CWRU Links
Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

BREWING AND DISTILLING INDUSTRY

BREWING AND DISTILLING INDUSTRY

BREWING AND DISTILLING INDUSTRY. Cleveland's distilling industry dates almost to the city's founding. In 1800 David and Gilman Bryant are said to have operated a secondhand distillery, brought from Virginia, on the banks of the CUYAHOGA RIVER at the foot of Superior St. Their output was "two quarts of raw spirits a day," according to historian William Ganson Rose, which was used "in the household for medicinal purposes, as coin in commerce and trade, and as a pacifying influence over uneasy Indians." JOSIAH BARBER, who with his brother-in-law, RICHARD LORD, gave the village of Brooklyn (later the west side) its first economic boom, is said to have established that area's first industry, a distillery. By 1831 a distillery had been built on the narrow strip of land sheared off from the FLATS by the old river bed and the new channel of the Cuyahoga River, giving that district the name WHISKEY ISLAND. During the same period, Baptist clergyman Elijah F. Willey opened a brewery on Walworth Run, so that "the introduction among us of this wicked beverage cannot be laid at the door of the immigrant Teuton," John H. Sargent noted at a meeting of the EARLY SETTLERS ASSN. in 1880.

There were 2 breweries in Cleveland when the first city directory was published in 1837-38. In 1845-46, 3 breweries employing 13 persons produced 177,000 gallons of beer and ale with an estimated value of $17,000. Thereafter, the directories trace the swift and sustained growth of the industry prior to Prohibition in 1920: in 1860, there were 11 breweries; in 1870, 17; in 1880, 23; in 1890, 19; in 1900, 23; and in 1910, 26. The city's malt liquor output, valued at $1,249,502 in 1880, increased more than fourfold by 1910, to $5,124,478, and helped boost Ohio to third place, behind Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The distilling industry, meanwhile, never attained the importance of brewing in Cleveland. In 1840 2 distilleries produced 80,000 gallons of liquor, according to U.S. census figures. That number grew to 5 establishments producing products valued at $131,273 in 1860, but thereafter the industry declined as a factor in the city's economic life. The census gives no figures for the production of distilled liquor in Cleveland between 1870-1900. In 1910 the city's 4 distilleries produced products valued at only $14,341. Today PARAMOUNT DISTILLERS, in business since 1934, bottles its products--including blended and bourbon whiskey, Scotch, gin, and vodka--in Cleveland but distills them elsewhere.

Throughout the 19th century, the brewing industry in Cleveland (as elsewhere) was characterized by small, family-owned breweries that had been founded by German or Bohemian immigrants. Deliveries of draft beer and ale were made by horse-drawn wagon to a small, local market, usually within a 30-mile radius. Charles Gehring, who opened his brewery in 1852, is credited with having produced Cleveland's first lager beer. By 1875 Gehring, Isaac Leisy (see LEISY BREWING CO.), Jacob Mall (see GUND BREWING CO.), and Leonard Schlather had all established breweries that would persist into the 20th century.

After 1860, several broad trends profoundly affected the brewing industry in Cleveland and nationwide. The Internal Revenue Act of 1862, instigated by the need for revenue to conduct the Civil War, introduced for the first time a tax on malt beverages and led to the formation of the U.S. Brewers' Assn., America's oldest continuously incorporated trade association. (The Brewers' Assn. would later form the industry's front-line defense against the threats posed by the growing temperance movement.) In the 1870s the development of pasteurization meant that beer could be bottled and sold to wider markets, while the spread of railroads also made it possible for brewers to look farther afield for customers and led to the emergence of the first national brewers. During the 1880s and 1890s, mechanical refrigeration was installed in the larger breweries, thereby completing the transformation of the brewmaster from a cook to a mechanic and engineer.

The period 1880-1910 is often said to represent the palmy days of the industry. There were still a large number of breweries, the majority of which were small, family-owned enterprises, and production was constantly increasing. Cleveland in 1890 ranked 13th among U.S. cities in the production of malt liquor, after New York, St. Louis, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, Newark, Boston, Baltimore, Buffalo, and Rochester. Although prosperous, the period also saw the beginnings of industry consolidation as larger brewers bought out competitors' plants and either continued to operate them or shut them down. Many smaller firms were helpless, beset as they were with the huge outlays required for new equipment, buildings, and personnel in order to compete.

