Brewed on Fourth Street
Author: Grace Shackman
At the Michigan Union Brewing Company and the Ann Arbor Brewing Company, Ann Arborites could pick up beer by the pail.
The Ann Arbor Brewing Company at 416 Fourth Street was the only brewery in the city to survive Prohibition. Yet its product was not greatly valued in its hometown. "It was considered good only for putting out fires," claimed the late Carl Horning in a 1995 interview.
Horning was exaggerating: for eighty-eight years, the local brew found customers throughout Ann Arbor and beyond. And townsfolk weren't averse to stopping by for a glass or two of beer, on the house, any time of night or day. According to Will Frey, who worked at the brewery off and on from 1937 to 1943, leaky barrels that couldn't be sold were put in a backroom. Those who knew the barrels were there—namely, just about everyone in town—could come in through an always-unlocked door off the loading dock and get a drink. They used glasses hanging nearby, which they rinsed out when they were finished.
"It was a good stop for the postman. It took him longer to deliver mail there than the rest of the block," recalls Frey. The staff got free beer, too. Robert Kauffman remembers the job he got there at age seventeen cleaning out an old metal tank on top of the brewery: "At lunch break we went down to the main floor of the brewery and helped ourselves to a few pints of Ann Arbor Cream Top directly out of the barrel." People who played baseball in that era recall coming by after games to cool down with a glass of beer.
The brewery was founded in 1861 by Peter Brehm, who had recently moved to Ann Arbor from Germany. Brehm named his business the Western Brewery, after its location on the west side of town in the heart of the German neighborhood. In 1864, after his first building burned down, Brehm built a larger, two-story brewery, with a basement.
When Brehm opened his brewery, there were three others in town. Two—Hooper's (1858-1866), at State and Fuller, and the Bavarian (1860-1872), on Fuller between Elizabeth and State—were probably home operations. The City Brewery (1860-1886), at 210 South First Street, was closer to Brehm's operation in both size and location. It's now the Cavern Club—named after the basement vaults where the beer was aged.
Two other breweries started shortly after Brehm's, both also named for their locations: the Central (1865-1875), at 724 North Fifth Avenue, now the Brewery Apartments; and the Northern (1872-1909), at 1037 Jones Drive, now an office building. Competition from the two ambitious newcomers surely didn't help Brehm's business, and the Panic of 1873 drove him over the edge: he lost control of the brewery and killed himself in despair.
Yet his successors managed to keep the business going for another seventy-five years. In 1880 Christian Martin and Matthias Fischer bought the Western Brewery. Martin, the brewmaster, walked over from his house across the street at 431 Fourth at 4 or 5 a.m. to start the fire in the boilers. Fischer, who ran the bottling operation, also lived in the neighborhood, on West Jefferson.
The new owners made a success of the operation from the start. A year later, the 1881 Chapman History of Washtenaw County, Michigan, reported, "The beer produced by this brewery finds a ready sale in all parts of the county." According to Chapman, "some 1,500 barrels of malt, 1,700 Ibs. of hops, 225 cords of wood and 800 tons of ice are used in the manufacture and storage of the 3,000 barrels of beer turned out annually." The Western Brewery's nearest competitor, the Northern Brewery, turned out just 2,400 barrels.
By 1903 the brewery was doing so well that the partners hired their German neighbors the Koch brothers to build a larger brick building south of their original one. In those days they used gravity to move the beer from place to place as it brewed, so the north end of the new building had five levels—three above ground and two below. A lower section, on the south, was used for packaging— in kegs, and later in bottles.
When the new building opened, the business was renamed the Michigan Union Brewing Company in honor of the local union of bartenders and brewery workers, which represented the employees. Shortly after that, in 1906, the Northern Brewery went out of business, leaving Michigan Union Brewing as the only brewery in town.
