Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My Book Report - Richard Owen and Lake Brewery

OK, not really a book report because I'm not reporting on a book. However, the Wisconsin Historical Society is a treasure trove of information; without even leaving the house, one can get lost there for hours. As I was searching through the archives doing research on Wisconsin brewing history (side note: in 1860 we had almost 200 commercial breweries in the state of Wisconsin, 40 of them were in Milwaukee alone!), I stumbled across an article from the Milwaukee Journal published March 19, 1916.

View Larger Map - and thank you to Kathy for getting us the information for this location.
A gentleman by the name of Richard Owen is generally credited with establishing the first commercial brewery in the state of Wisconsin. Mr. Owen, along with Mr. William Pawlett and Mr. John Davis started the Milwaukee Brewery in 1840, serving its first beer in July. The brewery itself was located at the foot of Huron Street right on the lake. Interestingly, it appears that Huron Street no longer exists in Milwaukee; apparently in the intervening one hundred and sixty eight years they've changed the name of the street, or maybe it's gone. I know we have some readers over there in Milwaukee, perhaps one of them can post in the comments where, on a modern day map, this brewery would have been. Then, in what would today play out in a multi-million dollar trademark infringement suit, another Milwaukee Brewery opened, so Owens changed the name of his brewery to Lake Brewery.

So, this Lake Brewery (nee Milwaukee Brewery) brewed "ale, porter and beer" and also distilled scotch whisky. You could pay $5 for a barrel of beer, $7 for a barrel of ale (also, presumably, porter), and $2 per gallon of whisky. In today's dollars (based on the CPI) this would equate to about about $120 for a barrel of beer, $170 for ale, and about $50 for a gallon of whisky. A little pricey, but hey, considering it is brewed in less than 5 barrel batches, it's a steal. Also of note, this article makes a distinction of historical interest: Lake Brewery brewed both ale, porter and beer. From the comfort of 2007 that sentence does not make a whole lot of sense. However, the English brewed ales (top fermenting yeasts) and considered this, for some unknown reason, to be a markedly different beast than what the Germans brewed that was colloquially called "beer." This German "beer" is what we call a lager, and it is brewed with bottom-fermenting yeasts. And we now know that the two, ales and lagers, are just different species in the same genus we call "beer." Interestingly, and most of you probably know this, but beer and whisky are in the same family - fermented barley beverages. Nonetheless, this still doesn't account for distinguishing between ale and "porter." Well, the British invented the porter, but it was a cold-fermentation ale, so it wasn't really what they called an "ale" (warm fermentation), but wasn't quite "beer" either (it used ale yeasts, not lager yeasts). So, because of the technical distinctions, the British classified the two separately.

However, Milwaukee lacked two important items for Mr. Owens' brewery: a copper kettle and barley. One being decidedly more important the other, Mr. Owens owned a boat (what the article characterizes as a "sloop") and he brought barley over on that boat from Michigan City, Indiana. Why go so far? It is hard to know, although sourcing from Wisconsin was not an option since barley was not grown here at the time. A few guesses can be made. First, Mr. Owens, originally from Isle of Anglesey, North Wales, had been working in Cleveland, Ohio and Buffalo, New York manufacturing millstones (bet you didn't know they manufactured millstones in Cleveland and Buffalo, did you? No? Me neither.) In 1837, he traveled by a steamship called the Madison to Milwaukee. (Why someone would take a boat from Buffalo to Milwaukee is still a bit of a mystery - a horse would have had to have been faster. But, being from Anglesey (an island), he was probably more comfortable on the boat than on a horse.) In any event, Michigan City was likely a port along the way, and Mr. Owens probably noted the sale of barley in this location. Given that it was only a one or two day boat trip from Milwaukee, it was close enough for his purposes.

The copper kettle presents a unique problem. At the time, aluminum did not exist; brewing was done in copper kettles and Milwaukee had no coppersmiths. Moreover, copper just happened to be one of the primary exports of Anglesey, North Wales. So, Mr. Owens probably had a certain fondness for it and demanded a certain quality that did not exist in his five barrel wooden box. In any event, he got a line on a 12 barrel copper kettle in Chicago. In 1841, it took him four days to go roundtrip from Milwaukee to Chicago - a trip that we now take for granted and get frustrated if it lasts more than two hours. Soon afterwards, in 1844, Milwaukee had a coppersmith and a brand new forty barrel kettle was created for Lake Brewery.

By 1845, Lake Brewery was at full capacity. It was consuming 12,000 bushels of barley a year. For another 19 years Lake Brewery provided Eastern Wisconsin with beer. In 1864, Mr. Owens called it quits and sold off the brewery. It continued for a while under the name M.W.Powell & Co. (quite a snazzy name for a beer, if you ask me). Meanwhile, Mr. Owens stayed in Milwaukee where he died in 1887 at the age of 76. As of 1916, four of Mr. Owens children were still living, so if you have a relative who would have been alive in 1916 and were named Chistopher Owens (Milwaukee), R.G Owens (Milwaukee), A.H. Owens (Wauwatosa), or Mary Saville (San Antonio, TX), you may be related to Mr. Owens.

1 comment:

  1. I Googled Huron Street and came up with this: http://www.linkstothepast.com/milwaukee/mkestreets1.php

    Scroll down and you'll find it.


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