Beer in the Age of Aquarius

Get Back, Pard

The brewery tour has been a standby of the brewing business forever. In the lead-up to craft brewing, large breweries perfected the genre, but most breweries to this day accommodate visitors in some form, regardless of size.

After all, breweries want to “make friends”, in the inimitable lingo of American business culture. Those of anti-“corporate” drift may despair, but it’s the way of (free) commerce since the Stone Age, and always will be.

Back in 1967 Iroquois Brewing Corp. was a rare, surviving independent brewery in Buffalo, New York (northwest section of the state, just a couple of hours from Toronto). The brewery was founded, as so many, by German-Americans in the 19th century.

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

The facility was doubled in size by adding a new Indian Head Saloon and a Rathskeller.

It seems in fact the Indian Head Saloon already existed onsite but was enlarged and spruced up, with a Rathskeller added.

The story reflects in good part the past of American beer, in the sense that beer and its palate were subsidiary to the entertainment value of the tour. Hence, not shared is the kind of beer brewed, or any details of palate or brewing procedures.

Almost no one in the beer business then, save  a few importers and the odd brewer like Fritz Maytag in San Francisco, was catering to a market wanting a product of character.

Beer was still, well, beer, a generic product, “fresh”, “zesty”, “dry”, inherently “cold” – lapidary formulas still popular today.

Iroquois’ growth in the 1960s was fueled by successful ads in this vein. A prime example is a 1965 TV ad, see via YouTube,  here. The genial bartender, Norm Dobmeier, was not an actor but was so effective in the role he might have been.

He was a Buffalonian who worked in his family’s liquor store. His good-looking customer sampling Iroquois beer both draft and bottled was professional actor Phil Scheeler, also a Buffalo resident.

The engaging commercial, and still-potent appeal of a local brewery, gave the brand an extra push until about 1970, but after that the end came soon.

By 1972 the massive Iroquois Brewing plant in central Buffalo had shut, victim of the steady price-cutting and plant consolidations that enervated North American brewing then.

Phil Scheeler is today in his 80s and recently revisited his iconic commercial for a Cheektowaga TV affiliate, see here.

It is quite affecting as Norm Dobmeier’s son was interviewed and met for perhaps the last time the patron his dad had served onscreen 50 years earlier.

The 1965 commercial was filmed both in the Indian Head Saloon and a restaurant in town that still exists, where Phil Scheeler and Norm’s son met. A slice of local history was both honoured and extended.

The tone of the commercial was upbeat, friendly, ingenuous: hardly the ironic-tinged marketing of today even as popular brands still rely on short, vague descriptors to sell the product.

Is the beer itself better, today, though? On the whole, certainly, but still I’d like to try an “Iri” on draft in that contrived old Western saloon. I’ll bet it was pretty good, pard.