Brewery Tours in the Age of Acquarius

Let’s Get Back, Pard

The brewery tour has been a standby of the brewing business for a long time. Large breweries perfected it but most breweries accommodated visitors in some form, and today no less.

It makes sense for breweries to “make friends”, as the inimitable American business lingo puts it,  but I don’t care what the cynics say: there’s something special about beer and brewing that encourages the camaraderie.

Perhaps the altered state beer induces encourages amity and welcome.

Back in 1967, Iroquois Brewing Corp. was a rare surviving large brewery in Buffalo, NY (located in the northwestern section of the state, only a couple of hours from Toronto). It had gone through a long period of independence following founding by German-Americans in the 19th century.

In the 1950s it joined one of those regional alliances still with us in an altered form today, and then became independent again.

It was doing well enough by 1967 that it expanded its “hospitality centre”, an event chronicled by the Lackawanna Leader.

The visitor facility was doubled in size by providing a “new” Indian Head Saloon and a Rathskeller.

The word new in the story is ambiguous, suggesting the Indian Head Saloon existed earlier. The images above seem to be from circa 1960 and show many of the features described in the 1967 story.

I’d guess the saloon was enlarged and spruced up in 1967 and perhaps the Rathskeller was added.

The story shows both the future and past of beer in America. The past, in the sense that beer qua beverage and its palate was subsidiary to the general entertainment value of the tour: nothing is mentioned in the story what kind of beer was brewed, or any details of the brewing process or equipment used.

The future appears though, in the sense there was growing public interest to visit breweries: people were interested where their beer came from and to learn more about it.

Almost no one in the beer business though, except a few importers and brewers making characterful products (Fritz Maytag in San Francisco, Ballantine for its IPA), was catering to this marketing opportunity.

Beer was still beer, generic, at most “fresh”, “zesty”, “dry”, “mellow” – the lapidary formulae still popular with the big brewers today.

Iroquois’ growth in the 1960s was fueled largely by a successful tv ad campaign, you can see it here. The genial bartender, Norm Dobmeier, was not an actor, but he was so good in the role he might have been.

He was a Buffalo local who worked in his family’s liquor store. The good-looking patron sampling Iroquois beer both on draft and in bottled form was a professional actor, Phil Scheeler, also a Buffalo resident.

The engaging commercial and the still-potent appeal of the local brewery gave the brand that extra push to last until 1970, but after that the end came fast.

By 1972 the massive Iroquois Brewing plant in central Buffalo had closed, a victim of the unceasing price-cutting and consolidation that affected brewing almost everywhere in North America.

Phil Scheeler is now in his 80s and recently re-appeared to discuss what had been a famous ad in its day in Buffalo. You can see the tv news story here, and it is quite affecting as Norm Dobmeier’s son was interviewed as well and met the tv patron his father had served 50 years earlier.

The commercial was filmed both in the Indian Head Saloon and a restaurant in town that still exists, where Phil Scheeler and Norm’s son had their reunion. Local history at its best.

The tone of the commercial is of course is quite different than today: cheerful, positive, optimistic, vs. the irony-laden content of current advertising.

Is the beer better today though? On the whole, definitely, but I’d like to have tried an “Iri” on draft (unpasteurized) in that neat faux western saloon. I’ll bet it was pretty good, pardner.