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Renner Brewing Company, Youngstown, Ohio

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

Youngstown's longest operating brewery was founded in early 1865 by Philip Schuh (also spelled Schub, Schule) and John Bayer, two German immigrants. Bayer had sold his share to Schuh by the end of the year, however, and continued to run his nearby saloon. Matthias Seeger (also known as Martin Sager, Segur, and Seiger in various listings), a native of Wurtemburg, Germany, born in 1835, assumed brewing operations in 1869, assisted by Englishman Daniel Perkins, after which the plant was known as the City Brewery. Also owning a part of the brewery at this time was Christian Genkinger (also spelled Cenkaner), who owned a brewery in New Castle, PA., twenty miles to the east. He sold his interest to Seeger in 1874.

The plant was located at 203ó209 Pike Street, on a steep hillside facing a main line of railroad tracks and the Mahoning River. Water for brewing was taken from on-site artesian wells (not from the river, as was often rumored, although by the 1930s the water was being taken from Meander Lake, west of town). By the early 1870s, the brewery was producing around 1,500 barrels annually, although Seeger had nearly doubled this number by 1879. He died in May 1880, after which brewing operations were briefly assumed by his son Christian. The brewery (which was appraised at over $16,000) was purchased again at auction for $9,000 in 1881 by John Bayer, who now was 55 years old. While operating the brewery, Bayer attempted to sell the property for two years, although he defaulted on his loans in 1883, and the property was sold to John Smith's Sons Co. (the other major brewers in town). They allowed the plant to sit idle until September 1885, when it was sold for $4,800 to George Jacob Renner, Jr.

Renner was born in 1856 in Cincinnati, where he had received his training in the Moerlein and Schaller & Gerke breweries, beginning at the age of 15. He later moved to Wooster, where he became a part owner of the local brewery with his father, George J. Renner, Sr. After the elder Renner moved to Mansfield (and later to Akron) to operate breweries there, the son considered moving to Harrisburg, PA. to operate a brewery there. On the advice of a tramp (or as Renner later described the man, "an aristocratic train hiker") that he met, who knew of the unused brewery, Renner moved to Youngstown instead to become the sole proprietor of his own plant. Renner remodeled the old brewery and quickly developed a thriving trade in the area. A big man, standing six foot three, Renner could lift a full barrel of beer into a wagon himself, and he had no problem with the physical labor required of a Nineteenth Century brewer. Once (as told in his obituary in 1935), while collecting money at a saloon called "Smoky Hollow", he was challenged by a professional wrestler who wanted to tussle right there, the loser to pay for everyone's drinks. Since the custom at the time was for the collector to pay for the drinks of everyone present anyway, Renner politely refused. The wrestler persisted, however, much to Renner's annoyance. Renner then spread his arms, invited the wrestler to get a hold, and when the challenger was ready, Renner caught hold of him, tossed him over his head, and walked out. In later years, he had both a billiard room and a gymnasium installed in the brewery to help satisfy his love of sport. On the night of January 24, 1889, an exploding boiler led to a fire which destroyed the entire plant (valued at $75,000 by this time). The explosion was powerful enough to kill George Richter, the plant engineer, and injure three others. Renner's seven-year old son Emil was in the brewery at the time and was knocked against the wall, but escaped injury. He later recalled that the force of the explosion blew Richter's head off at the shoulders, killing him instantly. Parts of the exploded boiler blew across the river, several hundred feet away, and remained there for many years. The ensuing fire threatened the family home next door, but Mrs. Renner handed out all of the family belongings to neighbors in order to save them from the fire. By some miracle, the house did not burn, and within three weeks every last item had been returned to the Renners, giving them faith in the people of Youngstown and a desire to stay there and rebuild.

Renner's insurance covered only $18,000 of the loss, putting him in danger of losing his business entirely. Fortunately, he was able to secure loans from a local bank and a Pittsburgh malt dealer for the remaining money to replace the brewery. While beer was brought in from other cities to supply Youngstown's saloons, work began immediately on rebuilding the plant from the ground up. By the fall of 1890, the new facility was open for business. The impressive new plant was built solidly, with 36 inch-thick walls, and its interior was described in some detail by the Western Brewer in October 1890, highlights of which follow:

"To the right of the driveway is the brewhouse, three stories in height. Beginning with the main entrance for teams opening on the driveway on the left of the brewhouse, a broad wagon way runs through the rear of the ground floor of the brew house into the wash house and out through front of same upon Pike Street. It connects immediately with the washing and racking off departments, affording unequaled facilities for the loading and the shipping of the product.

