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Beer-making in Portsmouth, Ohio

The following article was researched and written by Carl H. Miller for the Portsmouth (Ohio) Daily Times' July 23, 1995 edition.

Breweries Once Flourished in Portsmouth.

According to legend, a 12th century Flemish nobleman, King Gambrinus, brewed the world's first barrel of beer. In reality, some form of beer is known to have existed centuries earlier. Nevertheless, King Gambrinus -- invariably portrayed with foaming goblet held high in mid- toast -- has long been established as a symbol of the universal and eternal regard for beer.

Indeed, the King's rule has been felt just about everywhere, including Portsmouth, which has been home to more than one brewery throughout its nearly 200-year history.

The first known commercial brewery in the city was established in 1843 in a small frame building on the west end of Second street near Madison. Known simply as the "Portsmouth Brewery," the venture was under the management of partners Schiele and Muhlhauser. However, by 1845, Schiele had passed away, leaving Thomas H. Muhlhauser alone in the business.

It is likely that the brewery initially made only English-style brews such as ale, porter, stout and the like. But, being that Muhlhauser was a native German, he most probably added the German-originated lager beer -- most common today -- to his production when that beverage began its rapid rise in popularity during the 1850s.

After Muhlhauser's death in 1858, his widow operated the brewery in partnership with Felix Geiger, who came to Portsmouth from Jackson, Ohio for that purpose. But, by 1864, local resident Frank Kleffner, who had since married the widow Muhlhauser, was advertising himself as the brewery's proprietor.

The Portsmouth Brewery had gained some local competition by this time. Undoubtedly a result of the increasing number of Germans in the city, a handful of breweries were established in Portsmouth during the years just prior to the Civil War. Frederick Lauffer opened a brewery and malt house on Front street between Jefferson and Madison, just around the corner from the Portsmouth Brewery. The "City Brewery" was established by John Layher next to his saloon on Sixth street west of Chillicothe. And William Schirrmann set up a brewery on Chillicothe between Seventh and Eighth streets.

Hard Times

The Civil War years were a difficult period for Portsmouth's breweries. The departure of about 4,000 of Scioto County's young men -- now soldiers in the Union Army -- would have an obvious impact on the consumption of beer locally. In addition, a federal tax of $1 per barrel of beer sold was imposed to help finance the war effort. Portsmouth brewers eagerly awaited better times.

The conclusion of the war, however, brought little relief. The federal tax was not lifted as anticipated. And the city's population growth, which had enjoyed a steady rise for several decades, slowed substantially during the 1870s, leaving the local beer market sluggish. By the middle of that decade, only the original Portsmouth Brewery remained in operation.

Although having survived the difficult economic conditions, the Portsmouth Brewery spent the next several years passing through a series of changes in ownership.

In 1878, Frank Kleffner sold a half interest in the brewery to August Maier, a European-trained brewer who had worked in Philadelphia and Cincinnati before coming to Portsmouth. Conrad Gerlich, a local businessman, joined the partnership in 1881. One year later, Kleffner and Gerlich both sold their interests in the business to Henry Roettcher, a recent arrival from Cincinnati. By 1884, Maier had sold his share to Roettcher as well, and the latter was now the brewery's sole proprietor. Be that as it may, Conrad Gerlich was back in control of the brewery by 1888.

The following year, the brewery changed hands yet again. But the new owner, Julius Esselborn, was determined to make a success of the business. The German immigrant paid $12,500 for the brewery and reported that he would immediately invest another $10,000 in new equipment and "improvements of all kinds."

Julius Esselborn had spent several years living in New York and, later, in Cincinnati where he was a milliner and dealer in "fancy goods." Exactly what prompted Esselborn and his family to travel to Portsmouth and engage in the brewing business is not known.

Nevertheless, the Portsmouth Brewery flourished under Esselborn's management. Various enlargements and improvements were made to the works throughout the 1890s, including the construction of an entirely new brewhouse. By 1904, the plant boasted an annual brewing capacity of 20,000 barrels of beer (32 gallons per barrel).

