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A 2004 Beer and Steam Odyssey through the US Midwest

Part 5: Along the banks of the Mississippi to a historic brewery

US Midwest P5 1Monday 28th June to Wednesday 30th June

The next day (Monday 28th June) saw us back at Davenport Union Station. A Union station is one built by more than one railroad with shared facilities. This one served the passenger trains of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q, the Burlington Road) and the Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul & Pacific (CMStPP, the Milwaukee Road). It was built in 1924 in the Georgian Revival style and served the railroads until they discontinued passenger service in the 1950s. It became a Trailways bus station for a while and is now the Tourist Office.

Our steam-hauled train was taking us on the last section along the banks of the Mississippi from the Quad Cities to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St Paul). This journey would take us three days and we would never be far from the river at any time. On these days it was intended that the boats would make the same journeys on the river.

However, there were problems for the larger boats as they were delayed on their transit from the South to the Quad Cities. There had been flooding on the river and these bigger vessels could not get under some of the bridges until the high water subsided. These were the well-known Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen. Later we managed to see the Delta Queen but the Mississippi Queen eluded us. More on those boats below.

US Midwest P5 2After an uneventful journey in good weather we arrived in Dubuque in mid-afternoon. After checking in to our hotel we were out looking at the beery attractions of the city, which are not much.

We visited two pubs with the first being the Busted Lift, a basement Irish bar that had a reasonable selection of local small brewer’s beers. I thought it rather claustrophobic and I seem to remember it had bare walls (see photo above right).

A little further along Main Street and on the opposite side was the Bricktown Brewery & Blackwater Grill, a brew-pub located in a very good-looking building. It was a (horse &) carriage building factory and the interior was decorated with many examples of this craft. It opened in 2002 and was very busy when we arrived so the only place available was at the bar counter so that’s where we went. By the way, Bricktown is how Dubuque is known locally.

US Midwest P5 3We had elected to eat here and as we like fish we ordered Catfish, a first for both of us. We were well aware of the portion sizes in the USA so ordered one with an extra plate and it proved to be the correct decision.

What was the catfish like? Well it was OK, yet with a muddy taste. Not surprising really as it feeds along the beds of rivers, in this case the Mississippi just across the road. It was similar yet not quite the same as the taste of trout, another bottom feeder.

I realise that I’ve not mentioned the beer. We had a sampler set of everything on offer and nothing stood out in any way, they just weren’t very good. I’ve read subsequently that the brewery used malt extract. If true, I’m sure that was the reason behind the rather poor beers. Whether or not it was the beer that caused it, the pub closed in April 2009. It was a great location in a lovely building, it could have been so right.

US Midwest P5 4After an overnight in Dubuque it was Tuesday 29th June and we were back on the special train continuing north alongside the river. It was on this section that we finally got to see two of the larger vessels attending the Excursion. Firstly we slowly overtook the Celebration Belle, see photo below left. This is the largest stern-wheeler on the upper Mississippi. It belongs to Celebration River Cruises. This is owned by Joe Schadler who started the company in 1984.

His first boat was the Queen of Hearts with three decks and a capacity of 400. It was custom-built by Tucker Marine of Cincinnati, Ohio, and based in the Quad Cities at Davenport. It was very successful and the terminal was moved across the river to Moline, Illinois, for 1986. The Celebration Belle was purchased in 1998 from Roberts River Rides of Bettendorf, Iowa. It was built by the Patti Shipyard of Pensacola, Florida in 1986 as the Mississippi Belle II. Its propulsion is diesel mechanical.

US Midwest P5 5Shortly after we passed a classic in the form of the Delta Queen, see photo right. It’s not the largest on the river but it is the most well-known. It has had a long and colourful career.

The hull, propulsion machinery, boiler and the lower two decks were built in Scotland from 1924 to 1927 by William Denny at Dumbarton.

It and its identical twin were dismantled and sent to the Banner Island Shipyard in Stockton, California.

They re-assembly was completed on 20th May 1927 and included paddle wheel shafts and cranks cast by the Krupp steelworks in Germany. They were named Delta Queen and Delta King and went into service on 1st June 1927 running overnight between San Francisco and Sacramento, the state capital.

US Midwest P5 6The service started very well but soon the highway was complete all the way from the Bay Area to Sacramento. Another factor was the Wall Street crash. Many shipping lines merged but the service eventually finished in 1940.

