There wasn’t any advance warning when Cincinnati beer maker Blank Slate Brewing Company closed its doors last August. Founder Scott LaFollette eventually clarified that, after five years of hard work, the brewery simply “ran out of money.” He expected the company to exit the local scene quietly and “just fade off into the sunset,” but that’s not what happened. Colleagues and fans poured their sadness and support onto social media, mourning the loss of a departed craft beer sibling. One brewery manager told Cincinnati beer website Brew Minds at the time that, “while the Blank Slate glass may always be empty, our memories will certainly not be.”
As a historian studying how immigrant breweries affected their communities in the mid-1800s, it’s great to know that the legacy of Blank Slate found a way to endure. And I hope it stays that way. Cincinnati is a city filled with memories, especially when it comes to business. The city’s first major commercial sector, livestock, earned it the nickname “Porkopolis” in the early 1800s. To this day, a stroll among the hardy, stone-faced buildings between McMicken Avenue and Central Parkway—the heart of the city’s historically German Over-the-Rhine district—make it clear that Cincinnati has always been a city that embraces hard work. The brewing industry, from Windisch-Muhlhauser and Christian Moerlein to now Rhinegeist and Samuel Adams, among many others, has featured in Cincinnati’s economic identity since that time.
The city’s long and storied relationship with beer demonstrates how, for better or worse, breweries come and go. Blank Slate has joined hundreds of bygone companions, including Glossner’s Saloon and Brewery, which served Over-the-Rhine’s thirsty German immigrants more than 160 years ago. According to William Downard’s book, The Cincinnati Brewing Industry, the Glossner brothers were so beloved that the community reminisced about them for decades. In 1896, 30 years after Glossner’s closed its doors, an aging saloon patron remarked:
“No beer will ever taste so good to me as that did…if I would have one wish gratified before I die it would be that I might sit in Glossner’s for an hour and drink a mug of his beer with the chums of those good old days.”
The memories created at Glossner’s, Blank Slate, and others encode a brewery’s contributions to the larger, evolving portrait of American beer. They help us understand how breweries carved out their space within their communities, how they kept their doors open despite ever-changing markets, and how beer affected the lives of both brewers and drinkers. Such insights provide much more than trivia or nostalgia. My research alone uses Midwestern brewing to better understand how German immigration, politics, law, morality, citizenship, technology, and capitalism evolved during the 1800s. Beer is a mirror reflecting American society, and always has been.
The memories created at breweries constitute a wealth of historically significant knowledge, but they’re also fragile and can easily fade. No one alive has ever set foot in Glossner’s. We can share in its comfort and camaraderie not because one man’s memory was meaningful, but rather because someone chose to write it down and preserve it.
But it’s hard not to wonder what memories never made it onto the record.
Over a long enough timescale, records are what matter. To gain insight into the past, scholars rely on whatever remnants survive. American brewing history in particular is preserved less often than you might think. Perhaps no one knows this better than David Thieme.
Thieme lives in Lafayette, Indiana, where his descendants founded the once-prominent Thieme & Wagner Brewing Company. At its height in the 1890s, Thieme & Wagner produced more than 40,000 barrels annually for thirsty Hoosiers. But like many breweries, it never recovered from Prohibition. For more than two years, Thieme has worked to re-establish the brewery’s presence in his Midwestern home, starting with a bar on Main Street, decorated with Thieme & Wagner memorabilia.
Still, Thieme knows far less about the family business than he’d like to. When he started, the brewery-related family heirlooms consisted of two family portraits, a lithograph of the once-expansive brewery, and two publicly available books on the business and science of brewing from the 1910s. With little else to go on, Thieme is faced with the difficult task of piecing together Thieme & Wagner’s history in any way he can. The brewing logs, meeting minutes, and sales receipts that might help him answer basic historical questions about the brewery—what states it was sold in, for instance—have all been lost.
His case is personal, but also normal. While some scraps of a brewery’s past usually remain, it’s not always much. Many thousands of American breweries have come and gone, and historians know most of their names and addresses from, say, a newspaper ad for barley or a note in the census. Too often, however, that’s all that’s left.
