Excerpt from the book, Breweries of Cleveland, by Carl H. Miller. Reprinted by permission of the author.
The phrase "P.O.C." was a cornerstone in Cleveland's brewing industry for more than a half-century. Even today, many years after its disappearance from bar tops and beer stores, P.O.C. Beer still lingers in the memories of Clevelanders. Dubbed "Pride Of Cleveland" (not by the brewery, but by its patrons), the venerable brand was the city's top selling beer at various points in its history. Its maker, the Pilsener Brewing Company, occupied an enormous complex at the corner of West 65th Street and Clark Avenue, fondly known as "Pilsener Square." Although most of the brewery still survives, it stands quietly in decay and gives little sense of the high regard in which Clevelanders once held the beer brewed within its walls.
The history of the Pilsener Brewing Company began in 1892 when Bohemian immigrant Wenzl Medlin established a brewery on Gordon (West 65th) Street near Clark. Medlin had come to America in 1866 and, for the next twenty years, was employed in various breweries and malteries in Chicago, Milwaukee, Buffalo, and Jersey City. In 1886, he came to Cleveland and purchased the brewery at the corner of Pearl (West 25th) Street and Vega Avenue, which had been operated for a number of years by William Aenis & Company. Here, Medlin established the "Wenzl Medlin Bohemian Brewery." Three years later, Medlin sold the brewery to his manager, Simon Fishel, but continued to work as brewmaster there until leaving to establish the Pilsener brewery.
Medlin's new enterprise began production in 1892. Known as the Medlin Pilsener Brewing Company, the brewery's primary brand was called Extra Pilsener Beer. Medlin, after all, was one of the very few brewers in the city who had learned his art in the world-famous brewing city of Pilsen, Bohemia. In addition to brewing the beer, Medlin was also the brewery's manager and treasurer. Vaclav Humel, a local merchant, was president.
The brewery, however, did not meet with immediate success. Unable to pay its creditors, the company passed into bankruptcy early in 1894. Under Vaclav Humel's direction, the firm's affairs were put back in order and all debts were settled by the end of that same year. The company resumed business as The Pilsener Brewing Company; Medlin's name was dropped from the firm, thus indicating his diminished position in the brewery after the bankruptcy. Medlin, in fact, had planned to divorce himself entirely from the Pilsener brewery and establish a new brewing venture in Ashtabula, Ohio. However, in the end, he remained in Cleveland and continued in his role as brewmaster. Just as with his earlier Bohemian Brewery, Medlin ultimately relinquished managerial duties to others while he concerned himself exclusively with matters of brewing.
Once back in business, the Pilsener brewery's troubles seemed to disappear. Beer sales grew rapidly throughout the remainder of the decade: 6,000 barrels in 1894; 16,000 barrels in 1895; 18,000 barrels in 1896; 22,500 barrels in 1897; and 26,000 barrels in 1898. The steady growth spurred expansion of the brewery. An entirely new five-story brewhouse was completed in 1901. It was followed by a new boiler house, new stables, and new pitch house. A bottling plant was added in 1906, and the Extra Pilsener Beer made its first appearance in bottles sporting a stylish yellow label cut in the shape of a shield. The premium variety, Extra Pilsener Gold Top, featured decorative gold foil on the bottleneck, as well as a higher price: "The recollection of quality remains long after the price is forgotten." The brewery also bottled a brand known as Zunt Heit.
In 1907, the Pilsener Brewing Company began using the monogram "P.O.C." as a slogan for its Extra Pilsener Beer, thus initiating what would become the company's keynote for most of its history. By mid-1914, P.O.C. had graduated from slogan to full-fledged brand name, taking its place at the head of the Pilsener line of beers.vii The running theme of P.O.C. Beer was the mystery of what the letters meant. Baited with few clues, the consumer was left to his own imagination for the answer. A "P.O.C. Guessing Contest" was even promoted by the company at one point, the premise of which was to guess the meaning of the P.O.C. letters. Such gimmicks were designed only to bolster the public's curiosity and ended in no clear revelation of P.O.C.'s true meaning. Throughout the brand's long duration, the originally intended meaning of the P.O.C. initials was deliberately obscure.