Upon the ground floor is located the hop jack. The second floor contains the 200 bbl. brew kettle, mash tub, and Baudelot cooler. On the third floor is located the 350 bbl. hot water tank, a beer tank which is used instead of the usual surface cooler, and rice tank. The stock hoppers in the rear of the mill house have a storage capacity of 15,000 bushels.

Next to and immediately adjoining the brewhouse on the right is the mill house, which is a model of mechanical construction and arrangement, containing five floors. The first floor is given up to office purposes, and is handsomely furnished. The second is used for hop storage. The third contains the grinding machinery, which is fitted with an automatic fire extinguisher. The entire milling machinery is controlled from this floor by a device which will stop or start the same instantly. The fourth floor contains a Morgan malt scourer. and the scale hopper of 350 bushels capacity. On the fifth floor is the scale hopper, which debouches upon the fourth. A feature of machinery on this floor is the screens, which make three screenings of the grain before delivering it to the hopper. Two of S. Howes' Silver Creek automatic magnetic separators and a nail separator of 200 to 250 bushels' capacity per hour are located on the sixth floor.

In the rear of the brewhouse is the stockhouse and cellars, five stories in height. The ground floor is occupied by the racking room and chip casks. There are twenty chip casks in all. On the second floor are twenty storage casks. and the third floor contains twenty more. The fermenting rooms are on the fourth floor, containing twenty casks. Two large water tanks and three settling tubs occupy the fifth floor.

Every depart-ment of the brewery is fitted up with the most approved modern appliances for the rapid and economical manufacture and handling of the product. No pains or expense have been spared by its enterprising and energetic proprietor to make this establishment a model in its class."

The new plant had an annual capacity of 18,000 barrels. A two-story bottling house was built on the east side of the plant in 1895, and this would be further enlarged in 1913, while additions to the stock house came in 1911. The plant's stables held as many as 52 horses for pulling delivery wagons throughout the city. The entire operation was incorporated in 1914 as the Renner Brewing Co., with capital stock of $200,000. Renner became the vice-president of the new company, while his son Emil became the president. Secretary and treasurer was Gustave Weaver, with Harry Weaver, Renner's brother-in-law, as brewmaster, a position he had held since 1890. Grossvater Beer (German for "grandfather", it replaced "Yellow Band" Beer in 1912) and Eagle Brew became the company's most popular brands, as they were also at the Renner breweries in Akron and Mansfield (after Prohibition, most ties were severed with these other Renner plants, which took on the roles of "friendly competitors").

With the onset of Prohibition in 1919, the Renner Co. plant converted to the production of RENO non-alcoholic beer, ice, and other soft drinks, as well as managing the Renner Realty Co., originally established as a real estate holding company for the numerous saloons and other property owned by the brewery. RENO, oddly advertised with the slogan, "Divorced from beer", was brewed as normal beer, with the alcohol subsequently boiled away. Unfortunately, this occasionally left the brew with a burnt taste, and needless to say, sales never approached those of the real thing. Production of RENO ended in 1921, after which much of the brewery plant stood dormant, save for the management office, ice machines, and the bottling of soft drinks. Thanks to the extensive real estate holdings, however, the Renner family business was able to survive the next twelve years intact.

With the repeal of Prohibition in April 1933, the company's capital stock was raised to $600,000, and $250,000 was spent refurbishing the brewery. This had a significant impact on the local economy even prior to the first beer being brewed, as 200 otherwise unemployed men were hired to bring the old plant up to date. Among the items to be updated at the time were the following: all new brewing equipment, bringing the annual capacity up to 100,000 barrels (it would later be further increased to 175,000 barrels); new bottling machinery (costing $44,000); a new ice machine of 50 ton capacity; 50,000 bushels of malt; 75,000 lbs. of hops; 20,000 gross of bottles; 15-20 new delivery trucks; new water towers; 75,000 beer cases (while some of these were wooden, Renner was one of the few brewers in the country to utilize steel crates, largely due to the plentiful steel mills throughout Youngstown and surrounding cities); in addition, $10,000 was spent rehabilitating the old buildings, with new wiring, plumbing, painting, etc. Harry Weaver started brewing operations immediately, and by the early summer of 1933, Renner's Beer and Ale were on the market again. Other brands to enter the market soon after this included Old Vet, Old Oxford and Old Dublin Ales, Old Bavarian Beer, Clipper Beer, Old German Beer, and Prize Cup Beer. Weaver, who by this time had been brewmaster for more than forty years, was encouraged to return to the brewing institute in Chicago to learn all of the recent advances in the field, in order to modernize his technique. His unwillingness to do so led to his firing in 1934, after which he became one of the driving forces in the formation of the rival Youngstown Brewing Co. elsewhere in town (ironically, this new venture started with used equipment that Renner sold him).