With the entry of the USA into the Second World War the two ships were leased by the US Navy. After the leases expired in late 1941 they were sent back to Stockton for storage. Then they were sold to Isbrandsten Steamship Co of New York. They were to be towed via the Panama Canal to the East Coast. This move was cancelled after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and they became emergency hospital transports.

They were laid up again in 1946 but in December of that year the Delta Queen was sold to Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati, Ohio. In April of 1947 it was towed via Panama to New Orleans, taking 29 days covering 5,261 miles. There it was refitted for river traffic and taken to Pittsburgh, Ohio. It entered passenger service on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in June 1948.

The newly introduced Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) laws came into effect from 1966. It should have curtailed the life of the Delta Queen because of its wooden construction. It was initially given a two-year exemption. When this was up a last cruise was celebrated. However it was given an extension of the exemption by the President. Thereafter its commercial life continued through more extensions and many different owners.

US Midwest P5 7The end was in sight in October when another extension finished and it was prohibited from taking overnight passengers. As this was the ship’s unique selling point it was decided that it should be a static hotel and restaurant and was moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee for that. As far as I am aware this is the current position. We were lucky to see it in service when we did.

We arrived in La Crosse, Wisconsin in the early afternoon. We then travelled by bus to the downtown area as the station is some way north of the centre. After checking in to our hotel we went out to visit some pubs. There seemed to be two that stood out amongst the rest and so we soon found ourselves in Doc Powell’s Brewing Co at 200 Main Street.

The pub was named after “Doc” Powell who was a friend of “Buffalo Bill” William Cody and was also four-time Mayor of La Crosse. It is located in a rather handsome building called Powell Place constructed at the end of the 19th Century. However, all is not what it seems as there was no brewery in the building. The beers came from the Sioux Falls Brewing Co located in the town of the same name in South Dakota.

US Midwest P5 8Formerly there was a brewery here producing around 1000 barrels (bbls) per annum as it was once home to the Black River Brewing Co. This was established in 1995 and closed in January 1997. The brewing equipment was removed before the Doc Powell Brewing Co took over.

This opened in May 1998 and closed in March 2006 so again we were fortunate again to be there at the right time to try their beers which we thought were very good. The pub was very attractive with a lot of wood panelling and large mirrors.

The name of the next pub we visited is also a bit of a misnomer. Despite its name the Bodega Brew Pub does not make their own beer. It is meant to imply they sell “Brews”. Take a look at the photograph. It is a classic building on the corner of Fourth and Pearl Streets framed by a classic American street scene. Inside it is very quirky with a large display of breweriana, old bottles, cans and the like.

US Midwest P5 9It opened as a restaurant, The Bodega Lunch Club, in 1897 and this continued until it briefly shut down in 1984. It reopened but finally closed its doors as a restaurant in 1989.

It was purchased by Jeff Hotson and Michael Breckel in 1994 and they opened it as the Bodega Brew Pub. The pub offers a reasonable range of mid-western regional draught beers, mostly from Wisconsin and Illinois. It also has a vast selection of bottled beer, both imported and local.

Whilst we were there we were told that it was easily the best pub in town.

We tried quite a few different beers in the Bodega before returning to our hotel. When I first planned this crawl through the American mid-west I noticed that on the following day, Wednesday 30th June we didn’t leave La Crosse till the afternoon for our last leg to Minneapolis. So conveniently I was able to organise a visit to the City Brewery during the morning.

US Midwest P5 10This was a guided tour with a group of around a dozen others. Again fortune was on our side as the company no longer conducts these visits. So some history of the brewery won’t go amiss. It was founded with the same name as today in 1858 by Gottlieb Heileman from Wüttemberg in partnership with John Gund from Baden. These two principalities became part of the new German state in 1871 and are now combined as an administrative Länd with some very attractive breweries and beer.

They supplied many bars and hotels in the La Crosse area. In fact they bought the Augusta hotel in 1862 after a fire and renamed it International Hotel in 1866.

However they had differing ideas on how the brewery was to develop. Heileman wanted to stay local and Gund wanted to expand. They split in 1872 with Heileman buying out Gund’s shares in the brewery. Gund bought out his partner’s interest in the hotel. Gund then went and formed the John Gund Brewery in La Crosse in 1880 and Heileman renamed City to G Heileman’s Brewery.

