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George J. Renner Brewing Company, Akron, Ohio

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

The origin of eastern Ohio's longest-lasting brewery had remained a mystery to this author until recently, when new information was uncovered. In Brewing Beer In The Rubber City, I stated that this brewery had been established around 1862, but it now appears that brewing operations began at the site somewhat earlier.

The tract of land on which the brewery sits was purchased in August 1848 for $50 by 45-year old George Harmann (also spelled Herman) and 38-year old John Brodt, two German immigrants. Soon after this, they established a small brewery at the site, where they were assisted by two other men, John Stoltz and Samuel Jeckell. The site was ideal for brewing beer: it was in a ravine where a spring flowed to provide pure water (in later years, several wells were dug which could provide up to 5,000 barrels of pure water daily); storage caves could easily be dug into the surrounding hillsides; and the site was immediately south of both the Pennsylvania & Ohio Canal and the Atlantic & Great Western Railway tracks, the latter being a main line through the area.

The site was also on the south side of what was later known as Forge Street, a road that led from Akron to an area known as the "Old Forge" in the nearby Little Cuyahoga River Valley. At the time, this area was outside of Akron's city limits, in Portage Township. However, the land was annexed into the city in 1869, at which time the brewery took the address of 313-315 N. Forge St. (still later the streets were renumbered and the brewery took its modern address of 247-275 N. Forge St.)

Harmann and Brodt continued to operate the brewery until August 1855, when they sold it to George Kempel, a German native who had come to the U. S. in 1849. After spending three years in the California gold mines, Kempel returned to Akron and established a shoe business before purchasing the brewery. It appears that he operated the latter until April 1866, when he sold it to Christopher Oberholtz. Oberholtz was another German native, born in 1822, who had come to the U. S. in 1842 and subsequently had purchased a large amount of land in the area surrounding the brewery. After owning a cooperage nearby for a number of years, he now entered the business of filling the barrels he had produced.

Oberholtz operated the brewery for only three years before dying of pneumonia in 1869, after which the land and brewery were willed to his wife Susannah and his 26-year-old son Frederick. Business continued to slowly increase until disaster struck. In the early morning hours of 10 June 1873, a fire destroyed much of the plant, less than half of which was insured. Frederick Oberholtz quickly rebuilt the plant with a new three-story brick brewhouse, which was finished early in 1874.

At this point, Oberholtz found himself $30,000 in debt to several parties, and he subsequently lost ownership of the plant. The brewery changed hands twice more while sitting idle, until September 1876, when it was purchased by John A. Kolp. He operated it briefly before defaulting on several loans himself. It was then sold at a sheriff's auction in January 1879 to Fred Horix, for $8,334, or two-thirds of its appraised value. Oberholtz later moved to Kansas City for a time before returning to Akron, where he died of consumption in 1888.

Horix had successfully operated a small brewery on East Exchange St. for several years. When he took ownership of this plant, it consisted only of an icehouse, a small storage building, and the main brewhouse with a potential annual capacity of 20,000 barrels. Horix was immediately able to invest a significant amount of money into the plant, and brewing operations began again by mid-1879.

Just one year later, in August 1880, a second fire struck the plant. Beginning late at night in the boiler room, it quickly spread through the plant. Horix, who lived in a house next door to the plant, saw the fire and ran up the Forge Street hill in his nightclothes to the nearest firebox a half mile away. Despite a rapid response by the fire department, the top two floors of the plant were gutted, with a loss of nearly $12,000. This time, however, the plant was fully insured, and was quickly rebuilt.

Within several years, the plant had increased in size to seven buildings, and annual production had increased to nearly 7,000 barrels; the brewery was finally operating at a profit. In 1888, however, Horix chose to sell the plant for $45,000 to George J. Renner. The deed of transfer mentioned that while Renner would take ownership of the entire plant and house, Horix would retain his personal records, family furniture, and "a spotted horse called Dick". Horix then spent a year in Germany before returning to Akron, where he was involved in several different business ventures before opening a delicatessen on South High St. After the turn of the century, he would return to the brewing business, becoming involved with the newly formed Akron Brewing Company.

George Jacob Renner was a native of Dannstadt, a Bavarian village, where he was born in 1835. Well over six feet tall and nearly 260 pounds, Renner was an imposing figure and would likely have been forced to join the Kaiser's army had he stayed in Germany. Largely to avoid being drafted, he emigrated to the U. S. in 1849, after which he lived in Cincinnati for several years, attending brewing school, then working in several breweries in both Cincinnati and Covington, KY. In 1881, however, he moved north to Wooster, Ohio, where he was part owner of the brewery there, with his son George, Jr., for three years. He then purchased a half interest in what became the Renner & Weber Brewing Co. in Mansfield. Four years later he moved to Akron, where he would spend the remainder of his life.