The brewery was merged with a local ice company in 1892 and incorporated as "The Portsmouth Brewing and Ice Company." Due to the requirement of cold temperatures throughout much of the brewing process, many brewers chose to invest in their own ice-making facilities rather than pay the high cost of obtaining ice from outside sources.

By the turn of the century, the ice plant was capable of producing about 75 tons per day, only a small percentage of which was consumed by the brewery. The remainder was sold to local households and businesses. In an 1897 "industrial review" published by the Portsmouth Ladies Auxiliary, it was noted that the company's ice "has always found ready sale because of its purity." Interestingly, no mention was made of the fact that beer was also produced by the company, lest the Ladies Auxiliary be accused of contributing to the social evils of the day.

But, of course, beer was the company's cornerstone, and a variety of different brands were marketed over the years. Among them were O.K. Bohemian, Portsmouth Bock, Culmbacher, Excelsior Export, and The Elk Beer. The latter brand, perhaps the most popular, was presumably named in honor of the Portsmouth Elk's Lodge, an organization to which Julius Esselborn was avidly devoted.

The Portsmouth brewery's primary trade was within Portsmouth itself. However, a significant amount of "export" beer was shipped to outlaying areas within a radius of about 50 miles. Quantities of beer were undoubtedly sent up river to Huntington, West Virginia, possibly the brewery's largest market outside of Portsmouth.

Although Cincinnati was one of the largest beer-consuming centers in the Midwest, it was probably not a routine destination for Portsmouth beer. The dozens of large breweries which thrived in the Queen City before the turn of the century made it difficult for outsiders to gain a strong foothold there. In fact, several large Cincinnati breweries maintained distribution facilities in Portsmouth.

Waged largely in the saloon trade, competition from outside companies was difficult for small regional brewers such as the Portsmouth brewery. Aggressive and highly-capitalized brewing companies offered Portsmouth saloonkeepers various incentives to sell only the sponsoring brewery's brands. Favorable terms on fancy saloon fixtures, interest-free loans, and payment of expensive license fees were among the more common enticements. Forced into parallel tactics, the Portsmouth brewery supplied bar fixtures to several of the city's saloonkeepers.

The Next Generation

On May 6, 1900, Julius Esselborn passed away at age 64. Although his widow Pauline Esselborn was officially made president of the company, it was son Paul Esselborn who seems to have actually taken over management of the brewery.

The young Esselborn was no stranger to the brewing business, he having spent many years working in the brewery with his father. He also served as vice president of a local bank and trustee of the Portsmouth water works. His involvement in both of these entities can clearly be tied to the interests of the brewery.

The young Esselborn lead the brewery into what was perhaps the most turbulent period in the history of the brewing industry. After the turn of the century, the Anti-Saloon League and other prohibitionist groups began making great strides for their cause all across the country. Ohio, in particular, was a hotbed of prohibitionist activity.

In 1908, the Anti-Saloon League succeeded in affecting the enactment of the Rose Law, which allowed every county within the state of Ohio to vote its saloons out of existance. The vote in Scioto County came down squarely on the side of the "drys," and all 55 saloons within the county were ordered shut down.

Attacks on the saloon were not new to Portsmouth. The temperence movement had been an ever-present annoyance to saloonkeepers and brewers alike for decades. During the 1870s, bands of bible-toting temperence advocates routinely made unannounced appearances at local drinking establishments to demand an immediate cease of business. In 1874, a group of Portsmouth crusaders reportedly convinced 17 of the city's saloonkeepers to stop selling alcohol -- a heralded victory for the local drys.

But the days of the old fashioned saloon raid were long gone, and Ohio's Rose Law was a clear indication that legislation had become the tool of the modern prohibitionists.