The identity of Chicago’s first commercial brewer, for example, has been disputed. Some have claimed it was William Crawford, who operated a brewery in what is now Grant Park during the mid-1830s. Knowledge of Crawford is limited to a couple newspaper ads and a lonely petition tucked away in the city government records. Many histories omit him entirely. Others claim that the first brewers in Chicago were a pair of German immigrants named William Haas and Konrad Sulzar (or maybe Andreas Sulzar—even his very name is uncertain), whose operation eventually became the famous Chicago Brewery owned by William Lill and Michael Diversey. A sparse record makes it difficult to know much about either brewery during these early years, including when they opened.
But it’s not just about who first made it past the post. Isolated bits of information are simply not enough to encapsulate a brewery, then or now. Whatever traces breweries leave behind are, ultimately, all we can ever know about them. Records equal knowledge.
Regardless of size or location, breweries have no trouble deriving unique value from their work. Jason Ranck, brewmaster at 2nd Story Brewing Company in Philadelphia, does so in a distinct and perhaps old-fashioned way by hand-writing his fermentation logs. Located four blocks from Independence Hall and literally surrounded by museums, memorials, and historic sites, Ranck is immersed in a city where weathered paper can take on special meaning, and he follows suit.
“I get made fun of constantly because I choose not to do this in Excel,” he says of his logs. “This book has more value to me than anything in the building. If there were a fire, it would be the first thing I would save. It’s like an old cookbook that has been used well, and you can remember the exact day you recorded something from the imperfections and beer stains on the page.”
No one outside a brewery can replicate that process, which means if the Ranck and the 2nd Story staff isn’t tracking how their idiosyncratic approach forged a successful Philadelphia brewpub, no one will be. Applied to thousands of brewpubs around the country, that’s a cause for concern. Twenty years from now, brewers may look back on the current state of craft beer as the golden age of haze. They may even want to replicate a New England-style IPA from the 2010s. Without preservation, a whole generation of beer makers—along with their innovation, recipes, and more—could be wiped from the history books.
Brewers—as opposed to, say, historians or journalists—are less likely to see their individual contributions to American beer as historic. Many may not consider their effort worthy of preservation, or even consider their historicity at all. Tiah Edmunson-Morton, an archivist at the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archive at Oregon State University, shares this concern.
“I think people often underestimate the importance of what they have created, especially when they are in the midst of creating it,” she explains. “They are living each day as the day that it is.”
Even craft titans like Deschutes must work hard to translate an earned feeling of accomplishment into a deliberate consideration for their own history.
“I think there is a great feeling of making beer history at Deschutes,” explains Karl Ockert, Director of Brewery Operations. “Most craft brewers who have been in the business for at least 15 years have seen the shift of customers from mainstream Lager to more flavorful beers. Hopefully breweries are recognizing that they actually have some interesting history to preserve and will more carefully document and archive the boxes they have set aside at the back of the warehouse.”
[Ockert announced in February that he’d be leaving Deschutes at the end of March, returning to his former role as craft beer consultant via his firm, Karl Ockert Brewing Services, LLC.]
It isn’t always a question of interest or modesty, either. Sometimes, it’s just another casualty of the over-busy small business. 2nd Story’s Ranck observes that “many breweries collect piles of data and never have any time to do anything with it,” and that “it should be up to every brewery to make their records engaging and precious as opposed to just a collection of unorganized files.”
The situation typically doesn’t change much when a brewery starts scaling up, either. MadTree Brewing in Cincinnati has a five-figure production volume that hardly qualifies it as a small craft brewery anymore. They recently invested in an expansion that could add a sixth digit. And yet Mike Stuart, Director of People and Social Strategy at MadTree, struggles to find time to catalog brewery milestones.
Working mostly by himself, he’s spent the last year and a half tracking can and bottle releases “to keep some record intact.” MadTree, founded in 2013, is not an old brewery, and yet it’s still a challenge for Stuart to nail down some specific dates. It’s a question of understandable priorities. Growth doesn’t inherently mean that MadTree can face anywhere but forward, even though that growth could provide real insight into expansion strategies and optimal firm size among craft breweries—something the next generation could learn from.