US Midwest P5 11aGottlieb Heileman died in 1878 and his widow Johanna took over the company. They started expanding and in the 1880s her brother-in-law Emil T. Müller joined her.

They incorporated the firm in 1890 and it became G. Heileman Brewing company. Müller became Vice-President with Johanna Heileman as the C.E.O. she was one of the first female company leaders in the USA.

Massive expansion was achieved at the end of the 19th Century and into the 20th. It was during this time that their flagship beer was developed: Heileman’s Old Style Lager (ca 4.0% abv).

In 1902 about 160,000 barrels (bbls) of it were brewed. By 1917 they distributed to 34 States. This was the year that Johanna died, just three years before the instigation of Prohibition.

During the prohibition period the company nearly collapsed. They started producing soft drinks and various malt beverages. Eventually they found some success with Malt Syrup which customers could use as a basis to make their own beer at home.

US Midwest P5 12There was a serious fire in September 1931 and the company barely made it to the repeal of the 19th Amendment in 1933. So many breweries failed during Prohibition, as did the Gund Brewery of La Crosse which went down at the first hurdle and closed in 1920.

Emerging at last from the prohibition era the Heileman family sold their shares to the Paul Davis Company of Chicago and the brewery became The G. Heilman Company Incorporated.

After the first beers were produced in 1933 they went into a period of expansion. It was during this period that a second flagship beer was produced for the first time. This was Special Export and it was over 6.0% abv. During the period of the Second World War several new beers were introduced but none of them were successful.

US Midwest P5 13Sales dropped because of the wartime rationing but also because some inferior ingredients were being used as the company was engaged in a price war with other breweries. The company rather bumbled through the end of the 1940s and the first part of the 1950s, not helped by a three month strike in 1948.

In 1957 there was a new company president appointed, Roy E. Kumm. He had worked for Heileman since before the war and had a desire to return the brewery to its pre-eminence. He greatly expanded the markets in which they traded, going further afield so that the company had almost national distribution. He also increased the capacity of the brewery to keep up with increased sales.

Despite a serious fire in 1959 improvements continued to be made and Kumm established an Oktoberfest at La Crosse which helped sell their beers. He hired Russell G. Cleary during the 1960s who was his son-in-law.

In 1971 Kumm died of stomach cancer and Cleary became the president. He instigated a program of taking over large regional breweries who were finding it difficult to compete with the likes of Budweiser and Miller.

US Midwest P5 14These were Carling Black Label (Cleveland, Ohio and others), Blatz (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), Blitz-Weinhard (Portland, Oregon), Drewry’s (South Bend, Indiana), Falls City (Louisville, Kentucky), Grain Belt (Minneapolis, Minnesota), Gluek Brewing (Minneapolis, Minnesota), National Bohemian (Baltimore, Maryland), Olympia (Tumwater, Washington), Rainier (Seattle, Washington), Christian Schmidt (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), Jacob Schmidt (St Paul, Minnesota), and Wiedemann (St Paul, Minnesota).

By 1983 they were the fourth largest brewing company in the country, behind Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser), Miller and Stroh’s, and were brewing 17 million barrels (bbls) per annum. This was the high point of G. Heillman’s existence.

In 1987 they were taken over by the infamous Australian financier Alan Bond. He acquired the company through a leveraged buyout using so-called junk bonds.

His empire of brewing was not to last and Heileman declared bankruptcy in January 1991 as a consequence of Bond’s own financial collapse. This was in a controversial period when they targeted the malt liquor market. This is higher gravity beer brewed with little or no hops which is normally consumed for the alcoholic effect and sold cheaply. In July 1991 the Government persuaded the company to drop their strongest version, Power Master (7.4%).

US Midwest P5 15Hicks Muse, a private equity firm bought the company in 1994 and sold it on to the Stroh Brewery Company (established in Detroit) in 1996.

At this point Stroh, who had recently taken over Pabst beers abruptly closed their famous brewery in Milwaukee. Stroh transferred the brewing of the Pabst flagship beer, Blue Ribbon, to Heileman’s in La Crosse.

For more details of these Milwaukee breweries please see part 2 of this article.