With the saloon now abolished throughout much of Ohio, it was concluded that the Portsmouth Brewery had no alternative but to close its doors. In what was called an "affecting scene" by a reporter for the Daily Times, Paul Esselborn gathered his 40 employees inside the brewery to deliver the bad news. Many were reduced to tears. The brewmaster of 26 years, Anton Schriek, reportedly "cried like a baby."

Somewhat ironically, just days after announcing the closing of his brewery, Paul Esselborn was elected president of the Ohio Brewers' Association, a position which he held for a number of years.

By 1911, it had become apparent that abolishing the saloon was not an effective solution to the liquor problem, and the residents of Scioto County voted to re-legalize saloons. The Portsmouth brewery was promptly put back into operation by the Esselborns, and business resumed as before.

Not long after its re-establishment, the brewery was stricken with another temporary set back: the Great Flood of 1913. Although the brewery was submerged in nine feet of water, Paul Esselborn reported only minimal damage and the loss of a handful of kegs which floated away. However, heavy damage was sustained by all of the city's saloons, many of which were equipped with brewery-owned fixtures. The loss was said to have represented a significant investment by the brewery. Once the flood waters receded, Paul Esselborn wrote, "We're glad we are back on earth."

Prohibition Looms

Although saloons were again legal in Portsmouth, the relentless pursuit of the prohibitionists soon spelled more trouble for Ohio's breweries. In a 1918 referendum for statewide prohibition, Ohio was officially voted completely dry. The following year, the National Prohibition Amendment was ratified by the required 36th state (which happened to be Ohio) and the entire nation entered what has been called "The Noble Experiment."

Brewers nationwide were forced into new fields of business. Most attempted to make use of their brewing equipment by producing dairy products or soft drinks. The production of near beer (de-alcoholized beer) was a popular alternative. The Portsmouth Brewing and Ice Company briefly tried its hand at a near beer called "Flip," which contained less than one-half of one percent of alcohol -- the legal limit.

However, the market quickly became saturated with similar products, the result of countless breweries struggling for survival. And, anyway, it was soon apparent that demand for a non-alcoholic beer simply did not exist in any great abundance.

After the brewery closed in 1920, the bottling works was taken over by the Portsmouth Whistle Bottling Company, and the ice-making plant housed the new Portsmouth Ice and Fuel Company. Not wishing to continue in beverage-related fields, the Esselborns left Portsmouth for Cincinnati, where Paul Esselborn became involved in the machining business with relatives.

The repeal of National Prohibition in 1933 meant the return of beer, and it seemed likely that the Portsmouth brewery would be refurbished and put back into operation. Indeed, a group of local investors organized "The Germania Brewing Company" in 1938, intending to reopen the old brewery. However, the venture did not fully materialize and Portsmouth's brewery never again produced beer.

Paul Esselborn, incidentally, made his return to brewing in 1933 when he established the Clyffside Brewing Company in Cincinnati, where he successfully brewed "Felsenbrau Beer" for a number of years.

The old Portsmouth brewhouse, which still stands on the west end of Second street, has been used for a variety of purposes over the years. Looking somewhat the worse for wear, the old structure serves as a quiet reminder of an era long forgotten.

Chronology of the Portsmouth Brewery, from the book American Breweries II:

Schiele & Muhlhauser (2nd St) 1843-1845
Thomas H. Muhlhauser, Portsmouth Brewery 1845-1858
(widow) Muhlhauser & (Felix) Geiger 1858-1865
Frank Kleffner, Portsmouth Brewery (2nd bet Madison & Massie)1868-1878
(Frank) Kleffner & (August) Maier, Portsmouth Brewery1878-1880
Kleffner, Maier & Co., Portsmouth Brewery1880-1882
Roettcher & Maier1882-1884
H. Roettcher, Portsmouth Brewery1884-1886
Conrad Gerlach1886-1889
Julius G. Esselborn 1889-1891
Portsmouth Brewing Co.1891-1892
Portsmouth Brewing & Ice Co. (now 224 2nd bet Massie & Madison 1892-1919

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