Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Bottling Beer in Chippewa Falls

This is a minor follow up to a recent post called "The Lost Brewery of Chippewa Falls". In it I described the struggles of an 1870's brewery that had a parade of different owners.  You'd think after that venture failed that all concerned would have had enough of the beer business.

But as it happens, no.

One of the early proprietors of the failed Union Brewery was a certain John P. Mitchell.  A brief article in the Chippewa Falls Herald of August 27, 1880 describes his career a few years later:

After describing other improvements in the area of the Star Flouring Mill it relates that:

"A short distance across from this structure is a two story building with a good stone foundation where Mr. John P. Mitchell will soon open up with a good stock of groceries.  This will be handy for the large number of people who live in that vicinity....."
"In the rear of the store, an establishment for bottling beer is being built.  This will be under the management of Mr. Mitchell, and will be of considerable benefit and convenience to the city, as heretofore all bottled beer had to be imported from Milwaukee, Lacrosse or St. Paul...."

This was adjacent to Leinenkugel and Miller's Spring Brewery, and it was their beer that Mitchell would be bottling.  

A follow up article in December of 1880 mentions that the bottling works was in "good running order" and had been filling many orders.  Beer could be ordered by the case for home delivery.  A case was either 2 dozen quarts at $2.50 or 3 dozen pints for $2.00.

This helps explain what I had considered a curious entry on the Chippewa Falls Sanborn Fire Map of 1884.

Leinenkugels was just off to the right.  The bottling works is as described in the news article.  Previously I had wondered about the "Gro." which clearly indicates the associated grocery.  Note the Ice House out back.  Presumably this was to keep kegs of beer ready for bottling at a nice cold temperature.

This photo probably shows it.  You are looking at the front of the building, which is the short end to the left.

Several additional thoughts.

Because of Federal tax laws it was not legal to bottle beer on the brewery premises.  It had to be taken across the street (or sometimes via tunnel, under the street) to a different building.  In transit the kegs were marked with tax stamps.  In the winter view above you can actually see a plank covered pathway running from the brewery to the bottling facility.  I wonder where the guy with the tax stamps stood?

19th century newspaper articles were pounded out at a brisk pace, not always checking for strict accuracy.  In fact this was almost certainly not the first beer bottled in town.  Three years earlier in June of 1877 it was noted that: "Both the breweries in this city are bottling beer for family use, which enables all to have fresh beer."

The reference to "both" of course reflected the presence of the Schmidmeyer brewery at that point in time.  From this point onward I am going to engage in a little speculation.

Bottling beer or soda was not a highly profitable venture unless you had a good system for getting your bottles back.  These were specialized containers with seals to keep in carbonation and thick walls to reduce breakage.  By 1880 these were almost all glass bottles, and the absolute absence of any embossed Leinenkugel's bottles prior to the late 1890's suggests that it was paper label only when Mitchell started bottling their beer on a large scale.  But prior to that it was a different story.

There were two breweries in town.  (OK, three for a while).  If you used generic bottles the worst case scenario was not that your bottle did not come home to was that it would be used by your rival!  So marked bottles made sense.  The only one from the area that dates from this era is actually from Eau Claire, the marvelous E.R. Hantzsch pottery beer bottle.  We've met E.R. before, he used a cave that was featured in several of my early Forgotten Brewery Cave posts.

So, given that bottling of beer by Schmidmeyer and by Leinenkugels was a very small scale, literally kitchen sink operation, is it possible that somewhere out there are similar pottery bottles with FXS or L&M debossed on them?  I'd like to think so.

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