In Cleveland this trend was most dramatically illustrated by the formation in 1899 of the Cleveland & Sandusky Brewing Co. through a merger of 11 northern Ohio breweries, 10 of them Cleveland firms. Cleveland & Sandusky quickly became embroiled in controversy; some independent brewers--among them GEORGE GUND of Gund Brewing and Otto Leisy of Leisy Brewing--charged unfair competition. Leisy, in a letter to the PLAIN DEALER (19 Feb. 1899), accused Cleveland & Sandusky of purchasing saloons, then coercing tenants "to sell their beer at their price or leave the premise." The Cleveland & Sandusky "trust" proceeded unhindered, closing unprofitable plants and adding others, although after repeal of Prohibition brewers were prohibited from operating saloon tie-ins.

The industry in Cleveland reached its zenith in 1910, when 26 breweries were operating in the city. In addition to Bohemian, Cleveland, Columbia, Gehring, Schlather, Star, and Fishel (all in the Cleveland & Sandusky fold), there were the Beltz, CLEVELAND HOME, DIEBOLT BREWERY, Excelsior, Forest City, Gund, Leisy, Pabst, PILSENER, Schlitz, STANDARD, and Stroh breweries. Leisy, Pilsener, and Standard, all located on the near west side, were the most formidable independents.

When national Prohibition took effect on 16 Jan. 1920, brewers faced either the liquidation of their property without compensation or the manufacture of products other than alcoholic beer. For some Cleveland breweries, such as Gund, that meant the end of business. Some, including Pilsener and Standard, turned to the manufacture of low-alcohol (near) beer and dairy products, soft drinks, or fruit juices. Others, such as Leisy, simply closed down and waited. One month after Prohibition ended on 7 Apr. 1933, 4 of the city's breweries (Pilsener, Standard, Forest City, and Cleveland Home Brewing) were back in production and others soon followed. All faced a significant amount of reinvestment, including new bottling machinery and fleets of motorized delivery trucks. Consumer preference had shifted from draft to packaged beer, a trend favoring the larger "shipping" brewers, which took an increasingly larger share of the market at the expense of smaller brewers still selling draft beer to a local market. The larger brewers were better able to win and hold consumers through aggressive advertising campaigns, and to absorb the costs of new equipment.

Although the number of Cleveland brewers was decreasing, the output of the remaining firms continued to increase, so that in 1939 Cleveland's 9 breweries employed 1,265 persons (in 1910 the industry had employed 904), and malt liquor production was valued in excess of $10 million. Surviving were those companies that adopted bold new strategies to meet the competition head-on. The Standard Brewing Co., a strong contender that had long confined its market to a 50-mile radius, embarked on a multimillion dollar plant expansion after World War II and broadened its market to include adjoining states. The Brewing Corp. of America, later known as the CARLING BREWING CO., used aggressive merchandising to make an unusually swift advance toward a leading position in the industry; Carling became one of the leaders in the multiple-plant idea, as well as Cleveland's largest brewer, ranking 15th in sales nationally in 1944.

Meanwhile, many smaller brewers were either absorbed or forced to close. The state excise tax, which averaged $.12 per case in the principal beer-producing states (New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Missouri) but was $.36 per case in Ohio, further aggravated the problems faced by smaller brewers. Leisy, Cleveland's oldest family-owned brewer, which as early as the 1870s had established markets well beyond the Cleveland area, pointed to the tax as an important factor in its decision to close in 1958. The city had 9 breweries in 1939, but by 1960 that number had dwindled to 5.

The phenomenon of brewery shakeout accelerated in the 1960s. Cleveland & Sandusky, Pilsener, and Standard all closed their doors, the latter two selling out to larger brewers (Duquesne and Schaefer, respectively) attempting to expand their markets. The trend toward larger and larger brewing companies followed the pattern of industry in general, which increasingly turned to consolidation to meet such problems as financing and promotion. For the brewing industry, shakeout meant the end of malt liquor products having a distinctive taste and a regional identity. Gone were Black Forest beer (Cleveland Home Brewing), Gund's Clevelander beer, Erin Brew (Standard Brewing), Black Dallas malt liquor (Leisy), Old Timer's ale, and Crystal Rock beer (Cleveland & Sandusky). By 1970 only 2 brewers remained in Cleveland, Carling and C. Schmidt & Sons. The following year Carling closed its aging Cleveland brewery and moved its headquarters to Waltham, MA, near its modern brewery at Natick. Schmidt took over the vacant Carling plant and continued production there until 1984, when the city's last brewery closed; Schmidt blamed the closing on lack of sales. Four years later, in 1988, local beer was reintroduced to Cleveland when Patrick and Daniel Conway established the GREAT LAKES BREWING CO. to make Dortmunder and Vienna-style beers. The small Ohio City brew pub reflected a national trend toward "microbreweries," brewing premium beers of distinctive flavor for a local market.

Carol Poh Miller