Monday, January 12, 2015

The Herbst Bros. Lion Brewery

This one is going to take us off into the weeds. Let’s go...

The piece of breweriana you’ll see below recently went on sale at Folklore on Main St. It’s a cardboard hand fan imprinted with a beer advertisement. At first glance, you’d assume the piece was issued by a brewery located in Oshkosh. Click the images below to enlarge them and you’ll see what I mean.

I first saw this in October 2012. Dan Radig spotted it on Ebay and directed me towards it. The seller was the Ye Olde Breweriana Shoppe from Cincinnati, Ohio. Their description of the item began with, “Extremely rare is this hand fan for the Herbst Bros Lion Brewery out of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.”

Rare is right. But the part about the Herbst brothers having a brewery in Oshkosh isn’t. There was never a Lion Brewery in Oshkosh owned by any persons named Herbst. So what then is this? I have a theory, but let’s get the basics out of the way first.

The piece is from the early 1930s. The wording on the back side of the fan is a dead giveaway: “Lion Brew has returned and thousands are welcoming it back as an old dear friend.” That’s exactly the sort of thing breweries were saying in their ads immediately after Prohibition ended in 1933.

For example, take a look at the stunner below. It’s from the Daily Northwestern on March 22, 1933 for the Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh. This appeared just a couple weeks prior to the modification of the Volstead Act that went into effect on April 7 legalizing beer at or below 4% ABV.

Click image to enlarge it
The small type may be hard to read, but in there it says, “Yes, Rahr's Elk's Head will soon be here again... the same Rahr's Elk's Head Beer brewed in the same old fashioned way that made it the favorite of thousands.” Sounds familiar.

Back to the Lion Brewery. When I first saw the hand fan, I thought that perhaps the Herbst Bros. were working as beer distributors selling beer for the Lion Brewery. It wasn’t at all unusual for distributors to add the name of the city they were working in to the name of the brewery they were selling for. For example, here’s a portion of a 1912 Pabst ad that makes it look as though the Pabst Brewery was located in Oshkosh. Obviously it wasn’t, but the local distributor who placed the ad was.

When the hand fan was issued there were three breweries in America using the Lion Brewery moniker. They were in New York City, Wilkes-Barre, PA. and Cincinnati, Ohio. The Ohio brewery is probably the one being referenced here. That brewery specifically referred to its beer as “Lion Brew.” For example, here’s an ad from October 4, 1933 from the Mansfield News-Journal of Mansfield, Ohio.

So it looks like there were a couple of brothers named Herbst in Oshkosh who were distributing this Cincinnati beer. But I don’t think that’s the case, either. There were two men named Herbst living in Oshkosh at this time (Charles and George), but they weren’t brothers. They both worked as laborers and I can’t find any evidence of either of them holding a liquor license. They would have needed that license to distribute beer in Oshkosh. And after much digging, I haven’t been able to find a single mention of them being involved with beer in Oshkosh in any way. Furthermore, The Lion Brewery of Ohio closed in 1934. It doesn’t appear that their beer was ever distributed in Wisconsin. Dead end.

If I had to venture a guess, then, I’d say this is probably a prototype of some sort. Perhaps a merchandising company used this as a demonstration piece to show potential customer’s their wares. It’s a guess, but it’s the best one I have.

When I was at Folklore last Thursday, the fan was still there. There’s a $90 tag on it. The starting bid for it on Ebay a couple years ago was $39. Hard to say what it’s really worth. It may be a one-of-a-kind piece.

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