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Burkhardt Brewing Company, Akron, Ohio

From the new book, "Brewing Beer In The Buckeye State, Volume I" by Dr. Robert A. Musson.

The exact origin of the Burkhardt brewery remains as elusive now as it was when Brewing Beer In The Rubber City was written. While One Hundred Years of Brewing, from 1903, states that this brewery was started by Jacob Fornecker as early as 1863, there is no real evidence in the local records to support that claim (although Fornecker was known to make barrels for the brewery some years later). The first solid evidence of brewing at the site began in March 1865, when the land was purchased by Frederick Gaessler, a German immigrant, who then established the Wolf Ledge Brewery for the brewing of ale and lager beer. The plant's original address was 152-156 Sherman Street, in a ravine along Wolf Creek in the Wolf Ledges section of Akron. The creek provided some of the area's purest water for brewing. As the plant grew, it eventually extended to Grant Street, one block over, and in later years, the plant's working address became 509-543 Grant Street.

Gaessler built the brewery into a successful venture, due in part to its location in the heart of the city's German section. By the mid-1870s, annual production was well over 2,000 barrels. German immigrant Otto Giessen was Gaessler's brewing assistant until he left for Canton in 1874, where he operated a small rural brewery south of town, and later founded what would become the Canton Brewing Co. Giessen's replacement in Akron was another German immigrant by the name of Wilhelm Burkhardt.

Burkhardt was also a German immigrant, born in 1849, who had studied brewing prior to his emigration to the U. S. at the age of 19. After working as a brewmaster in Cleveland for a short time, he came to Akron to become part owner of the Wolf Ledge Brewery. By 1877, the plant was known as Burkhardt & Co., although annual production had leveled off at just under 2,000 barrels during this period.

In June 1879, the wooden brewhouse was completely destroyed by fire that had begun in a defective flue, with the loss valued at $4,000. After this, Gaessler left the partnership to operate a nearby saloon, selling his share of the remains to Burkhardt. By early the next year, a completely new and enlarged brick brewery had been built and was ready for operation, with an annual capacity of nearly 4,000 barrels.

Just two years later, however, Burkhardt died of blood poisoning at the age of 32. His wife, Margaretha, was faced with a critical decision: to sell the brewery and her source of income, or operate it herself while raising two young sons, William and Gustav. She chose the latter, and despite considerable adversity, she proved to be remarkably successful at running the company. After 1886, it was to be known as "Burkhardt's Brewery, Mrs. Margaretha Burkhardt, proprietor". Her pride, strong character, and a bit of stubbornness would guide the company through the next forty years. When a tornado went through the area in 1890, causing $3,000 in damage to the brewery, she refused any charity herself and instead insisted on donating to the fund to pay for damaged homes.

Over the next few years, both of her sons began working in the brewery as well. Gus attended the American Brewing Academy in Chicago, and by 1899, he was both brewmaster and plant manager at the age of 25. William, who was three years younger, worked as the company's bill collector and office manager. After the turn of the century, a gradual expansion of the plant was undertaken, and to help finance this, the brewery incorporated as the M. Burkhardt Brewing Company in November 1902, with a capital stock of $50,000. Margaretha was president, with Gus as vice-president, and William as secretary, treasurer, and general manager. A new brewmaster was hired at this time (another recent German immigrant), by the name of Martin Fritch. Burkhardt's Select Export Lager Beer was the company's primary brand by this time, with small amounts of ale and bock beer produced as well.

A new six-story brick brewhouse was built in 1904, and a large icehouse was built around the same time. Over the next five years, virtually the entire plant was rebuilt and was operating with modern equipment, turning out 40,000 barrels each year. During that time, a greater emphasis was placed on the bottling of beer for the rapidly growing market of direct home sales, partly as a way to distance the brewery from the undesirable image of the smoky saloons, especially as the temperance movement continued to gain strength in Ohio. The plant's bottling works was continually improved and enlarged, such that in 1908, over two million bottles of beer were sold.

Branching out from the brewing business, the family formed the Burkhardt Realty Company in 1907. This was a land development company which also oversaw the operation of the nearly 100 saloons in the city owned by the brewery. Two years later saw the incorporation of the City Ice & Coal Company, which was run by the Burkhardts but which operated out of a plant at 331 South Broadway. That same year, Margaretha retired from the presidency, although she remained a director until her death in 1925. Gus became the new presi-dent, with brother William as vice-president.

Expansion continued during this period, with the construction of a large three-story icehouse and stable building in 1912. Four years later, a large new bottling house was built on the north side of the plant, at a cost of $146,000. This was in response to the continuing growth of the home sale market, despite the growing threat of statewide Prohibition. Burkhardt's Standard Lager was now available in addition to Select Export, and a small amount of Burkhardt's Near Beer was brewed for counties that were already dry. The com-pany's capital stock had increased to $100,000 by this time.

