MANY PEOPLE ASSOCIATE the late nineteenth-century Toledo economy with glass, oil, wagons, or malleable iron, but in the late 1800s and into the early twentieth century, Toledo’s leading industry in economic contribution and employment was brewing.
In 1900, the city had fourteen breweries producing millions of barrels of lagers, ales, pilsners, porters, and stouts for saloons on nearly every corner. Saloons were pervasive in the city. In 1880, there were 294 saloons in Toledo. By 1918, there were 361. Clearly, beer was a major part of Toledo’s economy at the turn of the twentieth century.
The massive building began as Peter Lenk’s City Brewery at Hamilton and Division Streets in 1865. The original brewery was comprised of two five-story brick buildings—one for a brewhouse and the other for storage and malt production. The initial capacity was 10,000 barrels. The choice of this location was strategic both for transportation and logistical purposes. Lenk built the brewery along Swan Creek, which at the time was a navigable waterway that flowed into the Maumee, and also on a railroad spur, which made the transportation of raw materials and finished goods very easy and profitable. As an extra bonus, the steep bank of Swan Creek allowed him to easily construct deep underground cellars that were ideal for lagering his beer.
To give you a sense for how large Lenk's basements were, an early 1880’s description said:
“The brewery proper is an imposing edifice, 170 x 114 feet in dimensions, and including the capacious basement, from four to seven stories in height. The ice houses have storage capacity for large quantities of ice, and the vaults for the storage of beer are among the finest and most spacious of any in the state and so arranged that an even temperature is at all times ensured.”
Lenk’s Toledo Pilsner Beer was the mainstay of the brewery. His beer was distributed throughout Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and even as far east as New York.
The brewery continued to grow and rebrand along the way, first as the Toledo Brewing Company in 1869 and then as Toledo Brewing and Malting Company in 1881. By the 1870s, the plant had an annual capacity of 25,000 barrels making it the city’s third largest.
Stories say that each Saturday down Hamilton Street, there was a steady parade of people going to the brewery for malt to feed their chickens, ducks and geese. The parade included men and women, and even children toting along their little wagons, ready to gather used grains – using spent malt to feed livestock is a practice that continues today with many microbreweries.
John Huebner joined the company as brewmaster in 1877 and was active in the organization until his death in 1910. When Peter Lenk died in 1893, Huebner and James Pilliod, a Toledo attorney, became the sole owners of the brewery.
With Huebner as President, the company saw tremendous success, increasing output to more than 70,000 barrels by 1895 – which made it the city’s largest brewery. Huebner’s success fueled his ambition, and it was under his initiative that The Toledo Brewing & Malting Co purchased The Schmitt Brewing Co (formerly the Eagle Brewing Company) and The Maumee Brewing Co. Shortly thereafter, in 1902, the business was incorporated as the Huebner Brewing Company.
Building on their continual success, they expanded the plant, adding a modern five-story brewhouse and enlarged cellars – these additions allowed the brewery to double in capacity, reaching 150,000 barrels per year.
At the turn of the century, there was a trend throughout the brewing industry to form combines, unifying breweries that formerly competed. These combines were meant as cost saving measures, but they also served as an attempt to regulate local saloon trade and to better compete with other local regional and national breweries.
Not satisfied with the recent acquisitions, the Huebner Brewing Company made a move to secure a greater degree of domination in the Toledo brewing arena. In 1903, Huebner closed the Schmitt plant and sold the Maumee plant. They used these funds in an attempt to create an even larger combine which was meant to include Grasser & Brand, Finlay, Buckeye and the Home Brewing Company. Finlay and Grasser & Brand both joined the combine, which was originally to be called the Toledo United Breweries Co, but eventually became known as the Huebner-Toledo Breweries Company. Buckeye and Home Brewing both turned down Huebner’s offers, which left the new company with less dominance than it had hoped. Still, the new Huebner-Toledo Breweries Company had an annual capacity of 500,000 barrels, making it the largest in the region.
Unfortunately, and through no fault of its own, the new company soon encountered a nearly unbeatable foe – the temperance movement. Already in the late nineteenth century, there was growing support for prohibition in Ohio. In 1905, the same year that the new combine came into existence, the Ohio Anti-Saloon League was successful in getting the Ohio Legislature to enact the Brannock Bill. This bill provided for the “local option” which gave local communities some authority to control the sale of alcohol within their jurisdictions.
The Brannock Bill was vetoed by Governor Myron Herrick, which was one of the primary reasons he lost the gubernatorial election that same year. In 1908, the Rose Law was passed. Under the Rose Law, counties in Ohio could vote themselves dry. A strong indicator of the growing strength of the movement can be found in the details of the law. If a county had dry towns but voted wet, the dry towns could remain dry. On the other hand, if a county had wet towns and voted dry, the wet towns became dry as well. At the time, Ohio had nearly half of its 4 million residents living on farms and in villages of less than 3,000 people. While the cities, predictably remained wet, much of the state went dry. By March 1908, nearly 90% of the townships in Ohio had voted themselves dry.
How did this affect Huebner? By 1909, the plant produced only 175,000 barrels, a 25% drop from the previous year. The company cut costs, partially by closing the Grasser & Brand plant, and brewing continued, but the fight was far from over.
Ohio seemed determined to outlaw alcohol. The Ohio Alcohol Prohibition Amendment failed to pass in 1904, but Ohio went dry on May 27, 1919. This was a full six-months before nationwide prohibition. Congress passed the Volstead Act on October 28, 1919.
The brewery’s response to Prohibition was a fateful mistake. Although they rightfully saw that Prohibition would be a lengthy ordeal, the brewery put all of its efforts into producing non-alcoholic beverages. Considerable sums were spent on creating and advertising their new products – the face of which was Ledo – a name-play on Toledo. Ledo was a non-alcoholic cereal beverage that was supposed to look and taste like beer. By 1921, it was clear that brewing non-alcoholic beer was not a sustainable business. The Finlay plant was closed that year, with the Huebner plant closing its doors for good one year later.
Joseph Grasser and Henry Brand began their partnership operating the Eagle Brewery in 1862. After Frederick Lang, owner of Eagle, returned from the Civil War, Grasser and Brand left and formed a new brewery in 1866.
Their new venture was originally called the Union Brewery. It consisted of a large plant with a two-story brewhouse facing St Clair Street, and a four-story building behind it for malt production and storage. They also built underground cellars capable of holding 8,000 barrels in storage.
The company met with great success, brewing 5,000 barrels of lager in the first year of production. Borrowing from the business plan of the Finlay Brewing Company, Grasser and Brand focused sales here in Toledo and in other markets – including Michigan, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
Grasser and Brand continued to grow, producing 20,000 barrels of pilsner and lager by the mid-1870’s and over 40,000 by the 1890’s. Continual success and growth allowed the company to add a bottling plant in 1880 and a new and modern five-story brewhouse in 1902.
Their success also made Grasser & Brand a prime candidate for purchase. In 1905, the company was included in the formation of the United Breweries Company, which became the Huebner-Toledo Breweries Company. Ultimately, this merger proved to be the end of the brewery. The passage of the Rose Law in 1908, which made it possible for counties to vote themselves dry, hurt profits at the new combine. Costs needed to be cut and the death of Joseph Grasser in that same year made the choice of closing Grasser and Brand all the easier.
Today, the Toledo area enjoys a vibrant micro-brewing industry made up of dozens of local breweries. Craft beer continues its rise in popularity .