Replacing Weaver as director of brewing in 1934 was Dr. Arnold Wahl, of the Wahl College of Brewing in Chicago. A noted international authority on the scientific aspects of beer brewing, Wahl's name was used in much of the company's advertising in the next few years. His view of the American brewing industry at the time was very positive (as quoted in an advertisement in the Akron Beacon Journal in October 1934):

"The American brewery can make better beers than the Europeans who originated them, due to better equipment, more accurate measuring, and scientific control of every step. We take the original recipes and give the beers we brew more delicious flavor, a finer bouquet, and build in better digestive qualitiesóthat is, if we are one of those breweries that has broken away from tradition and are actually brewing along scientific lines as we are doing at the Renner Brewery. For instance, we are making a Bavarian or German style beer here at Renner's that has a distinctive malt taste all its own. With our scientific control of every step we have been able to give it a better taste than the original Bavarians ever thought possible. We have made the collar creamier, have added a sparkle and clearness, and have given it more beneficial health qualities besides making it uniformóevery glass and bottle the same. Beer is a delicious drink. It is an extremely healthful beverage and when made correctly, every glass should call for another."

Wahl's words were prophetic of the future, at least in Ohio: within twenty years, the only breweries which would survive were those which had gone to a streamlined, mechanical, and purely scientific approach to the brewing of beer. Those that used older, more traditional techniques were unable to compete. Another twenty years after that, nearly all of Ohio's original brewing companies were out of business, unable to compete with the national giants and their entirely "industrial" approach to brewing.

A major change in brewing philosophy after Prohibition, as described recently by Bob Renner, was the concept of "S¸ffigkeit", the mysterious word which appears on much of the brewery's advertising in the 1930s. Prior to Prohibition, most beers were fairly heavy, with a high malt content. As a result, they were very filling, and one or two bottles were enough to satisfy the average saloon patron. After Prohibition, there was a dramatic move toward lighter, pilsener style beers, with a lower malt content. These were far less filling, and allowed the average beer drinker to consume a much larger amount at one time. Because the allowable alcohol content in beer was much lower than in the pre-Prohibition era, the amount of alcohol consumed was not necessarily more, but more beer could be sold by the breweries. This philosophy was represented by the German term "S¸ffigkeit", meaning "one leads to another".

One modern innovation which helped in marketing these new brands was the steel can for packaging beer. Renner began utilizing conetop cans made by the Continental Can Co. in 1938, for the marketing of Clipper and Old Bavarian Beers and Old Oxford Ale. The conetop cans had a major advantage over cans with flat tops: they could be filled using the existing bottling equipment, since they were sealed with a cap, and therefore the company would not need to purchase a separate (and very expensive) canning line.

After George J. Renner's death in December 1935, his son Emil "Spitz" Renner became Chairman of the Board for the remainder of the brewery's history, with his son Robert ("Bob"), a graduate of the University of Michigan, as vice-president and later president (after serving in the U. S. Navy during WWII), and R. E. Bedeaux as master brewer (later replaced by Albert Kempe and then George Guehring). Grover Meyer became the company's president in 1940, but Robert Renner replaced him in 1948 after the company showed a significant drop in sales ($1.16 million, down from $1.5 million.) C. Gilbert James, Emil's nephew, was the company's secretary and later vice-president.

Bob Renner took control of the company and its 75 employees at a critical time. Recognizing the need to modernize marketing and advertising methods, he hired numerous consultants in an effort to stay competitive with larger national breweries. Focusing on what was felt to be the majority of the beer-drinking market, the light-to-moderate drinkers, Renner introduced Golden Amber Beer in 1952, with its slogan, "The Light Beer For Your Lighter Moments". This quickly rebounded the company to one of its best years ever, with Golden Amber becoming the top selling brand in Youngstown. This success, however, would be in peril by the end of the decade.

