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, but the title has made its way to some public catalogues, which is how I knew of it.

A few copies are in booksellers’ hands, and I bought one. Half the book, 180 pages, is text. The other half contains news articles, photos, and memorabilia. A fie item is the menu for a southern-style dinner he gave in Florida. The venue was his “beachcomber” shack outside Palm Beach.

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

 

 

Wehle was born in 1889 and died at 75 in 1964. He was from a German-American family, one fairly prosperous. His grandfather had done well with a sausage-making 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 absorbed by Louis – he was always money-conscious. He credited his outlook on life to his background but is mildly critical still of his ethnicity, stating it had a tendency to emotional reticence, and intolerance different ways.

While marked by his background he was essentially American in character. He never learned German well, for example.

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 leaving high school, a decent education for the time, he worked in a law office. From there he went to Bartholomay, handling 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 brewmaster. The school was associated with the Wallerstein brewing consultancy, of which I’ve written earlier.

This set Louis apart from many others in brewing, who started as brewers and entered management later. Louis became assistant brewmaster at Bartholomay.

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

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

When in the bakery business he had learned the skill of raising capital. He retained control of as major shareholder, but had equity associates. They made money with him when the baking business was sold. Some joined him again for the Genesee financing.

He bought the Genesee site in 1929 on the calculated guess Prohibition’s 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 finances to the breaking point. Second, equipment for refurbishment needed to be sourced. Used equipment was obtained from existing, idle breweries except for new refrigeration plant bought in New York.

He hired many former staff of Old Genesee or other pre-Prohibition breweries. This included a brewmaster (he only finally retired in the 1950s), sales managers, and maintenance and technical staff. Even though 13 years had passed many were still available to return to Genesee. It is often said American brewing changed dramatically after Prohibition.

What struck me reading the book was the continuity New Genesee demonstrated with pre-Prohibition brewing, in this case.

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

As to beer, what did he say? Sadly, very little! There is almost nothing on beer as such with one major exception. That was his attempt to bring genuine Burton ale brewing to America between 1935 and 1938. I’ve discussed this in previous blogposts. Now having read the book, I may discuss it further as the book adds considerably to the picture.

Apart from that, there is his statement that in Rochester before Prohibition, 95% of all beer sold was draft, the rest bottled.

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

He simply states Genesee made “good beer” and once its trucks trundled through Rochester at 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. Louis’ descendants finally sold the business to management in 1999.

I should add that with one of his brothers, Louis also operated a small distillery during WW II, to supply ethanol to the government for munitions. They made money at that too.

Wehle visited Britain and Germany, as well as other parts of Europe, in the 1930s. He states he disliked German militarism and 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 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, on checking the bill he noted 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 might sound old-fashioned. He later became a New York civil servant in charge of conservation (mid-1950s), and led charitable 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 their positive values: the need to work hard, to provide for oneself and one’s dependants, to save, to learn, and to give back to society.

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

He also stated many people are capable of success but do not 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, some investments he made that were not successful.

He states self-confidence is essential in business, plus various skills, but one needn’t be the smartest person to succeed. Two of his investments that failed were in magazine-publishing – an interesting business for an avowed non-intellectual or “pusher”, as he called himself.

It’s 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 at 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 society today; I don’t think he would be a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, but many aspects of life today would be troublesome for him, I think, especially how the role of families and genders are perceived today.

One disappointment reading the book was the absence of a “beer” chapter. He states he had to decide what to include and to leave out. I think he probably felt beer per se was a technical area, not of interest to family and friends, the main intended audience for the book. But the book would be much richer had that aspect been covered.

All told, the book portrays an interesting and surpassingly successful 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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