It delivered beer by horse and wagon to saloons and businesses all over Ann Arbor and as far away as Dexter and Saline, which also had large German populations. In 1915 the company acquired an Ann Arbor-made Star Truck and extended its delivery routes to Milan and Whitmore Lake.
The brewery also did home deliveries—or people could pick up beer at the brewery in their own containers. The late Harry Koch used to tell how as a young boy he was sent to the brewery by his dad, who was one of the Koch brothers, to fill a pail with beer for the construction crew's lunch.
Michigan adopted Prohibition in 1918, a year ahead of the country as a whole. The brewery was renamed the Michigan Union Beverage Company and for a short time made near beer, but that didn't satisfy anyone. "The Germans wouldn't have anything to do with glorified hop water," says Will Frey. Many Germans made their own wine (you can still see their grape arbors around the Old West Side) or obtained bootleg products from Canada.
In 1920 Connor Ice Cream rented the building, since much of the equipment could be used for making ice cream (Detroit brewer Stroh's did the same thing). Florence Seitz Clark, who grew up across the street at 427 Fourth, reminisced in 1986, "The secretary at Connors ate her suppers with us. On weekends Connors always had specials. If there was some left over, which there often was, she would bring us a quart for our supper. This was a real treat since otherwise we never had any. When she would come with a brown bag we knew what it was and got all excited."
When Prohibition ended in 1933, three local contractors, Chris Mack, Stanley Thomas, and Ed Bliska, decided to revive the brewery. They persuaded Jake Ludwig, a trained brewmaster who had moved to Pennsylvania to farm during Prohibition, to return to beer making. Ludwig was later replaced by Al Bek, who had gone to Germany to learn the trade.
The new business was not a union brewery, so it was named the Ann Arbor Brewing Company. Frey recalls that someone tried to start a union but that no one was interested. "No one grumbled about the pay. It was good money in the Depression," he explains.
The work was seasonal—heavier in summer, when the demand for beer was highest—so a lot of the crew was temporary. It attracted young people like Frey who didn't mind sporadic hours, as well as farmers who needed a little extra work to help pay their taxes. Peter Marion recalls how his father, Alvin, came in three days a week from his farm near Saline to work the bottling line.
Frey began working at the brewery in 1937, whence was just out of high school; he was hired because his half brother, Ted Ziefle, was the assistant bookkeeper. On his first day on the job he was put to work loading bottles into big crates in a small building, since torn down, in the back of the brewery. When brewmaster Al Bek saw him, he yelled, "What are you doing here?" It turned out Bek had two boys near Prey's age whom he had wanted to have the job. The next day Alvin and Dick Bek were both working there too; they and Frey became good friends.
Frey recalls that the brewery got hops from out west and grain from a Chicago grain dealer. He still remembers that every Christmas the Chicago dealer gave his family a big box filled with treats like cheese and sausage. They looked forward to the dealer's package so much that they opened it last.
Frey worked mainly in the bottling operation. Making the beer was very specialized work and left to the brewmaster. Frey does remember that the mash was made in a big copper kettle, which could be seen out the back window of the main office. It was pumped up to the top floor and then sent down to the basement by gravity.
The bottling operation was semi-mechanized. The machines had to be constantly monitored, and at several points the bottles had to be transferred by hand. With all the moving, Frey admits, "there was a fair amount of broken glass in the brewery, but we also got pretty good at it. You learned fast, or you'd get all bloody."
Returned bottles were loaded onto a conveyor belt, where "they marched like little soldiers," in Prey's words, through the washing machine. It was Alvin Marion's job to watch the bottles as they came out to make sure that they weren't chipped and that the washer hadn't missed any foreign objects, such as cigar butts, chewing gum, or pebbles.
The bottles were filled and capped by machine, but again they had to be watched carefully—if the pressure were wrong, the bottles wouldn't fill completely. "A bunch of us would stand around and drink half bottles," Frey says, "since it was very difficult to put it through again."
