Monday, March 28, 2016

From Lachmann to Lion's Tail: A History of Brewing in Neenah

The Neenah Brewery remains a relative unknown within the context of Wisconsin brewing history. That would seem an unusual circumstance for any Wisconsin brewery– like this one – that was in operation for more than 50 years. But the Neenah Brewery’s obscurity isn’t altogether surprising.

This was a brewery that did little advertising. The consequence being that collectors haven’t been able to preserve and pass on the brewery’s vision of itself. Often it’s breweriana collectors who become the stewards of a small brewery’s legacy.

Also conspiring against the Neenah Brewery has been the city’s contentious relationship with alcohol. For much of its early history, Neenah was dominated by Protestant Yankees who had little use for the beer drinking customs of the city’s European immigrants.

Those Yankees and their immediate descendants were also largely responsible for the dissemination of Neenah's early history. It's not coincidence that a brewery conducted by immigrants seldom made it into the record. By the time that prejudice expired, the Neenah Brewery had already been forgotten.

The time is ripe for a fresh look at the history of brewing in Neenah. With the recent launch of Lion's Tail Brewing, the city's beer-making heritage has been renewed. The brewers who created this legacy deserve to be known.

Talk of a Brewery in Neenah
With 1849 came the arrival of breweries to Winnebago County. That year two breweries were launched in Oshkosh and there was talk about this time of one being planned in Neenah. It was said to have been the project of a Welshman named Jones. If said Jones ever did get his brewery up and running in Neenah, it didn’t last. There appears to be no record of this brewery being operational or producing beer for sale.

But Neenah continued to grow. Boosted by an influx of German immigrants, Neenah's population had risen to 1,296 by 1856. It would be only a matter of time before Neenah had its brewery. That time would not be welcomed by all.

Neenah, Circa 1856.
John Robbins Kimberly was among Neenah’s most affluent and influential early settlers. A stern Yankee, Kimberly was asked where he thought a good location for a brewery would be. Kimberly was said to reply, “In Hell, Sir.” His rancor presaged the conflict ahead.

To Kimberly’s chagrin, hell in Neenah would be located on the shore of Little Lake Butte Des Morts on property now addressed as 129 Lake Street. The immigrant who raised that hell was named Jacob Lachmann.

A Brewery Idyll
Born in W├╝rttemberg about 1823, Jacob Lachmann was trained as a brewer in his homeland. He was also a man of his time. Lachmann became engaged in the political upheavals that swept through Europe in 1848, leading a company of "Free Troops" in a struggle for constitutional rights. In the backlash that followed the unrest, Lachmann fled his homeland. He arrived in New York by 1849. Lachmann spent several years on the east coast before going to Milwaukee in 1854, then coming to Neenah in 1856.

On May 21, 1856, Lachmann purchased a portion of Lot 4 in Block 30 of Palmer's Map of Neenah and began building his brewery. By the close of the year, the Neenah Brewery was up and running.

Location of the Neenah Brewery highlighted in red.
Lachmann's was a typical set-up for a brewer of lager beer. The proximity to the lake was ideal. It meant accessibility to an enormous supply of winter ice. The harvesting of that ice and its subsequent storage in the brewery’s lager cellar enabled Lachmann to brew his cool fermenting lager beer even when the weather warmed.

The brewery itself was constructed of brick. The building also doubled as a home for Lachmann, his wife Katrina, their four children and the two workers who often shared quarters with the family. The resemblance to the rustic, village breweries of Germany would have been striking.

Local Beer
Winnebago County breweries of this period were local affairs, their patrons living in close proximity to where the beer was made. The materials used in making the beer were also of local origin.

Barley had been raised in abundance in Winnebago County from the time the land had been opened to farming nearly two decades earlier. Lachmann purchased the grain from nearby farmers and from it made his own brewer's malt. Hop farming had begun by the late 1840s. Like other brewers in the region, Lachmann would have had his pick of the local crop.

By 1870, the Neenah Brewery was just one of 11 such breweries operating in the county. But Lachmann's tenure was already coming to an end. There's some indication that Lachmann was in failing health near the end of his run at the brewery. In any case, in 1872 he sold the brewery and went into retirement.

Gathering Storms
On October 28, 1872, Frank Ehrgott took possession of the Neenah Brewery. He was soon joined in the venture by his brother, Adam. Like Lachmann, the Ehrgott Brothers were German immigrants. But the Ehrgotts would face challenges unknown to their predecessor.

The system of railroads advancing through Winnebago County made it easier for breweries to extend their reach into nearby communities. Menasha's two breweries had already been selling their beer in Neenah. Now the larger breweries of Oshkosh were sending beer into town. Just as troubling was the traction gain by the anti-alcohol brigades.

