Louis Wehle: Founder of Post-repeal Genesee Brewery

Below are some thoughts on Louis A. Wehle’s c.1960 book, This was my Life. It was self-published and privately distributed as far as I can tell, but the title has made its way to some public registers, which is how I learned about it.

A few copies are in booksellers’ hands and I bought one.

Half the book is text, 180 pages, and the other half reproductions of old news articles, photos, and memorabilia of various kinds. One fine item is the menu for a southern, Florida dinner he gave at his “beachcomber” shack outside Palm Beach.

The centrepiece of the book is the revival by Wehle of Genesee brewery in 1933. As he had worked there before Prohibition in key roles, but was in his prime in the 1930s, he offers a fascinating perspective on the full span of (pre-craft) 20th century brewery operations.

 

 

Wehle was born in 1889 and died at 75 in 1964. He was from a thoroughly German-American family, and one fairly prosperous. His grandfather had made good owning a sausage-factory. His father was a superintendent at Bartholomay, a sizeable brewery in Rochester.

The family was frugal despite – or because of – its middle-class prosperity, a habit learned by Louis. He was always money-conscious. He credits his outlook on life to his background but is mildly critical, too, of his ethnicity, stating it had a tendency to emotional reticence and intolerance of different ways.

While marked by his background, he was essentially American in character, e.g., he spoke and understood only bits of German.

Louis was a striver from the beginning. As a young person he worked continually at odd jobs such as soda jerk, as his parents paid no allowance.

He was boisterous at times, engaging in pranks as some youth will. On reaching 16 he became determined to make his way in the world.

After a high school education – a decent formation for the time, he briefly worked in a law office. From there he went to Bartholomay’s, in various office roles.

At 20, on the suggestion of brewery management, he took a course in New York City at the National Brewers Academy and qualified as a brewmaster. The school was associated with the Wallerstein brewing consultancy, of which I’ve written earlier.

This distinguished Louis from many in the brewing industry, who started as brewers and entered management after.

Louis became assistant brewmaster at Bartholomay. Between 1911 and 1918 he was brewmaster at Genesee and the Lang Brewery, in Buffalo. So he had years of experience in brewing and brewery management prior to Prohibition. He explains that this background was invaluable to resurrect Genesee in 1933.

During Prohibition, he worked in chain grocery and bakery ventures in Buffalo, NY, and then established his own successful bakery in Rochester. He sold the latter in 1929 – six months before the market crash – for $1.3M, a lot of money in the Depression.

When establishing the Rochester bakery business years earlier he learned the skill of raising capital. He retained control as  major shareholder, but other shareholders who had bought in made money with him  on the sale. Some joined him again for the Genesee financing.

He bought the brewery’s site in 1929 on the calculated guess Repeal would occur within a reasonable window. Of course it did.

The organization of New Genesee as he called it was a complex endeavour. First, there was the need to raise money again. He stretched his own finances to the breaking point. Second, equipment for refurbishment had to be sourced. Used equipment was obtained from existing idle breweries except for new refrigeration bought in New York.

He hired many former staff of Old Genesee, from its last brewmaster (he only finally retired in the 1950s) to sales managers, maintenance, and technical staff. Even though 13 years had passed, many were still available to return to Genesee. It is often said that brewing was quite different before vs. after Prohibition. What struck me reading the book was continuity, in this case.

Wehle believed strongly in advertising and engaged experts to plan the campaigns. As he states, no matter how good one’s product is, it must be brought continually to the public’s attention in new ways.

As to beer, many readers may think, as I did, what did he say? Very little! There is almost nothing in the book on beer as such with one major exception. That was his attempt to bring the process of genuine Burton pale ale to America between 1935 and 1938. I’ve discussed that in previous blogposts but now having read the book, I may discuss it further as the book adds considerably to the picture.

Apart from that, there is almost nothing on beer as such, except for his statement that in Rochester before Prohibition, 95% of all beer sales was draft, the rest bottled.

