Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Potosi Brewing Company, Part II

On Monday we looked at what Potosi Brewery is today - a non-profit brewery and museum dedicated to keeping alive the history of the American brewing tradition. What Potosi Brewing Company encompasses in its entirety is what the brewing industry was in the years before any of our lifetimes. It tracks, and it lives, the history of brewing in America.

Today, as in the early days of our country, brewing is about place, about location, about regionalism, about microcosms of our country. As the industrial revolution swept through the world, the machinations and march in the name of progress and efficiency wiped clean any trace of the personality, pride, and personal investment that any of us felt towards the place breweries held in our society. In the name of progress and prohibition we wiped beer off the map for more than 13 years in many places of our country. It is only now, almost 100 years later, that the industry is recovering.

The lore of beer in the original settlement of America is well-rehearsed, if largely bereft of actual fact. The story goes that in 1612 two Dutch traders named Adriaen Block and Hendrick Christiaensen formed the first brewery in the United States on the southern tip of what is now Manhattan. Then, as the legend grows, the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Rock not because it was the final destination, but because the ship had run out of beer. Through the 1600s and into the 1700s brewers here, like in England, were mainstays of society. Beer, and especially cider, was largely considered a necessity. By the mid-1700s England, needing to raise money to support its colonies and increasing conflagrations with France, started taxing beer (as well as tea), leading, in part, to the American Revolution. In 1789 Washington imposed the first (of many) "Buy American" policy and promised to only drink American-made Porter (make that, Dan Carey!).

By 1810, according to tax records, there were already 132 breweries operating in the United States. Keep in mind, there were only 17 states at the time and none West of Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In 1840, the first brewery in Wisconsin was opened by Richard Owen in Milwaukee on Clybourn (named Huron St then) called "Milwaukee Brewery". Less than nine years later, a number of breweries, including Sprecher Brewery (later Fauerbach Brewery) in Madison, were already well-established.

By 1849 there were a number of breweries dotting Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, Watertown, and Portage - just to name a few. Then, an Englishman named Gabriel Hail, started a brewery on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River at the bottom of a hill in a small community that would come to be known Potosi. Mr. Hail named the brewery, naturally, Gabriel Hail Brewery. And the history of those early days of Hail Brewery are an amazing and fascinating read.

In 1860 there were 200 breweries in the state of Wisconsin. 200. Think about that for a minute. Wisconsin had only even been a state for 12 years. Today there are still less than 100. Heck, in 1860 there were 40 breweries just in the city of Milwaukee. There were almost 3 times the number of breweries in 1860 in Wisconsin as there are today. 3 times! Wisconsin was one of the largest hop growing regions in the world - a fact that would almost bankrupt the entirety of Sauk County in the 1870s when the hop crop began growing again in Europe and prices plummeted.

By the 1900s towns that were so small they don't even exist anymore, like British Hollow, had breweries putting out thousands of gallons of beer. These were not mom-and-pop operations - these were large facilities supporting thousands of people all across Wisconsin. A brewery itself would employ not just a brewer and assistant brewer, but would need folks to lug bags of grain and hops, would need folks to lug kegs around, would need at least a few bar maids to serve beer, would need a truck or two to deliver beer around town. A brewery supporting just the town of Mineral Point would easily employ 50-100 people, not to mention the maltings that produced its barley and taverns and inns that would serve its beer. A brewery like Potosi that served not just South-Western Wisconsin, but Dubuque, Iowa and parts of Illinois would likely be the cause of employment of well over 100 people, in a town that today even has less than 800.

By the end of prohibition there would be just 79 breweries in the state of Wisconsin - Potosi among them. By the 1980s there would be just 8.

It is this rise and domination and struggle that Potosi's Brewing Museum seeks to capture. Because this ebb and flow is identical all across the United States. The history that these breweries produced needs to be saved and documented so that we can remember the central place that these establishments have played, and will continue to play, in our lives and our neighborhoods and our families. The museum looks at not just the beer itself, but at the people, and the communities as well and it takes you on a fascinating trip through history where, somewhat surprisingly, Potosi Brewery has been all along.

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