Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series. This part profiles the history of Grand Rapids beer, the next, the resurgence of Grand Rapids beer.
There’s one thing that really stands out about nineteenth century brewers; they had fantastic mustaches.
However, that’s not what the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Thank You, BEER! exhibit is profiling. Instead, the exhibit will profile and honor the city’s beer industry that has come full circle since the early twentieth century.
Thanks to three loaners, Steve DeBoode, Kevin Foley and Bill Norton, the museum is able to put on a functional exhibit that runs until Dec. 30. Although the museum has a decent collection from the old Grand Rapids Brewing Co.’s corner stone, Museum Curator Alex Forist said the trio’s collections really help bring the exhibit to life.
With the museum’s collection of Grand Rapids Brewing Co. memorabilia and an assortment of items from current area breweries — such as bolt cutters from Founders Brewing Co. and the Larry Bell’s original 15-gallon kettle — stand vast walls of bottles, cans and posters from a long history of beer.
Furniture City Brewing
Most of what is known about the old breweries comes from Albert Baxter’s 1891’s “History of the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan.”
In fact, Forist and the museum crew watched the documentary “How Beer Saved the World” and Baxter’s book to do most of the research for the exhibit.
According to Baxter, John Pannell set up the city’s first brewery in 1836, at the bottom of Prospect Hill, which was located near Pearl Street and Ottawa Avenue. Pannell was an Englishman, but soon the Germans overtook the fledgling industry.
Christoph Kusterer opened on the Westside, and bought out Pannell in 1849. Kusterer was one of the German immigrant figure heads in the 1800s, even serving as the “Grand German Jollification Parade Marshall” to celebrate Prussia’s victory against France in 1871. Unfortunately, Kusterer died in 1880 in a shipwreck of the Alpena. His sons and grandsons continued the brewing name.
In 1849, the Christ brothers came to Grand Rapids, two working with Kusterer and the third opening the Bridge Street House Tavern, granted Grand Rapids’ first tavern-keepers license following the village’s turn to a city.
The brothers eventually opened up a large brewery near Ottawa Avenue and Bridge Street, but a fire burnt it down on July 13, 1873.
As the German immigrant population continued to grow, the popularity of lagers did too. At the end of the Civil War, there were four major breweries in Grand Rapids: Kusterer’s City Brewery, Union Brewery, Michigan Brewery and G. and C. Christ Brewery.
Baxter wrote the popularity was so much, Grand Rapids’ output in 1875 was 16,000 barrels and production was valued at $600,000 in 1877 and more than 160 men were employed by brewers.
In the late 1800s, Cincinnati was a brewing powerhouse, leading to a former Kusterer brewer, Adolph Goetz to start the Cincinnati Brewery at 208 Grandville Ave. with the slogan, “Equal to Cincinnati Beer.”
Goetz eventually left to start a brewery in Colorado, but returned a few years later as Kusterer’s brewmaster.
Some non-Germans came into the picture in the late 1800s, but due to a lack of demand of ales and porters, they quickly failed. In 1879, seven breweries were in Grand Rapids, all German and all producing lagers.
In 1887, an outside force entered the market, Toledo Brewing and Malting Co. and began the movement toward a larger scale of beer production. And at the turn of the century, Anheuser Busch, Finlay Brewing Co. of Toledo, Muskegon Brewing Co. and Joseph Schlitze Brewing Co. all held market shares.
Instead of trying to find their own way against outside competition, six Grand Rapids brewers joined forces. Charles F. Kusterer, George Brandt, Tusch Brothers, Paul Rathman, Frey Brothers and Adolph Goetz opened up the Grand Rapids Brewing Co. on Jan. 1, 1893.
Grand Rapids Brewing Co. brewed several types of beers and distributed them across the region, but one type, Silver Foam gained immense popularity.
An icehouse for Anheuser Busch, where Founders Vice President Dave Engbers said bottling was done, still stands as the Grand Rapids Community Foundation building today. Constructed in 1905, it might be the last of a network of railside icehouses and the AB logo still stands proudly above Grandville Avenue.
The only local competition to GRBC was the Petersen Brewing Co., a successor to the Michigan Brewery, and by 1907, it expanded to a three building complex. In 1908 an old school house was purchased for storage, leading to this gem in the Grand Rapids Herald: “Its location has also been the source of a long standing pun. On one corner was the school, on another was a church, while on the third was a saloon. In consequence of this combination, the saying has grown that on three corners were located education, salvation and damnation.
The German monopoly on Grand Rapids brewing came to an end, when, in 1904, a Detroit promoter opened up the last brewery in town before Prohibition named Furniture City Brewing.
The well goes dry
Grand Rapids joined the rest of the nation in a the large temperance movement and saw Prohibition dump a lot of alcohol down the drains in 1920. Grand Rapids Brewing Co. was liquidated and transformed into Grand Rapids Products Company, making soft drinks, industrial alcohol and by-products instead, as Silver Foam turned into a soft drink. Meanwhile, Furniture City Brewing Co. started making near beer called Nu Bru, before George E. Ellis foreclosed on the building in 1929.
Following the end of Prohibition, most beer came into Grand Rapids from Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee, but several breweries tried to make a go of it in the 1930s. A short-lived operation was called Great Lakes Brewing Co., and GRBC merged with Furniture City Brewing Co., and the beer was made at the Muskegon Brewing Co. building and shipped to Grand Rapids.
The last brewery, a franchise-type operation from Chicago, Fox Deluxe Brewing Co., closed up shop in 1951, leading to a massive dry spell in Grand Rapids beer history, culminating with the urban renewal projects in 1964 that saw most of the old brewery buildings torn down.
The before the early 1990s, the idea of brewing in Grand Rapids was “nonexistent” according to Founders President Mike Stevens.
And that was almost a national sentiment, when breweries in the United States dropped to fewer than 100, the lowest total ever, aside from Prohibition.