At least one interpretation of P.O.C. - "Pride Of Cleveland" - gained enough favor over the years to become almost common knowledge. Indeed, writers for the Western Brewer trade journal had submitted this phrase as their official guess already in 1915. Although some P.O.C. advertising of the 1930s carried "Pride Of Cleveland" as a slogan, it was presumably used only in response to the popularity of the phrase. After all, the brewery plugged many expressions into the P.O.C. initials over the years, such as "Pleasure Of Course" or "Pilsener On Call." Ironically, as late as the 1950s, the Pilsener Brewing Company itself could only speculate as to the original meaning behind the P.O.C. letters. A television commercial which aired during that decade stated, "History records are not complete on this subject, but it is thought that they originally represented 'Pilsener Of Cleveland.'"viii Certainly the creators of P.O.C. had little idea that the mystery would live to baffle even the company itself!
Whatever the exact meaning of each of the letters, the evidence does suggest that P.O.C. was intended to highlight the fact that Pilsener's brands were made and marketed exclusively in Cleveland. The brewery's advertising throughout the 1910s invariably included messages such as "No need for Clevelanders to use a product of any other city when such excellent products of our own city are available." Countering the actions of the invading national brewers, too, was a regular practice of the Pilsener brewery. For example, when the long-running "Schlitz in Brown Bottles" ad campaign made its appearance in Cleveland, Pilsener answered by offering P.O.C. in clear bottles each wrapped in dark paper. The brown bottle, as Schlitz ads explained, kept its beer from spoiling if exposed to light. Pilsener argued that the consumer ought to be able to see the beer's clarity and absence of foreign matter before drinking it. As expressed by one P.O.C. ad, "Clear bottles protect you. Dark wrappers protect the beer." The individually wrapped bottles, however, undoubtedly became too cumbersome (both for the consumer and for the brewery) and the idea was discontinued.
The Pilsener Brewing Company was controlled largely by Bohemians for over thirty years. Throughout the 1890s, the company's management was comprised of various local Bohemian businessmen, presumably stockholders in the brewery. Many remained for only a short while, and turnover among the directors was frequent. But from 1904 until the onset of prohibition, the Pilsener Brewing Company was under the unchanged direction of president Vaclav Snajdr, vice-president Carl Anders, treasurer James C. Wolf, and secretary Frank Kratochvil. Vaclav Snajdr, probably the most notable Bohemian to be connected with the Pilsener brewery, was the founder and long-time editor of Dennice Novoveku, a local Bohemian-language newspaper. He was also credited with leading the promotion and fund raising to build the grand Bohemian National Hall on Broadway Avenue, still in use today. Carl Anders, the vice-president, was a successful Cleveland building contractor. The Pilsener brewhouse was among the many local structures built by his firm. James C. Wolf and Frank Kratochvil had each been associated with the brewery as early as 1898. Both remained directors of the company until well after the repeal of prohibition in 1933.
Not surprisingly, Pilsener beer was brewed at the hands of primarily Bohemian brewmasters. Founder Wenzl Medlin, of course, was the first. Among his successors prior to Prohibition were Joseph Liska, Jaro Pavlik, Vinzenz Spietschka, Zdenek Sobotka, and Frank Knopp. The last named, who started as Pilsener brewmaster in 1916, remained at the brewery throughout Prohibition making near beer - or "spoiled beer" as Knopp called it.
Incidentally, Wenzl Medlin held stock in the Pilsener Brewing Company until 1899 when he sold his interest and began a small weiss beer brewery at his home address on Pearl (West 25th) Street. Both his output and his success, however, were limited. By 1904 the brewery was no longer active. In 1912, Medlin died at age sixty-three. By the time of his death, the Pilsener Brewing Company had grown considerably, though Medlin never shared in that success. His portrait, nevertheless, hung at the brewery for several years - "a tribute to its founder."
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i100 Years of Brewing, p. 484; iiCleveland Directory for the Year Ending July, 1895, p. 646. iiiWestern Brewer, Aug. 15, 1894, p. 1616; Western Brewer, Dec. 15, 1894, p. 2424. ivWestern Brewer, Dec. 15, 1894, p. 2214. v"Cleveland's Six Lager Beer Brewing Enterprises," Press, Aug. 23, 1898. viPost card, Carl Miller Collection. viiAdv., Plain Dealer, July 16, 1914. viiiAudio recording, Carl Miller Collection. ixCleveland Directory for the Year Ending July, 1919, p. 1410. xAdv., Plain Dealer, Aug. 1, 1914. xiVan Tassel and Grabowski, pp. 110, 338. xiiMiller, William, "Beer! Brewers Here to Spend $1,500,000," Press, July 14, 1932. xiiiWächter und Anzeiger, June 28, 1912; Miller, William, "Beer -- But Our City's Old Brewers Are Gone," Press, April 15, 1933.