“There isn’t much in the way of thoughtful or proactive preservation,” he says. “Certainly the media and internet has documented much of what is happening, but it is anyone’s guess as to how well these records would be preserved. I find it challenging to find a lot of detail on the first craft beer boom back in the early 1990s.”
A common misconception is that the digital age has generated legions of bytes that immortalize our every move. Aside from the fact that recording everything worth saving takes active effort, this simply isn’t true. Data files degrade, websites get taken down. Even when they don’t, file formats and software change. Not everyone reading this article even has a DVD drive on their computer. Is there any reason to think that current systems won’t eventually go the way of Betamax? Archives today have to carefully maintain obsolete technology like VCRs in order to make use of old files. Paper is actually one of the easier media forms to maintain indefinitely.
So even once the will is there, and the resources appear, there’s still a ceiling on how well a brewery can safeguard its records without some kind of professional help. Bigger companies, including large corporate brewers, already know this and employ trained professionals to create and maintain records management policies. If craft breweries explore how they can embrace this process in ways consistent with their financial and organizational reality, their contributions to the history of American small business can be truly permanent.
Some are already leading this charge. Bolstered by a legendary craft status, the resources that come with success, and nearly 30 years in the business, Deschutes has spent the last year spearheading an internal archiving initiative. According to brewery spokesperson Angie Anderson-May, the staff has been so focused on running the business that, “until recently, we haven’t really put a lot of effort into creating a formal process for retaining records. Our records have been managed by various people over time.”
That’s a common experience for breweries, but being located in Bend gave Deschutes one important advantage: proximity to the nation’s leading brewing and hops archivist. This past summer, Edmunson-Morton and the OHBA consulted with Deschutes to launch the initiative. The end result will be a company-wide records management plan. As Anderson-May describes it, Deschutes proudly recognizes “the importance of preserving our past, not just for our own benefit, but for the independent craft brewing industry as a whole. The [OHBA] is doing a great job of telling this story through oral histories, pictures, and other artifacts.”
After months of pouring over documents and genealogical research, Thieme tracked down a descendent of William Haas—a brewmaster at Thieme & Wagner in the years before Prohibition. (Weirdly, this William Haas is of no relation to the abovementioned William Haas of Chicago.) Sitting in an Indiana basement not far from Lafayette was an old brewing manual, printed in German but filled with Haas’ handwritten notes in English, including recipes for two Thieme & Wagner originals: a Bock and a light Lager, circa 1913.
Intact pre-Prohibition recipes are notoriously rare relative to the number of American breweries, and Thieme considers himself “extremely lucky” to have found two. Working with nearby People’s Brewing Company, Thieme is already adapting the recipes for new production, just in time for the 100th anniversary of Thieme & Wagner’s 1918 closure.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Anheuser-Busch, whose corporate archives are as immense as they are notoriously inaccessible. Although their library does allow outside researchers, the most recent scholarship to utilize the unpublished corporate collections came out during the Nixon administration. Nevertheless, AB has put their history to good use in recent years, both with Super Bowl commercials and the recent release of Budweiser 1933 Repeal Reserve. Whether corporate behemoths or small-town upstarts, the principle remains the same: a brewery’s ability to muster its own past adds great potential for its identity.
Of course, breweries should consult the experts whenever possible. Deschutes reached out to Edmunson-Morton, AB has a librarian on staff, and though Thieme found his family recipes on his own, he and I talk regularly about his efforts to rediscover the Thieme & Wagner legacy.
Anyone taking an interest in brewing history, including their own, should look into the handful of historic preservation initiatives around the country, many locally focused, that specialize in beer. Most visible among them is Theresa McCulla, an oft-trekking beer historian on a three-year mission to collect brewing documents and memorabilia for the National Museum of American History. Other repositories, like the OHBA and the Hagley Museum & Library, have recorded oral histories with dozens of brewers and industry professionals. San Diego is also following suit: Cal State San Marcos recently started a “Brewchive” aimed at documenting the city’s immense craft beer culture.
