Filed Under Food

Leisy Brewery

In 1873, Isaac Leisy and his two brothers (all originally from Bavaria in Germany) left their small brewery in rural Iowa and came to Cleveland after purchasing Frederick Haltnorth's brewery on Vega Avenue for $120,000. Haltnorth (who was also the proprietor of Haltnorth's Gardens -- a beer garden at East 55th Street and Woodland Avenue) had purchased the brewery in 1864 from Jacob Mueller, who originally opened it in 1858. Only weeks before purchasing Haltnorth's brewery, Isaac Leisy had been in Cleveland to attend the annual Brewer's Congress. Leisy must have been impressed with the opportunities for growth and prosperity in Cleveland, which was quickly becoming an industrial metropolis, as compared to those that existed in rural Iowa.

In the mid-1880s, Isaac Leisy (having bought out his brothers) renovated the old brewery and expanded its operations, constructing a multi-building, eight-acre campus along Vega Avenue and increasing beer production eightfold. The Leisy Brewery aimed to be as self-sufficient as possible, and to this end the brewery's grounds contained, for example, a bottling plant, stables for its fleet of horse-drawn delivery carriages, a cooperage, a blacksmith shop, and two 80-foot silos that held barley prior to its on-site malting. Self-sufficiency was important since competition among breweries in Cleveland at the time was fierce, with nearly twenty breweries operating in the city in 1890. To make matters more difficult for Leisy, in 1898 ten small Cleveland brewers joined the new Cleveland & Sandusky Brewing Co., a massive combination that signaled the brewing industry's turn towards consolidation. Isaac's son Otto took control of the company after his father's death in 1892 and promptly vowed to remain independent of the new combination. He wrote to the Plain Dealer in 1898, emphatically stating that "My firm has existed in Cleveland for over a quarter of a century; has prospered by honorable methods of trade, thereby obtaining, possessing and enjoying the confidence of the same. By its former methods my company proposes to preserve and maintain its trade, and in a fair way compete with its opponent, the huge beer trust."

Indeed, Leisy Brewing remained an independent, family-owned brewery throughout its entire history. It thrived in the decades before Prohibition, steadily increasing its sales and production. When Prohibition took effect in 1920 and brewing beer became illegal, the company made a short-lived attempt to produce non-alcoholic beverages. This proved to be unprofitable, and Leisy Brewing closed in 1923. Unlike some of Cleveland's other breweries which had also been forced to shut down during Prohibition, Leisy returned after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. That year, Otto's son Herbert Leisy reopened the brewery, reequipping it with new machinery to replace the equipment that had been sold off during Prohibition. Industry consolidation, however, continued to chip away at Cleveland's small, independent breweries in the decades after Prohibition. Leisy Brewing finally closed in 1958, and its plant on Vega Avenue was demolished in the mid-1970s.

Images

Packing, 1934 Employees pack bottles of beer into wooden crates as a man in a suit (perhaps their boss) looks on. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Lithograph, Circa 1880s This lithograph produced by the Leisy Brewing Company shows the company's eight-acre campus on Vega Avenue after the completion of a series of renovations and expansions in 1884. The house to the right of the main building belonged to owner Isaac Leisy, while the small structures to the left are the stables where the company's fleet of horse-drawn delivery wagons was kept. Across Vega Avenue is Leisy's bottling works which opened in 1878, making the company one of the first breweries to bottle its own beer. Railroad tracks ran directly behind the main brewing building. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Sampling a Leisy Dortmunder, 1939 Brewmaster Carl Faller (left) and owner Herbert Leisy sample their new beer, the Leisy Dortmunder. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: June 5, 1939
King Gambrinus, 1951 A statue of King Gambrinus, the unofficial patron saint of beer and beer brewing, stands outside the Leisy plant in 1951. Gambrinus is a mythological figure whose exact origins are not known. One legend states that he was John the Fearless, King of Flanders during the Middle Ages and the inventor of hop-brewed beer, while another story traces his legend to the court of Emperor Charlemagne some 500 years earlier. His figure is portrayed on statues, labels, and beer steins across the world. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Temperance Raid on Public Square Cafe, 1907 Carrie Nation and her followers are shown conducting a raid on the E & C Cafe on Public Square in 1907. In the pre-Prohibition era, Mrs. Nation gained national attention for her radical anti-alcohol activities which sometimes included her personally smashing up the insides of bars with a hatchet. This particular establishment has signs on its front windows advertising that it serves beer from Leisy Brewing. In the days before large, nationally-distributed beer brands, local breweries would contract with various establishments for the right to be their exclusive provider of beer. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Prohibition Agents at Leisy Prohibition agents and other federal officers watch as the beer tanks are emptied at Leisy Brewery. National Prohibition took effect in 1920, forcing all of Cleveland's breweries to decide upon a course of action. Some companies permanently closed, while some switched to the production of ice cream or drinks such as juice, soda, and near-beer. Leisy's limited line of non-alcoholic beverages was expanded with the onset of Prohibition, and the company made soda, root beer, orangeade, and ginger ale. But the Leisy plant closed in 1923, selling all of its equipment. It did not reopen until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
The Rathskaller, 1951 In the era before refrigeration, the rathskaller (or basement) 50-feet below the Leisy Brewery was used to keep beer cold. Eventually, it became a popular gathering place— complete with a kitchen and bar—for various social clubs and societies. Here, Otto Kalsen (left), Leisy's brewmaster, and Julius Gisi, the engineer of the brewery's refrigeration system, enjoy a pint of Leisy beer. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Brewery Before Demolition, 1974 The Leisy Brewery was demolished not long after this photograph was taken in 1974. By this time, the brewery had been closed for nearly 15 years. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections

Location

3400 Vega Ave, Cleveland, OH 44113 | Demolished

Metadata

Michael Rotman, “Leisy Brewery,” Cleveland Historical, accessed December 3, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/156.