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The Brewing Industry in Cleveland

The Great Lakes Brewing Company opened in Ohio City in 1988, kick-starting an industry in Cleveland that a few years earlier had appeared to be finished. In 1984, the city's only remaining brewery, C. Schmidt & Sons, closed its doors, becoming the final victim of the brewing industry's trend toward consolidation. The emergence of national beer brands with gigantic production facilities and even bigger advertising budgets hurt Cleveland's breweries -- even those that had retooled and expanded following World War II to become regional producers. The city had nine breweries in 1939, five in 1960, and then none in 1984 with the closing of Schmidt's.

Beer had probably been brewed in Cleveland from its earliest days, but the brewing industry really took off in the 1840s with the arrival of large numbers of German and Bohemian immigrants. Their lager beer (different from "ale," which had English origins) proved to be popular with Clevelanders of all ethnicities, and in 1852 German immigrant Carl Gehring opened the Gehring Brewery at what is today Gehring Avenue and West 25th Street in Ohio City. Other immigrants followed suit, and by 1900 there were 23 breweries in the city. These were generally small, family-run businesses that produced beer for consumption within the city. Already by 1899, however, when ten of Cleveland's breweries merged to form the regional Cleveland & Sandusky Brewing Company, it was becoming clear that only the biggest breweries would survive in the city's increasingly competitive brewing industry.

The start of National Prohibition in 1920 led some Cleveland breweries to permanently close, while others switched to producing juice, soda, or dairy products. Several reopened immediately following Prohibition's repeal in 1933, and by 1939 Cleveland had 9 breweries which employed 1,265 persons and produced over $10 million worth of beverages. New forms of mechanization and expanded sales territories led to increased production at the breweries that made it through Prohibition. Despite further expansions, mergers, and regional sales strategies, though, none of Cleveland's breweries could compete with the national brands that emerged after World War II.

The success of the Great Lakes Brewing Company, however, has brought brewing back to Cleveland. Several microbreweries now operate in the city, with the most recent opening in a space next to the West Side Market. How fitting that Ohio City, home to several breweries during the industry's heyday at the turn of the 20th-century, should emerge as Cleveland's new brewing center over 100 years later!

Video

The German Connection Dr. Robert Musson, an expert on Cleveland's brewing industry, discusses the role German-Americans played in the beer business.

Audio

The Saloon Business Dr. Robert Musson, an expert on Cleveland's brewing industry, talks about how breweries once owned the city's saloons. Source: Courtesy of Mark Pecot
"The Big Guys Got Bigger" Dr. Robert Musson, an expert on Cleveland's brewing industry, discusses the decline of Cleveland's brewing industry after World War II. Source: Courtesy of Mark Pecot

Images

Great Lakes Brewery The Great Lakes Brewery Brewpub on Market Avenue is made up of three buildings constructed during the 1860s. The buildings once hosted The Elton Hotel, McClean's Feed & Seed Company, and the Market Tavern. The Market Tavern, a favorite spot of Elliot Ness when he served as Cleveland's Safety Director during the 1930s, is now known as the Taproom and features an original 1860s mahogany bar. Image courtesy of the Center For Public History + Digital Humanities
Leisy Brewery, ca. 1880s Isaac Leisy and his two brothers (all originally from Bavaria) opened the Leisy Brewery on Cleveland's near west side in 1873. In the mid-1880s, Isaac (having bought out his brothers) renovated the old brewery and expanded its operations, constructing a multi-building, 8-acre campus along Vega Avenue, 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. Leisy Brewery remained independent throughout its history, refusing to merge with its competitors, but closed in 1958. The brewery building was torn down in the 1970s. Image courtesy of 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. After an unsuccessful attempt at selling soda and other non-alcoholic drinks, Leisy Brewing closed during Prohibition and even sold all of its equipment, but Herbert Leisy reopened the brewery after Prohibition's repeal in 1933. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Sampling, 1934 Phillip Bernair (left) and Sebastian Aigner sample the final product at the Cleveland Home Brewing Company before placing the beer in waiting kegs. The Cleveland Home Brewing Company was founded in 1907 by Ernst W. Mueller. Its brewery was located at 2501 East 61st Street, near Outhwaite Avenue. Mueller, a German immigrant, had previously owned the Cleveland Brewing Company, which merged with the Cleveland & Sandusky Brewing Company in 1897. The Cleveland Home Brewing Company was perhaps best known for its "Black Forest Beer" based on the Mueller Family's own formula. Sales declined at the company following World War II, however, and it closed in 1952. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
P.O.C. Beer, 1933 Workers pack beer at the Pilsener Brewing Company, located at Clark Avenue and West 65th Street. Bohemian brewer Wenzel Medlin founded the company in 1892. The company is best remembered for its P.O.C. beer, which stood not for "Pride of Cleveland" (as some mistakenly believe today) but "Pilsner of Cleveland." Pittsburgh-based Duquense Brewing Company bought Pilsner Brewing in 1963, however, and P.O.C. (which then became short for "Pleasure on Call") was brewed in Pittsburgh until Duquense itself went bankrupt ten years later. At that point, C. Schmidt & Sons purchased their brand names, and the P.O.C. was once again brewed in Cleveland until 1984. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Old Car Factory, 1952 Workers oversee the automated bottling process at the Brewing Corporation of America in 1952. The Brewing Corporation of America began in Cleveland in 1933 after the Great Depression put Cleveland's Peerless Motor Car Company, maker of luxury automobiles, out of business. Peerless's president decided to convert the company's automobile factory at 9400 Quincy Avenue into a brewery. After a series of expansions, the Brewing Corporation of America switched its name to the Carling Brewing Company in 1954 and began selling Red Cap ale and Black Label beer in markets across the country. Citing the cost of running its aging Quincy Avenue plant, Carling left Cleveland in 1971 and moved its headquarters to Massachusetts. By this time, the company had several breweries throughout the nation. The facility on Quincy Avenue then served as the home of the C. Schmidt & Son's brewery from 1972-1984. It has since been torn down. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Schlather Brewing, 1974 This building near Carroll Avenue and West 26th Street, shown here in a state of decay in 1974, is part of a complex that now houses the Great Lakes Brewing Company's production facility. Formerly, the buildings now used by Great Lakes Brewing served as the horse stables and bottling plant for the Leonard Schlather Brewing Company, founded in 1857 by a German immigrant. Schlather merged with the Cleveland and Sandusky Brewing Corporation in 1902, which used this facility for bottling until 1933. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University Library Special Collections

Location

Metadata

Mark Pecot, “The Brewing Industry in Cleveland,” Cleveland Historical, accessed January 22, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/311.