After statewide Prohibition was approved by voters in the election of November 1918, all alcohol production ceased. In May of the following year, the sale of remaining beer came to a halt as well, and marketing was shifted to Burkhardt's Select Beverage, along with Burkhardt's Ginger Ale, Root Beer, Parfay, and Orange Dee-Light. Several years later, the company was awarded the contracts to produce Whistle Orange Drink, Hires Root Beer, and Old Tavern Brew Near Beer. During this time, the company was known as the Burkhardt Products Co.

In 1923 came the formation of the Burkhardt Consolidated Company, which, as the name suggests, was a consolidation of the realty company, beverage production in the brewery, and the management of the City Ice & Coal Co. Its diversity was reflected in a capital stock of $1,500,000. Both Margaretha and William Burkhardt died in 1925, leaving Gus as president, with Jacob Gayer as vice-president. Production of Burkhardt Select Beverage (sales of which never having been particularly profitable, especially competing with the more popular Grossvater and Zepp beverages sold by the Renner Brewery in Akron) gradually dwindled over the next few years, and by 1930 it had come to a complete halt. The brewery itself was vacated and the offices briefly moved elsewhere. The plant was then occupied by the Akron Malt Products Co., a manufacturer of malt syrup, until the end of Prohibition.

With the repeal of Prohibition in April 1933, the company decided to return to beer production, and therefore the Burkhardt Brewing Company was incorporated with a capital stock of $500,000, still a division of the Burkhardt Consolidated Co. The brewery had not been in use for several years, however, and most of the remaining equipment was outdated by now anyway, so the company was therefore unable to take advantage of the huge demand for 3.2% beer that April.

The plant was completely renovated over the next few months with the most modern equipment available. New glass lined storage tanks were installed in the cellars, automatically keeping the beer at the correct temperature; automatic conveyors helped to speed the movement of kegs, bottles, and other items throughout the plant; new packaging equipment allowed the entire process of sterilizing, pasteurizing, filling, and labeling the bottles to be done in one process. These operations were under the supervision of Brewmaster George Dippel, a recent graduate of the Wahl-Henius Institute in Chicago.

When the plant was ready for production of full strength (5.0% alcohol) beer and ale in November 1933, it had an annual capacity of 150,000 barrels, employed more than 100 men, and was the country's first completely air conditioned brewery. When the beer first went on sale in January 1934, several new brands were available: Burkhardt's Select Beer was joined by Burkhardt's Special, XX Dark Special, Old German, and Old Scout Beers, as well as Burkhardt's Ale, which soon took on a more enduring name, Mug Ale.

The Burkhardt name retained a tremendous loyalty from Akronites, especially the thousands of workers in the city's numerous rubber factories, many of whom had enjoyed Burkhardt Beer before Prohibition. The company's success continued throughout the period leading up to World War II. Despite grain rationing during the war, Burkhardt continued to lead the city in production and sales of beer.

Gus Burkhardt died in 1944, and was replaced as president by his 30-year-old nephew William L. Burkhardt, who was on duty at the time in the Pacific War Theater as an ensign in the U. S. Naval Reserve. William had also received a Master Brewer degree after graduating from Notre Dame University, and had already served as the company's vice-president for several years.

By this time, the company was distributing its beer throughout northern Ohio as well as in Michigan, West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, and western New York, covering an area with a radius of 175 miles. Most of this was shipped by tractor trailer rig, with each load consisting of nearly 700 cases. The company also established several distributorships through these territories, assuring strong sales in each area.

Burkhardt beers had only been available in kegs and bottles until 1948, when cap-sealed cans produced by the Continental Can Co. were used for the first time, for the packaging of Burkhardt Special Beer (Mug Ale would also be canned beginning in 1952). While these cap-sealed cans were less expensive to fill, using existing bottling lines, they were not as easy to display as flat topped cans, which were becoming increasingly popular. While the latter necessitated a separate canning line and equipment, the investment was felt to be worthwhile if it meant that the brewery's brands competed more successfully for limited display space in grocery or beverage stores.

In 1953, Burkhardt made the investment and switched to flat-topped cans. Two additional brands, Tudor Beer and Ale and Banner Beer and Ale, appeared in cans around this time. Produced briefly in Akron as the house brands for large grocery store chains, these were distributed through much of the Midwest and East Coast. Similar contracts with grocery store chains led to the production of the Best and Embassy brands of beer, although these were sold only in bottles. All four of these brands were simultaneously brewed by several other regional breweries to allow distribution throughout all stores in the company, over a large portion of the country, and assuring consistency of the brand name without incurring huge shipping costs.

In 1953, the company's vice-president position was filled by 24 year old Gus Burkhardt, Jr., William's cousin. A recent graduate of Northwestern University, Gus was not a brewer by profession but was well trained in business issues. The company's real estate branch continued to operate, although it had become less involved with owning bars and more involved with development of existing properties. It also branched out into the insurance business, purchasing a local existing insurance agency and renaming it as the Burkhardt Insurance Co. Each of these companies, the brewery, and the City Ice & Coal Co. continued to be managed by Burkhardt Consolidated.