By 1875, Neenah's temperance supporters were a force to be reckoned with. With names such as The Good Templars (130 members), The Crystal Lodge (more than 80 members), and The Sons of Temperance (75 members), they had become a mainstream element within the community of 4,300. Their aim was to outlaw the sale of alcohol. They wanted nothing less than a dry Neenah.

The dry forces weren't going unopposed. Neenah's 15 saloons had a vested stake in keeping the beer flowing. The patrons of those saloons, many of whom were part of Neenah's populous community of European immigrants, also had no intention of giving up their traditional repast. Neenah's wets and drys were divided not only by ideology, but by ethnicity as well.

The Brothers Ehrgott
Amid the turmoil, the Ehrgott brothers grew their stake in Neenah. By the late 1880s, the Neenah Brewery was producing  just over 400 barrels of beer annually. It was then one of seven breweries in Winnebago County. To help secure their local market, Frank Ehrgott purchased a saloon located at what is now 128 W. Wisconsin Ave. Built a year earlier, the Ehrgott saloon acted as a tied house to the brewery serving only the Neenah Brewery's beer.

The Ehrgott's Tied House.
With Frank running the saloon, Adam Ehrgott took control of the brewery. He assumed full ownership of the Neenah Brewery in September 1882. He appears to have done well during this period. Between 1884 and 1887, Adam Ehrgott made a number of improvements to the brewery, including construction of a new brewhouse and icehouse to the immediate north of the original brewery. The maps below illustrate the brewery's expansion.

The improvements were nearly obsolete by the time they were complete. Other brewers were already phasing out the sort of upgrades Ehrgott was making. Mechanical refrigeration was rapidly replacing the centuries old method of cooling with harvested ice in stone cellars. The old-world ways were at odds with an industry being fundamentally reshaped by science.

The original Neenah Brewery is on the right. The updated ice house and brewery
built during the Ehrgott era is the large building in the center of the photo.
Rivals Near and Far
One of those nearby breweries taking advantage of new technologies was the Walter Brothers Brewing Company in nearby Menasha. Christian and Martin Walter had purchased what had been the Island Brewery in 1888. The Walter Bros. rapidly built up their brewery and began vigorously pushing their beer into the Neenah market.

By the early 1890s, Adam Ehrgott's small brewery was fighting to survive amidst a rising tide of beer from other places. And it wasn't just beer from Menasha or Oshkosh flowing into Neenah anymore. Among the new rivals was a former brewer named Jacob Mayer.

In the 1870s, Jacob Mayer had been part owner of the Island Brewery in Menasha. After selling his stake in that brewery he eventually settled in Neenah where he opened a bottling plant and beer distribution warehouse at the corner of Union and Sherry streets. In partnership with his son Joseph, the Mayers began distributing beer in Neenah that had been brought in by rail from other parts of the state. The Hartig & Manz Brewery of Watertown was one of the Mayer's early clients making its presence known in Neenah.

The Hartig & Manz float in Neenah's 1893 Fourth of July parade.
A bottle from the Mayer's
bottling works.

By 1892, the Mayers were bringing in beer from Miller Brewing of Milwaukee. Miller took a special liking to Neenah, establishing a tied saloon and hotel named Murer House adjacent to the train depot at 432 Sherry Street. Among the first sights passengers encountered when arriving in Neenah by rail was the handsome, brick tavern festooned with signs for Miller Beer.

As it looks today.
For Adam Ehrgott it had become altogether too much. Almost 20 years after the Ehrgott brothers had begun brewing in Neenah, Adam Ehrgott sold the Neenah Brewery. If he harboured a grudge, it didn't best him. He'd later go to work for one of his Menasha rivals, Walter Brothers Brewing.

On November 11, 1901, Henry Angermeyer became the new owner of the Neenah Brewery. The German-born brewer had come to America 15 years earlier and was a week shy of his 39th birthday when he took possession of the brewery.

Angermeyer knew what he was getting into. Prior to his arrival, he'd been brewing beer for the Sterling Brewing Company, of Sterling, Illinois. The situation there was similar to what Angermeyer would take on in Neenah. Sterling had one small brewery and it was engaged in the same sort of regional infighting with other breweries that plagued the Neenah Brewery. It was a battle Angermeyer couldn't win.

Three years after Angermeyer's arrival, the Neenah Brewery was barely getting by. The Wisconsin Blue Book for 1904 lists Angermeyer as the only person working in the Neenah brewery. It was an impossible task for a brewer trying to produce 500 barrels of lager beer a year in an ice-cooled brewery. Things weren't going to get better, either.

