As I’ve discussed in recent posts Prohibition did not spell disaster for all breweries. Some adapted to new conditions and continued to prosper. Anheuser-Busch and Coors are two examples at the mega-brewery level. Trommer’s and Pittsburgh Brewing are smaller examples that kept their plants in spanking order ready to supply beer when 3.2% ABW beer was legalized from April 7, 1933.* There are other bright spots I will canvass in the future.
A story perhaps more typical is described by Alvin Griesedieck, who in 1952 authored an early history of Falstaff Brewery, The Falstaff Story. I’ve discussed Falstaff in other contexts, but not its early decades. The Prohibition years are well-described by Alvin, son of founder Joe Griesedieck, from the front lines.
The Griesedieck family had owned saloons and various breweries in the St. Louis area since patriarch Anton arrived from Westphalia in the late 1860s. The two main forms were Griesedieck Brothers Brewery, which was inoperative during Prohibition but re-started in 1933, and Griesedieck Beverage Co., established by Joe Griesedieck and helmed by son Alvin and brothers after Joe’s death in 1938. Griesedieck Brothers was a venture of cousins, absorbed by Griesedieck Beverage’s successor Falstaff Brewing in the 1950s.
Joe bought a closed brewery, Forest Park Brewery, not long before Prohibition so the first part of Alvin’s career (b. 1895) was working for a legal, Prohibition-era brewery.
He gives a detailed account of his experiences in the book, see especially from Chapter Three. It shows that the company’s near beer Hek – the name was taken from the ancient Egyptian word for cereal beverage – was potentially a profitable business for Griesedieck Beverage and initially enjoyed good sales. Alvin ascribes its decline, not necessarily to the rise of illicit home brewing although it played a role, but to other business factors.
He explains that the company struggled with old equipment in the short boom that followed WW I to meet increased demand. By the time it set up a decent sales and distribution network and could finance improvements to plant, the country entered recession and demand sank.
Hek, like Trommer’s and Pittsburgh Brewing’s product, was a fully fermented beer with the alcohol removed in a final stage of heating and vaporization. Alvin states that Bevo, Anheuser-Busch’s initially successful near beer, was an inferior product due to being made by “check fermentation”. This meant it was fermented just far enough to produce the legally permissible amount of alcohol (maximum .5%), and then filtered and stabilized for sale. Still, it sometimes re-fermented or “spoiled”, and was sent back for refund.
Another factor favouring Hek was that it “took” alcohol well. Alvin explains that some near beer did not blend well with alcohol, to make that is a makeshift beer in speakeasies and homes with illicit grain alcohol. This shows that near beer makers were well aware their beer was often “needled” to make it closer to the real stuff. Sadly, the moral inflexibility of the Prohibition scheme drew even upstanding, law-abiding citizens into conflict with the law; it couldn’t be avoided. Alvin does not discuss the ethical issues on this point: it is clear it was a matter of survival for the near beer makers, and that was that.
And so all said, Hek was well-poised to rival Bevo, perhaps even overtake it (Alvin implies) but business factors that might have been different, weren’t, and precluded this success.
What to do? Diversify, but before that, in a brilliant stroke Joe bought the Falstaff brand from Lemp Brewery, a major St. Louis brewery that closed in 1920 after failing with its near beer, Cerva. The main reason for the purchase was to own a gold-plated brand name, which Falstaff was both locally and further afield, so that on repeal of Prohibition the company could enter the legal beer stakes with high credibility and make money quickly. And that is what finally occurred.
But still the company had to survive until 1933. Apart from near beer it made a line of soda drinks. And it made, perhaps oddly to our ears, cured bacon and ham: vats and the refrigeration system at the brewery facilitated that business.
These new businesses allowed overheads to be covered and nurturing of the prize purchase, the Falstaff name. Alvin records that before Prohibition while mighty Anheuser-Busch sold 1,000,000 barrels per annum of widely distributed beer, Lemp sold 800,000 barrels mainly in St. Louis and nearby regions. In other words it had enormous good will for a St. Louis-based business, which served the Falstaff brand in good stead after 1933.
Much of the book is devoted to describing business and financial transactions, but much of it too deals with the human level. The last brewing Lemp tended to be a cold and calculating businessman, but Alvin thought he sold the Falstaff name to Joe out of personal regard, finally. The Lemps had all become wealthy in brewing and didn’t need to continue their business. Joe, relatively late in life, was starting anew with the former Forest Park brewery. Being offered the Falstaff name at a firesale price was, Alvin implied, a notable gesture by a man in Lemp’s position.
One is impressed by Alvin’s description of his father. Confronted with many obstacles through his career especially connected to financing the Griesedieck and Falstaff companies, he never gave up and maintained a positive mien. For this reason he had many friends in St. Louis, at all levels, as shown by the impressive floral arrangements sent to his funeral, by every level of society and business. Alvin’s description of his father’s qualities suggests a rather different business and social culture, for better and worse, to today’s world.
But netting it down, what did the survival of Griesedieck Beverage mean during the Volstead years, financially that is? As I’ve mentioned, overheads were covered and Alvin states this included a “small salary” for himself. So it was profitable in this sense, but barely. Alvin writes he had thought at times of abandoning the business for something more remunerative. He didn’t, largely because Joe had invested everything – all the family’s wealth – to build a business for his progeny. That loyalty proved rewarding in the end, but it was, and remains, a value unto itself.
Note re image: the image above was sourced from a 1918 Arkansas newspaper courtesy Chronicling America, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*In my recent post on N/A beer and Trommer’s I described the re-introduction date as June 7, 1933; this has since been corrected.