Party Like it's 1920: Five Breweries with Pre-Prohibition Roots

May 21, 2018

By Lisa Rabasca Roepe, May 21, 2018

Before the United States enacted a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages on January 16, 1919—commonly known as Prohibition—there were more than 4,000 breweries operating across the country. By 1920, they were all forced to shut down or change their business model.

Some of the larger breweries that still exist today kept their doors open by manufacturing another product. For instance, Yuengling operated as an ice cream and dairy plant, Pabst Blue Ribbon made cheese and Stroh’s made maple syrup. But these were exceptions to the rule.

The vast majority of breweries closed for good, failing to reopen after the 21st Amendment was passed on April 7, 1933 that legalized the production and sale of beer. By June 1933, only 31 brewers were in operation. The following year, a mere 756 brewers resumed operations. It took until 2016 for the number of breweries operating in the United States to top the previous all-time high of 4,131 set in 1873.

Today, there are more than 6,000 U.S. breweries, according to the Brewers Association. At least five can trace their roots to pre-prohibition. They’ve been brought back to life either by family members and history-loving brewers, and all are brewing lagers made in the style of pre-prohibition beers the original brewery once produced. Only one though, Moerlein Lager House in Cincinnati, Ohio, is brewing from an original recipe.

Portner Brewhouse in Alexandria, Virginia

Brewing was considered a secret art in the 1880s, according to Catherine Portner, co-owner of Portner Brewhouse in Alexandria, Virginia. “You didn’t want to share your skills or knowledge with anyone else,” Portner says. “During that time frame, you were brewing one or two beers total. Once you had done it a few times, you didn’t need a recipe anymore.”

Robert Portner, who emigrated from Westphalia, Germany, established the largest pre-prohibition brewery in the southeastern United States and was city’s largest employer. But when the state of Virginia passed Prohibition in 1916, the brewery closed down. A century after he opened the Robert Portner Brewing Co., in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1869, his great-great granddaughters Catherine and Margaret Portner opened Portner Brewhouse a short walk from where the original brewery once stood.

The brewery offers a pre-prohibition series of four beers—a pilsner, lager, cream ale and a porter—all based on reconstructed recipes from her great-great grandfather’s brewery. “A cream ale is a hybrid beer style that became popular as the push towards maintaining the flavor of a pilsner with the fermentation speed of an ale,” Portner says. The beer is characterized as having a smooth body with a solid head. Cream ales were widely popular before prohibition, but rarely produced afterward beyond two popular brands by Rochester, New York’s Genesee Cream Ale and Cincinnati’s Little Kings.

Anaheim Brewery in Anaheim, California

Another style that nearly disappeared after prohibition is steam beer. While beer was typically only brewed in fall and winter when the water temperatures are cooler, many California breweries kept making beer, even in the summer despite the warm water temperatures, because the gold rush brought thousands of beer drinkers to the state, according to Barbara Gerovac, co-owner and brewer of Anaheim Brewery. The beer got its name from the big plume of foam that shoot up, like steam locomotive, whenever bottles were opened, she says. The excessive foam was caused by the carbon dioxide pressure inside the bottles.

Most brewers didn’t take up that style again after prohibition, with the notable exception of Anchor Steam Brewing Co., which trademarked the style. Today, the Anaheim Brewery offers Anaheim 1888, based on the style of beer brewed at the original Anaheim Brewery.

Before prohibition, Anaheim was home to three breweries—California Brewery, International Brewery and Anaheim Brewery. Friedrich Conrad was born in Bavaria, Germany, and opened his first brewery, the California Brewery in Anaheim in 1870. In 1888, he purchased an additional 10 acres, built a large brick building and named it the Anaheim Brewery. On the west side of the building, he created a park and encouraged local residents to picnic there and buy beer from the brewery. He sold the brewery in 1904 to Anton Hessel and his partner John Bauer, a San Diego brewer. The property changed hands several times before closing in 1920.

In 2010, Gerovac and her husband Greg brought the Anaheim Brewery back to life in the Packard Building, a 1920-era structure in the city’s historic district. The brewery’s namesake beer, Anaheim 1888, is a nod to the year that Conrad built his brick brewery. “When we make beer we think about the people who have done it in the past,” Gerovac says. “Beer makes people happy and brings people together just like Conrad wanted to bring people together at his park.”