On the evening of August 4, 1905, Angermeyer and another Neenah man named Albert Zehner were rowing a boat loaded heavy with ties across the Neenah Slough. Near the Main Street bridge, the boat took on water and began to sink. Zehner managed to swim to shore. Angermeyer didn't. HIs body was pulled from the water by a search and rescue team. Angermeyer was pronounced dead about 9:45 p.m.

Henry Angermeyer left a wife, three young children, and a brewery nearing dissolution.

1906, the Neenah Brewery, Henry Angermeyer Estate...

The Closing Doerr
In October 1906, Lizzie Angermeyer found a buyer for the brewery her late husband had tried to revive. The new owner was named Oscar Doerr. Yet another German-born brewer would ply his trade at the Neenah Brewery.

Prior to his arrival, Doerr had been brewmaster at the White Eagle Brewery of Chicago. His plans for Neenah were ambitious. Two months after his purchase of the Neenah Brewery, The Western Brewer reported, "Mr. Doerr will make many improvements to the plant and until these are completed his customers will be supplied by the Menasha Brewing Company."

Among the planned improvements was the installation of a bottling line, an aspect of the business the Neenah Brewery had evaded to its own detriment. But turning over your accounts to a local rival while you rehabilitate your brewery was not a recipe for success. Doerr's plan fell flat.

At the close of 1909, the Neenah Brewery was all but finished. The inrush of beer from more efficient breweries put Neenah's brewery at a competitive disadvantage too great to overcome. Doerr admitted his defeat. On January 3, the first business day of 1910, Doerr sold the brewery. He would eventually return to Chicago.

The new owner was Louis Sorenson, an employee of the Bergstrom Stove Company. Sorenson had no prior involvement with breweries, but that was beside the point. It appears the purchase was motivated by the prospective return on resale and not an attempt to breathe new life into the brewery. On April 21, 1911, Sorenson sealed the brewery's fate. He sold it to the Walter Brothers Brewing Company.

Walter Brothers had little need for an outmoded brewery just five miles from its modern plant on Nicolet Blvd. The new owners gutted the Neenah Brewery. The building was converted it into a hotel over a saloon selling Walter Brothers beer. For the first time in more than 50 years, Neenah was without a brewery.

The brewery was gone, but the drinking wars raged on.

Drys and Wets
The Walter Brothers' takeover of the brewery came on the heels of a fresh defeat for Neenah's dry forces. In the April elections of 1911, the drys narrowly missed passing a measure outlawing the sale of alcohol in the city. Undeterred they tried again. Then again. Finally, in 1917, the dry faction achieved its goal. On July 1, 1917, Neenah became the only incorporated city in Winnebago County to vote itself dry. The measure was passed into law by a single vote.

The following year, the wets rallied. Again it came to a vote. Neenah voters repealed the dry law by a 13-vote margin. On July 1, 1918, Neenah's saloons were back in business. The final word on the matter came down less than two years later. The 18th Amendment went into effect on January 17, 1920 marking the onset of National Prohibition.

Not surprisingly, Prohibition brought the return of brewing to Neenah. But the brewers had gone underground... literally.

Milwaukee Sentinel, December 23, 1928.

To Ashes
When Prohibition ended in 1933, the breweries of Menasha and Oshkosh resumed operation. In Neenah, the brewery that had once been was too far gone to redeem.

By that time, the Neenah Brewery was barely a memory. Few could recall that there had been a thriving brewery on Lake Street. The smell of beer still lingered, but now it was stale Schlitz at Jerrys' Lakeside Bar. What survived of the past was extinguished in 1968, when the building was gutted again. This time by fire. After the blaze, the remains were knocked down and buried.

The 1968 fire. Photo courtesy of Douglas Bisel.
The aftermath. Photo courtesy of Douglas Bisel.
129 Lake Street, former grounds of the Neenah Brewery.
Roaring Back
Brewing returned to Neenah On November 20, 2015 when Alex Wenzel opened Lion's Tail Brewing Company in the Equitable Reserve Association Building at 116 S. Commercial Street. Like Jacob Lachmann before him, Wenzel is prototypical of the brewers of his generation.

A former homebrewer whose obsession became a profession, Wenzel brews a wide range of beers on a 10-barrel system in a building that was going up just as the Neenah Brewery was going down. The beers Wenzel produces he sells from the taproom he operates in conjunction with the brewery. It's an arrangement the Ehrgott brothers would appreciate.

Alex Wenzel in the Lion's Tail brewhouse.
Among the first beers Wenzel brewed for Lion's Tail was Mile of Munich, a Bavarian-style dark lager. It's a beer that would have tasted familiar to the Neenah pioneers who experienced the pleasure of Lachmann's dark lager 150 years earlier. Wenzel and his brewery have revived an unlikely continuum and are writing the next chapter in a hard-won history that now spans three centuries.