Monday, June 7, 2010

The Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh

Rahr's Brewery 1898
On this day in 1956 the Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh made it known that they were quitting the beer business. Located at the foot of Rahr Avenue near the shore of Lake Winnebago, Rahr was never the biggest brewery in town, but it was certainly the most iconoclastic and one of the first breweries in America to be partly owned and operated by women.

The company was founded as The City Brewery in 1865 by brothers Charles and August Rahr. Charles, born in Prussia in 1836, had learned to brew beer in Germany. He bought-out his brother’s share of the business in 1884, but by 1894 the breweries of Milwaukee were closing in on the Oshkosh market. In that year the other three breweries in town, operated by August Horn & Lenhardt Schwalm, Lorenz Kuenzl, and John Glatz, decided it was time to close ranks and merged their operations under the banner of the Oshkosh Brewing Company. They tried to persuade Charles Rahr to go in with them, but Rahr wanted his family’s business to remain independent. Instead of joining up with the others, he turned the brewery operations over to his son Charles Rahr, Jr. who made improvements to the brew house and pushed capacity up to 5,000 barrels per year. Still a small brewery, but it was holding its own. Charles Rahr, Jr. bought out his father’s interest in 1908 and renamed the operation the Rahr Brewing Company.

A few years later, Rahr Brewing was being courted to sell-out once again. In 1912 a group from the South Side of town calling itself The Cooperative Brewing Company was looking to get into the beer business. They set their sights on the Rahr brewery. Reports from that time hint that Rahr set an outrageous price for his company - a quarter of a million dollars. The deal fell through. The Cooperative Brewing Company would go on to build their own brewery and name it the Peoples Brewery. Meanwhile, the Rahr brewery kept chugging along.
Lucille Rahr

Blanche Rahr
in 1917 Charles Rahr, Jr. decided it was time to retire. He sold the business to his children, Carl, who had recently returned from World War I, Blanche and Lucille. The kids got a better deal than the offer made to the Cooperative group. The business sold for just $59,380. Carl Rahr became the President of the company, Lucille Rahr was named Vice-President and Blanche Rahr was appointed Treasurer and Secretary.

Rahr Brewing survived the Prohibition years making soda and Near Beer and when Prohibition ended they continued doing things their own way. In the 1940s and 50s when other breweries were diversifying their packaging and attempting to expand their markets, Rahr continued selling their beer in just bottles and kegs while confining the bulk of their sales to Oshkosh with a handful of outlying accounts in Winneconne and Omro. In the end, this iconoclasm would prove to be the company’s undoing. As the big breweries pushed in with a sea of cheaply produced and delivered canned beer, Rahr Brewing found itself unable to compete. Lacking the capital needed to modernize their operation, they were being squeezed out. Between 1954 and 1955 sales fell by 35% and when they pulled the plug in 1956 they were on course to produce less than 3,000 barrels for the year. Considering that Oshkosh Brewing was producing about 60,000 barrels a year at this time and still struggling with the Milwaukee competition, illustrates the predicament faced by the Rahr family. By early July of 1956 all brewing operations had ceased. The last Oshkosh brewery to be owned by a single family was no more.

1 comment:

  1. Rahr brewery had another hurtle to overcome. Adjacent to the brewery was the city sanitation facility. Across the road towards the lake were two properties one a that club and the other a small lot owned by my family. The artisien well served all four properties. I had my eye on the family lot and was discouraged from developing the property. Personally the brewery closed before I reached drinking age.