If the craft beer community doesn’t take charge of its history, no one else will. This doesn’t mean leaving every brewery to fend for themselves, or asking them to conjure money or time that isn’t there. It’s about having a conversation regarding what can and should be left behind. After all, something of the past always remains. The content of those remnants can be decided through amicable conversation and mutual support, qualities for which craft beer is already known, or they can be decided by silence. The decision will not wait, either. Breweries evolve constantly. Many, unfortunately, close.
“I do worry about this, and there have been a couple cases where I feel like I could have been more proactive,” Edmunson-Morton says, recalling brewery closures in Oregon. “I hope that the OHBA is well known enough by [the community] that I get a referral if there was something really special about that business that I should get in touch with the owners. I can’t save everything, and not everything needs to be saved.”
That’s true. No archivist saves every scrap of paper or data they get their hands on. Budget and time restraints force them to carefully select what goes into their collections. Some brewery records will be redundant, others unnecessary to recount a given chapter in the story of American beer. But archivists like Edmunson-Morton are not the primary arbiters of such things, because they are not the first line of defense in historical preservation. They’re the last. Those closest to their records have the most agency, and rightfully so. No one but Ranck, for instance, can fully explain what that handwritten log means to him and his work. The creators of materials will always be best equipped to declare their meaning, show the rest of the world what’s worth saving, and pass them on. The most significant archiving takes place in real time, inside the brewery.
Preserving brewing history isn’t vanity, it’s a service. Forget what some historian will care about in 100 years. What’s important are the answers that the craft beer community might want to leave behind. Answers about who brewers and consumers are and strive to be, how businesses engage with and represent communities, or how their efforts transformed an entire industry. Answers to questions that no one has even thought of yet.
People already have questions about the world of craft beer, like what makes certain flavors and styles more popular than others, how it can better incorporate the perspectives of women and people of color, or exactly what determines a given brewer’s success in the first place. Questions like those aren’t going anywhere because they are, at their heart, historical. They are resolved over time with deliberation, trial, error and, ultimately, reflection. Whether it takes 10 years or 150, the ability to track and review progress is essential. Records can grant the American brewing industry, and its progeny, the power to fully understand its choices.
Ultimately, breweries are individually responsible for their own contributions to this conversation, but they should not be expected to reinvent the wheel. Instead, collective action should be taken to form industry-wide best practices that help breweries appraise their own records, maintain them effectively, and—if desired—partner with appropriate repositories that can maintain them in the long run. State-level guilds and associations, as well as national groups like the Brewers Association and Beer Institute, should take a leadership role in these efforts as well.
Yes, this will require some investment in a collective good. It could be as simple as commissioning guidelines for breweries to consult or, as MadTree’s Stuart envisions, an ambitious digital platform where “breweries could easily upload and record historical data.” In the meantime, Edmunson-Morton has some advice that any brewery, regardless of means, can use to safeguard their own records.
Start by designating a dry space for staff to place records that have value to the brewery’s story, she says—photos, reports, brewsheets, coasters, advertisements, media coverage, labels, and so on. Two copies are better than one, and give electronic files the same attention as physical records. Establish a uniform file-naming system, and stick with it. Consider backups or cloud storage if that’s not already practiced. Larger breweries might also hold periodic “gathering” events to clear out file cabinets.
Any effort is better than none. Files don’t need to be perfectly organized, and staff doesn’t need to be records management experts. If everything gets tossed into a box every December and labeled with that year, that’s a meaningful start. Policies can be improved over time. Finally, feel free to reach out to local historical societies, universities, or archival organizations for additional tips. As it turns out, archivists tend to be pretty good at archiving.
We can decide this imperative really isn’t all that imperative. We can wait on this if we want to, but history won’t. It will tell some version of the story, through negative space if necessary. Blank Slate, the Glossner brothers, William Crawford, the Thieme family, and countless others have made that clear. We should, at the very least, make that choice for ourselves.