Genesee made a further investment to permit operations to continue, the board was reorganized to afford a greater involvement by Syracusans, and the brewery name was changed to Syracuse Brewery Inc. Beers continued to issue, one, Dickens Ale, had the inscription “Genesee” over that name.
In late 1937 Syracuse Brewery Inc. was shut down but this news story states it was purchased, on terms, by a John W. Harrison, treasurer of the Syracuse Brewery Inc. A hand-drawn spreadsheet in a Facebook page on historic Syracuse breweries, Beer in the Salt City, suggests the brewery operated for two years, to 1939, but this is unclear.
After that, there is nothing. Today, at the corner of Court and Lodi, only a small rump in brick remains where a fine complex prospered.
The ad pictured above, of June 18, 1933, is from the newspaper archive of the Fulton History website, as the other news stories linked herein. It described carefully a number of steps in mashing, brewing, and fermenting the first batch of Zett’s Sparkling Ale for a presumed rapt public.
There seems an intermittent tradition in Central New York to describe technics of brewing in newspaper advertising. We have also seen instances, both in Utica, in 1907-’08, and the 1960s.
Nothing less than Kent English hops, perhaps the finest in the world, were used to dry-hop Zett’s ale.
Fermentation was started in a large tank and finished in small, wood fermenters that look like the old English pontoons.
The beer was aged one month, less time, the ad noted (perhaps inadvisedly) than for lager beer.
Advertisements that year congratulated Zett’s on its achievement in returning to market, placed by suppliers or contractors that had worked on the refurbishment.
Zett’s had everything going for it. To be sure, it had competition. Bartels, Moore & Quinn, Haberle-Congress were just some of them.
But there was room for all of them before 1920, why not now?
It is hard to answer this without doing an in-depth study of the economics of brewing in 1930s Central New York. For example, further west in the state, Wehle’s Genesee Brewery grew steadily from restoration in 1933.
On the other hand, it benefitted fron Wehle’s deep pockets, he had sold a bakery business for a fortune before re-entering brewing upon Repeal.
And while incipient national brands started to appear in regional New York, the market in 1930s Syracuse was still mostly local judging by a rare beer list in a period menu reproduced on the Facebook page mentioned.
Wehle was a talented businessman and brewer, but probably he could stretch himself only so far.
The 1930s too was the Depression era, not the best time to launch new businesses even in beverage alcohol.
Perhaps the local economy in Syracuse was structurally weaker than in the more high-tech Rochester (home notably of Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, Polaroid). To this day Syracuse aka Salt City seems less prosperous, more gritty than the Flower City, Rochester. The nicknames may tell the tale…
It seems as well Zett’s was a little late returning to brewing in the city. Moore & Quinn were first in April, 1933 but summer had already started before Zett’s finally marketed its first brew. Maybe first to the bar (!) retained the public’s affections.
Finally, and perhaps fatefully, Zett’s, which made many styles before 1920 including ale, porter, lager, and brown beer (the German Braun Bier), returned to market with an ale. Was something that resembled, perhaps, a fizzy Young’s Bitter the best thing to present to a post-flapper generation of American beer drinkers?
The other breweries in town made ales too, but many made lagers also. The most successful was Congress Beer of Haberle-Congress. Maybe Zett’s ale, with its floral English aroma, was too exotic for the local crowd. Yet, ale was clearly the plan from the beginning as the 1932 story linked in the fourth paragraph above states clearly that Zett’s was to be an ale brewery only.
This ad from July, 1934 shows that Zett’s finally introduced a pilsener beer, touting it to tavern-keepers with a description of its pedigree. If that was intended to save George Zett 3rd’s brewery, it didn’t work.
N.B. Congress Beer is returning to the Syracuse area this month, or in a manner of speaking as the beer is not quite a replica. See this story for details, from The Daily Orange. All to the good, certainly.
Note re image: the images above were obtained from the Fulton History newspaper archive as identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.