Competition from larger regional and national breweries had gradually increased after the end of Prohibition. It accelerated rapidly after WWII, and had become a serious problem to the small and medium sized brewers by the 1950s. As advertising became increasingly vital to a brewery's survival, Burkhardt hired the agency of Rollman & Peck, of Cincinnati. This led to an increase in point-of-sale advertising (signs, etc.) as well as increased use of radio and television. "Burkhardt's Custom Inn" appeared on Cleveland station WNBK, Channel 4, in 1954. Running nightly at 11:15, the program ran 15 minutes and was set in a fictional tavern in which local entertainers would appear and talk or sing. Burkhardt also sponsored a weekly feature film at the station.

The brewery celebrated its 75th anniversary (of Burkhardt ownership) in 1955, with a special Diamond Anniversary Beer and a completely redesigned bottle and can label. Lasting for six months, the celebration was heavily advertised, and the public was invited to come to the brewery for tours. The "celebration" masked the reality of rapidly shrinking profits for the company.

By early 1956, competition in the brewing industry had become increasingly intense, and the Burkhardt family recognized that despite their best efforts, brewing operations might soon become unprofitable altogether. The search began to find a buyer for the plant, and in June a deal was completed with the Burger Brewing Co. of Cincinnati. All of the Burkhardt stock and equipment was purchased by Burger for just over $2,000,000.

The Burger Brewing Company had incorporated in 1934, and it occupied the mammoth, ornate plant originally known as the Lion Brewery, and later as the Windisch-Muhlauser Brew-ing Co., on Cincinnati's north side. It was already one of Ohio's larger breweries, employing 475 people, and its brands were distributed throughout the Midwest. Burger had a goal of becoming a major regional brewer, and this was the first step in attempting to conquer the state of Ohio. With the addition of the Burkhardt plant, which had continued to modernize through the past twenty years and now boasted an annual capacity of 300,000 barrels, Burger was able to produce 1.5 million barrels annually. This would allow the company to compete with other regional giants such as Carling in Cleveland.

W. J. Huster was Burger's president, with J. F. Koons as vice-president, and Frank Sellinger as manager of the Akron plant and its 185 employees. George Dippel remained with the plant as the brewmaster. With this purchase, the production of Burkhardt's Beer came to an end. Mug Ale, which had established itself as an Akron area favorite, continued to be produced for another decade, along with Burger Beer and Ale, which were brewed by the same formula as in Cincinnati. Around 1960, the brewery briefly experimented with all-aluminum cans as a lighter and easier-opening alternative to steel, although these were never filled due to production problems. However, the steel cans had aluminum tops placed on them after this time, making them easier to open by puncturing. Although the self-opening tab top was invented in 1962, it never was used for any cans produced in the Akron brewery.

In 1960, A. J. Hausch was promoted to manager of the Akron plant. Business continued steadily until January 1964, when Burger decided to close the Akron plant altogether. While the plant itself was running efficiently, the state's tax structure made it much more difficult to make a profit on any beer brewed in Ohio. The state placed a tax of 36 cents on each case of 24 bottles, compared with 24 cents in Pennsylvania, eight cents in New York, and seven cents in both Wisconsin (home to Schlitz, Pabst, Miller, and Blatz) and Missouri (home to Anheuser-Busch, the top selling brewer in the world). Only Michigan had a higher state tax on beer production.

This tax was just another nail in the coffin of Ohio's brewing industry, giving another advantage to out-of-state brewers and leaving only eight operating breweries in the state. Burger's dreams of becoming a regional power died when the company went bankrupt and closed in 1973, selling its holdings to the nearby Hudepohl Brewing Co. Hudepohl in turn sold out to the Schoenling Brewing Co., also in Cincinnati, in 1987. Hudepohl-Schoenling's brands were purchased a decade later by Cleveland's Crooked River Brewing Co.

With the closing of Burger's Akron plant, the rubber city's brewing industry ground to a halt for the first time in 119 years. The brewery complex remains entirely intact as of 2000, although the brewhouse and most attached buildings are badly dilapidated and treacherous to any who enter. The large bottling plant is owned by the Akron Public Schools for offices and storage space. The large stable and garage building was owned for a time by the Best Moving and Storage Co., and later housed a beverage distributor. The main office building is currently occupied by the Buckeye Metal Fabricating Co.

After brewing operations were sold, the Burkhardt family concentrated on realty and insurance, as well as the City Ice & Coal Co., although the latter closed in 1960. Gus Burkhardt was killed in a tragic automobile accident in 1957, at the age of 28. This left cousin William as the only family member in the company until he was joined by sons Thomas and William Jr. in the 1960s. After William Sr. died in 1972, his sons ran the Burkhardt Consoli-dated Co. themselves, concentrating primarily on real estate development (the insurance company was sold some years later). The family had owned a large tract of land west of the city for many years, where they operated a horse farm for delivery wagons. Having put the first water and sewer lines into the area, they would be instrumental in the development of this land into the commercial district known as Montrose. The site of their horse farm is now occupied by a Lowe's home improvement store. In 1991, Tom Burkhardt brought the family name back to the brewing business with the opening of a brewpub south of Akron, which is discussed later in this chapter.

Copyright 2005 by Zepp Publications



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