Golden Amber became the company's flagship brand, replacing Renner Premium Beer and a number of other lesser brands which disappeared from the market. For the next decade, the company's efforts were focused on sales of Golden Amber, Old Oxford Ale, Old German Beer, and a new brand, King's Brew. A new logo, known as "Sneaky Pete", was unveiled around this time, consisting of a young man in a traditional Bavarian outfit. The favored story in town was that Golden Amber Beer had a tendency to "sneak up" on its consumers, making them inebriated very quickly. While some thought that the brewery was producing beer with a higher alcohol content than the law allowed, this rumor was never substantiated. In fact, the highest alcohol content was found in Renner Premium Ale, a true top-fermented ale which approached 6% alcohol, as opposed to most of the other brands which generally ranged from 3.2% to 4.0% alcohol. Old Oxford Ale, one of the longstanding favorites in Youngstown, was a blend of Renner Premium Ale and Golden Amber Beer.

Intense competition from national brewers through the late 1950s brought new brands of beer into Youngstown. Due to the depressed financial state of the region, Renner found it increasingly difficult to compete with these national companies' huge advertising budgets. This was in spite of the fact that the brewery only widely distributed its brands in three counties: Mahoning, Trumbull, and Columbiana (their beers were sold to a lesser extent in Akron and western Pennsylvania as well). A million dollar investment was made in the company in 1960 in an attempt to stay in business. In addition to increased advertising, the company purchased a new canning line in late 1961, for packaging beer in flat-topped cans (Renner was one of very few breweries still using the cone-topped cans by this time). The flat top cans were easier to carry and to display in stores.

In addition to Renner's financial struggles at the time, a lawsuit was filed by the company in 1962 against the state of Ohio, when work was being completed on a section of freeway (which would later become part of Interstate 680) on the hillside just south of the brewery. During construction, which had inadvertently overlapped onto the brewery's property, large amounts of dirt were piled against the walls of the company's truck garage, damaging the building and leaving it largely unusable. In the end, the state was forced to pay $82,000 in damages.

At the same time that the company was making a large investment in its future, several cost cutting measures were also made (for example, all distribution and sales staff were let go in 1961 when distribution was turned over to other local companies, due to the damaged garage and an inability to house the delivery trucks). Despite all of these efforts, the company was posting as much as $50,000 in annual losses, and brewing operations were eventually shut down in November 1962, after which all equipment was liquidated. The company's remaining brands (Old Oxford Ale, Golden Amber Beer, and Old German Beer) were then purchased by the Old Crown Brewing Co. of Fort Wayne, IN., which continued to brew all three and distribute them in eastern Ohio until that brewery closed in 1973. The Renner Co. continued to operate, purchasing the Miller Spreader Co., a local manufacturer of paving equipment, in 1963. In later years, there was a merger of the remaining Renner Co. with Forge Industries, the real estate division of the George J. Renner Brewing Co. of Akron. This continues to operate successfully as a holding company in Boardman, Ohio to this day. Overseen by Carl James, the great-great-grandson of George Renner, Jr., the company still owns Miller Spreader, as well as the Akron Gear Co., and Bearing Distributors, Inc., of Cleveland. Emil Renner remained in Youngstown until his death in 1976. Bob Renner left the family business and worked in sales and management for other companies in town, and later moved to San Diego, CA., where he continues to live with his wife Mary Ann.

That Bob Renner was able to keep the brewery going as late as 1962 in an extraordinarily competitive industry, and in a relatively small market, is a testament to his ability to adjust and adapt to the changing times (although Bob recently stated that he was probably just lucky!) It was also a testament to the loyalty that Youngstown beer drinkers had for their local brand. By the time the brewery closed, only ten other breweries remained in Ohio, and in another twelve years, that number would be down to four (Hudepohl, Schoenling, Anheuser-Busch, and C. Schmidt).

The entire plant was purchased for $35,000 by a group of investors in 1963, with an intention to convert it into a warehouse or light manufacturing plant. These plans never came to pass, and the plant remained vacant for the next fifteen years. Much of it burned on October 14, 1978, as firefighters were unable to reach the site due to trash and logs strewn along Pike Street, which by then had also been abandoned. Most buildings in the complex were later razed and the area was backfilled, although the bottling house at the far east end still remains standing as of 2000.

Copyright 2005 by Zepp Publications

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