Renner immediately began to invest money into the plant, installing a mechanical ice machine and establishing a side business of ice production. A second machine followed in 1895, giving the plant a daily capacity of 45 tons of ice. Mean-while, the Renner Brewing Co. was incorporated in 1893 with a capital stock of $60,000. George was president; vice-president and plant foreman was his 23-year-old son William; Elean-ora, his daughter, was secretary and treasurer; and his son-in-law, Ernest C. Deibel, a native of Youngstown, was brewmaster and plant manager. Numerous other additions to the plant followed over the next decade, increasing the annual capacity to 50,000 barrels (although actual production was about half of that) and establishing a bottling works for home sales of beer. Several brands were being produced by 1908: Renner's Blue Label Beer, Yellow Band Lager, Renner's Extra Table Beer, Atlas and Eagle Pilsner Export Beers, and Renner's Bock Beer (each spring). In 1912 came the introduction of what would prove to be the company's anchor brand for the next forty years: Grossvater (the German word for grandfather).

After the turn of the century, the company rein-corporated as the George J. Renner Brewing Co., establishing a distinct iden-tity apart from the Renner breweries in Youngstown (operated by George J. Renner, Jr.) and Mansfield. While there remained a loose association between the three breweries (Grossvater and Eagle Beers were made by all three before Prohibition and Old German Lager was made by all three after Prohibition), they would operate after Prohibition as "friendly competitors", individual companies with individual brands, into the 1950s.

As Akron's population exploded over the next twenty years, due to the growth of the numerous rubber factories, annual sales of Renner beers increased to a peak of 65,000 barrels by 1917. The brewery had remained a family operation throughout this period, although in that year, Deibel opted to devote more time to management of the brewery, and Max Illenberger was hired as the new brewmaster. The good times were about to draw to a close, however.

The country's temperance forces, which had been attempting to ban alcohol for more than 40 years, were finally getting their way, with cooperation from the national government. By the end of World War I, rising taxes had doubled the cost of a barrel of Renner beer, to $17.50. The allowable alcohol level in beer had gradually dropped as well, and in May, 1919, when statewide Prohibition took effect, this level dropped to 0.5%.

In that year, the brewery renamed itself as the Renner Products Co., and Grossvater de-alcoholized Beer hit the market. Advertisements took great pains to point out that this was not the same as near beer, since it was brewed as beer, with the alcohol subsequently extracted through a special vacuum process. Zepp Brew (named in honor of the giant zeppelins produced at the Goodyear airdock in south Akron during that era) made its appearance five years later, and both would continue to be produced through the end of the Prohibition era. In addition, a nameless "hop flavored malt beverage tonic" and Renner's "High Power" Malt Tonic were briefly sold in the 1920s.

Renner died of pneumonia in 1921, after which Deibel assumed control of the company. Both Renner's son William and daughter Nora would die before the end of Prohibition, and their positions were filled by other Renner or Deibel family members. Sales of cereal beverages over the next decade were only around 20% of the pre-Prohibition numbers, and these alone would not have allowed the company to survive. However, diversification in the form of numerous real estate holdings and oil and gas wells allowed the company to operate successfully until 1933. Because the brewing equipment was still intact at that time and the plant had continued to function, it would be in a tremendous position when beer became legal again.

By the time President Roosevelt legalized the sale of 3.2% beer in April 1933 (full strength beer would not return for eight more months), only three breweries in Ohio were actively producing beer for de-alcoholizing. These breweries and several in Chicago and elsewhere in the Midwest would be the only sources of beer in the first few days and weeks after the beverage became legal. Renner was the first brewery in Ohio to obtain a license to sell liquor. However, since no other establishments in the Akron area had licenses yet, sales could only be made directly at the brewery or via shipments to other cities.

Therefore, at 12:01 A.M., on April 7, 1933, in a persistent cold rain, a crowd of 2,000 people waited in line outside the brewery on Forge Street to purchase some of the 5,000 cases of Grossvater Beer that were available at $3.25 per case. By noon the next day, 10,000 cases had been sold at the brewery and through shipments all over northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania. It was several days before all the back orders were filled.