J & L Eppig Brewing in San Diego

One of the breweries that avoided closing during prohibition was Eppig Brewery in Brooklyn, New York, which reincorporated as the Interboro Cereal and Beverage Co., in 1920. Three brothers, Leonard, Joseph and Henry Eppig, came to the United States from Bavaria, Germany, and founded their first brewery in Brooklyn in 1866. Over the years, the brewery was handed down to sons and daughters, says Stephanie Eppig, co-founder and chief marketing officer of J & L Eppig. She is also the great-great granddaughter of Henry Eppig.

While Eppig Brewery remained opened throughout prohibition, it changed ownership and became the George Ehret Brewery in 1935. “Rumor has it they continued to brew underground during prohibition and they were associated with gangsters who helped them move the beer during prohibition,” Eppig says. The family believes that when prohibition ended, the gangsters threatened the family and they lost everything. Stephanie's grandfather was about 12 at the time.

Eppig grew up hearing stories about the brewery from her grandfather and she even owns some of the original glass bottles and ceramic corks from the brewery. This connection to the past made her determined to resurrect the brewery. “I didn’t have the background in brewing, but I was born in San Diego, the craft brewing capital of United States,” she says. “I wanted to carry on the family legacy and bring back these stories and such an important piece of brewing history.”

She partnered with brewers, Clayton LeBlanc and Nathan Stephens, who left Ballast Point when Constellation Brands bought it in 2015. Together they opened J & L Eppig Brewing in November 2016. 150 years after the family’s first brewery opened. The brewery has a dedicated lager program and offers six different ones on tap, which is unusual for a San Diego brewery where IPAs typically dominate the taps. Sadly, she says, her great-great grandfather’s original recipes were lost.

Moerlein Lager House in Cincinnati, Ohio

Although Christian Moerlein Brewing Co., has the original 1853 recipe for its lager, owner Greg Hardman says the ingredients used today are probably different. For instance, he says, the malt, hops and barley would have come from the local farmers, because the brewery probably wasn’t able to get 100 percent Vienna malts like they can today.

Moerlein original lager was first brewed by Christian Moerlein, a Bavarian immigrant, who established the Christian Moerlein Brewing Co. in 1853. Prohibition forced the brewery to close but the the Moerlein brand was reintroduced in 1981 as a craft beer by Hudepohl Brewing Co.

The Moerlein brand changed hands a few more times before Hardman acquired it, and was even briefly brewed by Boston Beer Company under contract after it purchased the Hudepohl-Schoenling brewery. On March 1, 2004, Hardman bought the Moerlein brand exactly 151 years after Moerlein opened his original brewery in Cincinnati on March 1, 1853. Nine years later, Hardman opened the Moerlein Lager House Christian Moerlein Brewing Co., in an abandoned 1860 brewery, the John Kauffman Brewing Company, which also closed because of prohibition and never reopened. In 2012, Hardman opened a second brewery and a brewpub, Moerlein Lager House, in Cincinnati on the banks of the Ohio River. 

Four Mile Brewing in Olean, New York

Just 13 years before prohibition began, Buffalo-native Henry Sigel built the Olean Brewing Co.—a state-of-the-art brewery with machinery powered by electricity and gas. The brewery also had bottling plant and could produce 80 tons of ice a day. At the time, most breweries were powered by coal-powered boilers. Despite these advances, the Olean Brewing Co., closed its doors in 1920.

A local company, Sanzo Beverage Co., Inc., used the building as a distribution center from 1930 until the 1970s. After they moved out, the building was used as plumbing supply company, a kitchen and bath center and a lumber yard, before it stood vacant for five years and eventually became Four Mile Brewing.

Nicholas Bohdanowycz, Four Mile’s president, and Jaye Beattie, Four Mile’s vice president and sales manager, opened the brewery in May 2015, after nearly two years of renovations. They elected not use the original name because, Beattie says, they “didn’t want to be pigeonholed.” Olean Brewing Co., was a production brewery, he says, so it made sense to name it after the town. They wanted their brewery’s name to have a wider appeal but to also be meaningful to local residents so they name it after a road in nearby Allegany, New York.  

Despite this, Four Mile pays tribute to its home with a pre-prohibition-style cream ale and, while they don’t have the original recipe, they do know that the Olean Brewing Co. made one. “It’s our take on a beer that would have been brewed at this very spot,” Beattie says.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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