Ann Arbor Brewing sold several brands: Cream Top, Old-Tyme, and Town Club. But according to Frey, they were actually all the same beer. He remembers they would attach labels in batches: "We'd start with, say, six hundred of Old Tyme, then three hundred of Town Club." Hazen Schumacher, who worked at the Pretzel Bell restaurant in the late 1940s, recalls that the brewery would also dye beer in novelty colors for holidays—red on Valentine's Day and green on St. Patrick's Day. But the only beer that was actually brewed differently was the bock produced each spring.
Brewery workers used a machine to attach the labels and to put a paper tax stamp on each bottle. Sometimes the machine got gummed up, which was not a big problem with labels but upsetting when it happened with the tax stamps: they were prepaid, so it was like throwing money away.
The final step was transferring the beer by hand into cases. These were made at the brewery, riveted together by the thousands. Frey recalls that they were so sturdy that they were used over and over, and were good for use on camping trips or as luggage for kids.
By this time, the beer was delivered farther afield. Frey says that besides nearby towns with German populations like Manchester, Stockbridge, and Milan, an Amish population in Ohio got shipments, and so did a pocket of German farmers in Texas.
In 1939 the brewery was purchased by a group of investors from Chicago. They sent Charles Ackerman, who Frey believes was the nephew of one of the investors, to oversee the operation. Ackerman, who is listed in the city directory as president, treasurer, and general manager, saw the brewery through its final decade; it closed in 1949, and the equipment was sold.
By then local breweries were either expanding or dying out as the beer industry consolidated—a trend that's continued ever since, most recently with a joint venture uniting Miller, Molson, and Coors. The brewery was sold to Argus Camera, which already owned two neighboring buildings.
The U-M bought the Argus buildings when the camera company left town in the 1960s. Beginning in 1965, the former Ann Arbor Brewing building was shared by Mathematical Reviews, a bibliographic journal that had just moved to Ann Arbor from Providence, Rhode Island, and the U-M's audiovisual education center. By then all traces of its former use were obliterated. "I was unaware that it had been a brewery until one of the movers told us that he had drunk a beer where our film library was going," recalls retired center employee George Williams.
Mathematical Reviews moved out in 1971, only to return in 1985, when it bought the building from the U-M. To make room for more parking, the journal removed the old shed in back where Frey worked the first day he arrived. The staff do, however, fully appreciate that they are in an old brewery.
"When I first came here and found out the building used to be a brewery, I interpreted it as a sign from God," recalls associate editor Norman Richert. A beer buff whose first academic job was in Milwaukee, Richert was delighted to learn from local historian Wystan Stevens that memorabilia from Michigan Union Brewing and Ann Arbor Brewing regularly come up for sale on eBay. He's since amassed a collection that includes labels, bottles, a box, and a wooden beer keg.
Richert admits it was "a little disappointing" to hear, through Frey, that Ann Arbor Brewing's different brands were all the same beer. But he also points out that our standards in food and drink have become much more refined in recent years. "People thought of it more like a commodity then," he says. "You go get beer, you go get milk. You don't necessarily think what it tastes like."
He guesses the different labels may have been a way to appeal to different buyers—an early form of the steady blurring of consumption and marketing that has led to phenomena like Old Milwaukee's Swedish Bikini Team. In contrast, he says, one of his Michigan Union Brewing bottles had a much simpler sales pitch: embossed in the glass is the motto "Pure and without drugs or poison."
That and the other items in Richert's collection may eventually be available for public viewing: He hopes eventually to start a small museum commemorating the building's beer-loving past.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: "There was a fair amount of broken glass in the brewery, but we also got pretty good at [handling bottles]" Will Frey recalls. "You learned fast, or you'd get all bloody."
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Mathematical Reviews associate editor Norman Richert bought most of his brewery memorabilia (above and below) on eBay—but the wooden keg was a gift from Harry Cross, whose father salvaged it from the building.