Along with a return of the name George J. Renner Brewing Co. came a number of changes in how the business of brewing was undertaken. Various improvements in brewing equipment and technique over the next decade would increase the plant's annual capacity to 200,000 barrels, although actual production was generally closer to 125,000 barrels. Improvements in both refrigeration and transportation allowed the brewery to distribute its beers throughout a 200 mile radius around Akron. The company's delivery fleet gradually evolved from a few pickup trucks and vans to a fleet of tractor-trailer rigs that could haul much larger loads at once.

Grossvater Lager Beer remained the company's flagship brand, although other brands entered the market between 1933 and 1935, including Old Cockney Ale, Old Gross Half and Half, Lucky Shoe Ale and Beer, and Old German Style Beer. Zepp Brew returned for several years, for sales into territories that had remained dry, and for Sunday sales in public places. Weber's Beer was brewed in Akron for distribution in Mansfield after WWII, when the Mansfield Renner brewery scaled back brewing operations and converted largely into a distribution center. Souvenir Beer was introduced in the late 1930s, and would become the company's most advertised brand in the years after WWII. All of these beers could be tasted for free at the plant's hospitality room, known as the M¸nchen office, which was decorated with scenes of the Rhine River and the German countryside.

Another marketing innovation after Prohibition was the introduction of the steel can in 1935. Three years later, Renner began packaging Grossvater Beer in cap-sealed cans produced by the Crown, Cork, & Seal Co. of Philadelphia. These would be replaced several years later by the "crowntainer", a two-piece steel can also referred to as the "silver goblet" (Renner was the only brewery in Eastern Ohio to use the crowntainer). These cans were ideal for the smaller brewers, as they could be filled using existing bottling equipment and not forcing investment in a new, separate canning line. While the majority of Renner beers were bottled, canning of Grossvater, Souvenir, and Old German Beer continued sporadically until the plant closed.

Ernest C. Deibel remained in charge of the company until his death in 1950. His cousin, Ernest E. Deibel, had been vice-president for some years and succeeded him as president, although he died just one year later. Robert F. Holland, a Deibel family member who had joined the company in 1936 as a cashier after graduating from high school, gradually worked his way up through the company, despite several years in the U. S. Air Force during WWII. He became the brewery's final president in 1951. Max Illenberger retired in 1948 after thirty years as plant brewmaster, to be replaced by Anthony Weiner.

After WWII, the brewing industry continued to change, with an increasing dominance by regional and national brewers with large budgets for advertising and distribution. Sales of Renner beers gradually began slipping in the late 1940s, after which a team of consultants was hired to make recommendations for changes in production and marketing. Souvenir Beer had become the company's dominant brand, and an attempt was made to reformulate and repackage the aging Grossvater brand in 1948. Despite these changes, the brewing operations became increasingly unprofitable, and at the end of 1952, the decision was made to stop brewing altogether. The final brew was made on December 8 of that year, and when that was finished and packaged six weeks later, the plant closed for good. Most of the plant's 75 employees were laid off as the equipment was liquidated over the next few months.

Despite the cessation of brewing, the company continued to operate successfully as the Renner Akron Realty Co., a branch of the brewery which had originated before Prohibition as a management company for the numerous saloons in Akron that were owned by the brewery. After Prohibition, breweries were no longer legally allowed to operate saloons, but they were allowed to continue to own the property on which the saloons stood. This company operated for a number of years at the plant office on Forge Street, run by Holland, Edward Steinkerchner, and Robert Myers. The company name later changed to Forge Industries, reflecting its shift toward operating as a holding company for small industrial concerns. Its offices then moved to Boardman, Ohio, where it continues today as a family operation, managed by Carl James, the great-great-grandson of George J. Renner. The company owns the Akron Gear Co., the Miller Spreader Co. in Youngstown (which was owned by the Youngstown Renner Co. until it merged with the Akron company some years later), and Bearing Distributors, Inc., of Cleveland, which it purchased in 1966. The latter company is involved in the international distribution of steel bearings made in Cleveland. Robert Holland remains affiliated with the company and divides his time between Port Clinton, OH. and Florida.

The brewery plant remains almost entirely intact, with its 75,000 square feet of floor space rented out to a number of small businesses, including the AccuChrome plating company, and the Russell Products Co., makers of protective coatings for glass, etc. The original brick and stone building from 1873 remains at the center of the plant, with many additions around it. Even the M¸nchen office remains intact to this day, with its scenes of the Fatherland, and a large mural of the five old beer-drinking gentlemen that appeared in the brewery's logo, with a box of cigars labeled "George".

Copyright 2005 by Zepp Publications

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