He does not address what Bartholomay and Genesee brewed before 1920, or Genesee’s products from 1933 onwards. No discussion of ale vs. lager. No discussion of any difference in beer recipes after Prohibition vs. before, or on cereal adjuncts, hop varieties, or rates of hopping.

He simply states Genesee made “good beer” and once its trucks trundled through Rochester on the end of Repeal, every drop was sold instantly.

The brewery was successful from the beginning and remained so during Wehle’s lifetime. By 1960, son John was helmsman. Wehle descendants finally sold the business, to management, in 1999.

I should add that with one of his brothers, Louis had operated a small distillery during WW II, to supply ethanol to the government for munitions.

Wehle visited Britain and Germany, as well as other parts of Europe, in the 1930s. He disliked German militarism and states he was glad to leave Nazi Germany to come home. He does not advert to Hitler’s persecutions, but probably he felt this was not within the scope of the book.

As an example of his focus on the dollar, he recounts a story that is telling in retrospect. At Simpson’s-on-the-Strand, the iconic London restaurant, he enjoyed its famous roast beef. He asked for a second helping as the house was known to offer it without additional charge.

At the end of the meal, upon being presented with the bill, an extra two shillings was added! When he protested, he was told a 100-year-policy not to charge extra had been changed the day before. He still remembered that, a man wealthy beyond most peoples’ dreams, 25 years later.

Wehle comes across as highly intelligent, driven, and perceptive of human nature. He had a sense of public duty and community spirit that today may sound old-fashioned. He later became a New York civil servant in charge of conservation (mid-1950s), and led charities and other civic endeavours of value. A Democrat in politics, he supported civil rights and fair employment practices.

Although Catholic, he married a Protestant, Elizabeth (aka Libbie) Raab, who was Scots-Irish and German in descent. I mention these ethnicities only because he does, and he stresses what he felt were the positive values they imparted: the need to work hard, to provide for oneself and one’s dependants, to save, to learn, to give back to society.

One statement resonated in particular: his description of the community as something that was developed with sacrifice and struggle by past generations, on which everyone’s success depends. He explained that to improve and sustain the community, each must contribute to it in his turn and not take the inheritance for granted.

Another thing he states is that many people are capable of success but don’t achieve it for various reasons including being perfectionist. He states one must often take a chance in business even though not all information is known, even at the risk of failing. He mentions, although not in great detail, investments he made that were not successful.

He states that self-confidence is essential in business and various skills, but that one needn’t be the smartest person to succeed.

Two of his investments that failed were in magazine-publishing – an interesting potential business for an avowed non-intellectual, or “pusher” as he called himself.

It’s all good common sense, which the book displays in abundance. For hobbies, he fished and hunted, including at a camp in Quebec. He raised prize-winning livestock and poultry on a large farm outside Rochester.

There have always been people like Wehle. The semi-conductor and software industries were, and are, full of them, as of course early and modern brewing was and is. The type doesn’t really change, but society as he describes it has changed, I think.

It is hard to say how he would view our modern society; I don’t think he would be a dyed-in-the-wool conservative but some aspects of life today would be hard for him to appreciate, I think, especially the altered view of families and the role of working women.

The only disappointment I had reading the book was the absence of a “beer” chapter. He states he had to decide what to include and what to leave out. I think he probably felt that was a technical area, not likely of interest to family and friends, the main intended audience for the book.

All told though it portrays a surpassingly successful and interesting business executive and American.

N.B. Of the many photos in the book, only one shows Louis Wehle holding a glass of beer. It is a full pint of ale at the bar of the Cheshire Cheese pub, Fleet Street, London.

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Louis Wehle: Founder of Post-repeal Genesee Brewery”

  1. My dad worked with Whele at the distillery before moving over to the Genesee Brewery. I’d love to know the address of the distillery and maybe a picture of it. I think it was near the Clarissa St. bridge next to the river. Can you help me out here? thanks.

    • Thanks for your note, I think, putting various pieces of information together, it was at 928 Exchange Street, bottom of Fenwick Street. It appears originally to have been Rochester Distilling Co.

      Not sure if that correlates to the Clarissa Bridge, but a google map search may help.

      Good luck.

      Gary

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