Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Beer Brewing Rahrs of Wisconsin

Rahr Beer in Manitowoc
The name Rahr was once synonymous with beer in Northeast Wisconsin. And the story of the Rahr family is central to the history of brewing in this part of the state. That story begins in 1847 when a 35-year-old brewer named Wilhelm Peter Mathias Rahr left his native city of Wesel, Germany to come to America. Rahr went to Manitowoc where he immediately took up where he had left off by establishing Manitowoc’s Eagle Brewery, one of the first lager breweries in Northeast Wisconsin.

Rahr’s exploits in the new world caught the attention of three adventurous family members still in Germany. In 1853, Wilhelm’s nephew Henry Rahr made the transatlantic crossing then made his way to his uncle’s brewery. Henry was soon followed by his brothers Charles and August. The Manitowoc brewery would be the training ground for the Rahr family of brewers prior to their setting out on their own.

Rahr Beer in Green Bay
Henry was the first of the brothers to stake his own brewing claim. In 1858, Henry Rahr and August Hochgreve established the Shantytown Brewery in what is now the Village of Bellevue; just southeast of Green Bay. His brothers August and Charles would follow Henry to Bellevue, but it wasn’t long before Henry would set out again. In 1865, Henry split with Hochgreve and launched what came to be known as the Rahr Green Bay Brewing Company on the East River. It was the first brewery within the City of Green Bay. That same year, August and Charles Rahr went to Oshkosh.

On July 10, 1865, August and Charles Rahr purchased five acres of land on the shore of Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh and began setting up their brewery. It would first be known as the City Brewery and later as the Rahr Brewing Company. There were now three Rahr family breweries in Northeast Wisconsin: Wilhelm Rahr’s Eagle Brewery in Manitowoc; Henry Rahr’s East Side Brewery in Green Bay; and Charles & August Rahr’s City Brewery in Oshkosh. On their respective home turfs, all three were better known as the “Rahr Brewery.” That wasn’t a problem in the early years when the local brews remained local, but later the shared name would lead to confusion as Rahr beers began traveling beyond their cities of origin.

Rahr Beer in Oshkosh
The Manitowoc Rahrs were the first to begin brewing, but were also the first to stop making beer. The Manitowoc brewery, then known as The William Rahr Sons' Company, ceased brewing with the onset of Prohibition in 1919. But the lucrative malting business they operated in tandem with the brewery continued to thrive. By the early 1890s, the Manitowoc Rahrs were selling malt to Anheuser-Busch Brewing. The association would help ensure the success of Rahr Malting, which grew into one of the largest maltsters in the nation. Anheuser-Busch purchased the Manitowoc Malting Plant in 1962, but the Rahr family remains in the malting and brewing supply business and now has a global customer base.

The Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh discontinued brewing in 1956 after 91 years in operation as a family-owned business. And a decade later, the 100-year-old Rahr Brewing Company of Green Bay closed. The rights to its labels were purchased by the Oshkosh Brewing Company, which began producing the Green Bay Rahr brands in Oshkosh. Even people in Oshkosh were puzzled by this new Rahr beer being brewed here. David Gehrke remembers seeing the Rahr trucks come to town. “It was pretty confusing to me,” Gehrke says. “I always thought Rahr's was an old brand from Oshkosh, and all of the trucks across from OBC (Oshkosh Brewing Company) had "Rahr Green Bay Brewing Company" painted on the doors. Little did I know that the Rahr acquisition might have been some sort of last gasp for OBC.” Last gasp is right. In 1971, the Oshkosh Brewing Company went out of business and with that Rahr beer in Northeast Wisconsin became a thing of the past.

Rahr Beer in Texas
But it wasn’t the end of Rahr beer. In 2004, Frederick William Rahr, Jr – the great-great-grandson of Manitowoc’s Wilhelm Rahr – established Rahr & Sons Brewing in Fort Worth, Texas. The Texas Rahr is well aware of his lineage and has pledged to “follow in the traditions of my family and brew majestic lagers and rich ales using age-old recipes in the styles of the Rahr brew masters of the past.” The brewery has won numerous awards including several for traditional lagers of the sort that the Rahrs of Wisconsin were well known for. Now if we could only get some of that Rahr beer up here in Wisconsin.


  1. Thank you for the history of the Rahr Brewery! I am enjoying a Rahr Storm Cloud IPA as I write. The carton states "In 1847, during a fierce storm on his voyage across the Atlantic, William Rahr yelled 'Roll on old sea! And when the storm clouds have destroyed themselves, we will still be standing and drinking!'" I wondered if the modern-day Rahr brewery had a connection to my hometown of Manitowoc and it does! Will have to add a tour of the Rahr brewery here in Texas to my "to do" list.

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