Stroh’s subsidiary Pabst were now custodians of Heileman’s brands supervising the brewing of the well-known Old Style and Special Export at La Crosse, but not for long. In a further twist, Pabst who had no functioning brewery, made a reverse take-over of Stroh’s in 1999. In that same year they then sold the La Crosse brewery to the City Brewing Company and the brewing of the Pabst-controlled beers was moved away. However it was not long until the Heileman’s beers returned to their birthplace; Old Style since 1900, exempting prohibition.

US Midwest P5 16The City Brewery was the name of the first small plant on this site (1858-1872) so at least as far as names are concerned it has gone full circle. However the modern City Brewing Co is a very different beast. It is primarily a contract brewery and many well-known brands are brewed here, including some from the old Heileman days. In all, well over forty different beers are brewed here.

The brewery is situated on a large spread out site. Nevertheless all the important parts involved in our visit were to be found along the sides of one “main street”.

Our tour commenced with a beer and an introduction in the hospitality suite. A feature of this very large room are the glass fronted cabinets around the walls that display many cans and bottles of an immense number of beers and the soft drinks produced here.

US Midwest P5 17Then we visited the brew house entered through a rather nice stone building (see above right) which contains the home of the production offices Inside and at first sight, it all looked traditional. However we turned a corner and noticed a room with three glass walls with the fourth accommodating a huge illuminated diagram of the ongoing brewing process. The operator (brewer?) sat at a desk with three computer monitors in front of him. See photo above left. We then visited one of the colossal warehouses, the biggest I ever seen, photo top left.

Whilst in the yard we observed two features that set this brewery apart from most. First is a rather impressive statue of King Gambrinus. He was Flemish and is also known as Jan Primus. Living during the 13th Century and he was a Duke, Knight and an honorary member of the Brussels Brewing Guild. He is colloquially known as the “King of Beer” or the Patron Saint of Beer. Well, at least this is what the sign on the base of the statue says!

There are a few statues of him throughout the world and a considerable number of stories! His history with Heileman’s goes back to 1939 when they purchased him from a brewery in New Orleans that was about to close down. He was vandalised in 2015 so an exact replica was made and erected in September 2016. So the photograph you see is the original taken on our visit in 2004.

US Midwest P5 18Gambrinius is not unique but the “World’s largest six pack” is. This was erected in 1969 and was designed by Roy Wilson. They are six tanks containing 22,220 barrels of beer in total, technically known as “Inventory Storage Tanks”. I think they are holding tanks for beer before it is packaged in can, bottle or keg. Originally they were painted as if they were giant Old Style cans, as it was Heileman’s Brewery then. Now they are covered by vinyls that depict cans of La Crosse Lager, an indigenous City Brewery beer.

On our tour we then returned to the bar for some more beers. To be honest, as these were mainstream beers, there was nothing of any great quality on offer, but we didn’t expect anything more. We had received a good tour around a modern brewery that respected the traditions of the past. For example the Heileman’s motifs in the beautiful dark wood bar. Also the wonderful old tiled Old Style Lager image of the famous cavalier on the wall of the brew house which can be seen in a photograph above.

A few details on the brewery. At its maximum output it can produce no less than sixteen brews per day on its two-stream system. Each brew is 1,100 barrels giving a potential of almost seven million barrels per year. After brewing the beers are racked into one of the seventy horizontal Fermentation Tanks. Following fermentation the beers are transferred to the Ageing Cellars, actually a very high building. After maturation it is centrifuged and single-filtered before packaging.

US Midwest P5 19As said, we were now in the main bar and I thought it possessed a very atmospheric feel, mostly of days past. Apart from the reminders of Heileman’s previous ownership, there was much else to see in paintings (prints?) of old German (maybe English) taverns in the Victorian era. Also there is a wall painting, no doubt executed a long time ago depicting a view of the beautiful Bavarian town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a present day attraction. As the founders came from Baden-Württemberg, I don’t know what the connection is.

Unfortunately, the brewery no longer allows visitor tours. Because of that I am even more grateful that we visited when we did. Leaving the brewery we made our way to the Amtrak railway station for the last leg of our steam-hauled special train on to Minneapolis. This time we travelled on the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) Railroad. Their line is on the opposite side of the Mississippi River to that of the Canadian Pacific Railroad whose rails we polished on the very first day of this grand tour.

We flew to London the next day. Thus ended a fantastic odyssey around a part of the USA not often visited.

Bob Thompson
Part 5 of 5