Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Duluth's historic western breweries: In Heaven there is no beer, but there's plenty in Duluth

By Jim Heffernan
People's Brewery: 4230 W. 2nd St. Duluth, MN
With the new craft beer operations seemingly opening on a regular basis, especially in Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood, I thought I'd reprint a piece I wrote for Zenith City Online in 2015.  As the column points out, Duluth has a storied past in brewing even as it moves today into the forefront of craft brewing in the Upper Midwest. 
Now that Duluth is one of the major centers for craft brewing in the Upper Midwest, perhaps it’s time to take a glance back at Duluth’s storied brewing history, together with shifting attitudes toward drinking today and in the past.

Duluth has a rich history of beer brewing going back to its earliest settlement in the 1850s, with small breweries popping up and fading in the last half of the 19th century before what I’ll call the “big three” established themselves here in large brick edifices, two of them in the city’s western neighborhoods.

About a century later, by the mid-1950s, Duluth was the only city in Minnesota hosting three major breweries, but their days were numbered.

The best remembered today—Fitger’s—was not in a western neighborhood. Major portions of that brewing company’s imposing structure at 600 East Superior Street remain as a hotel and shopping and dining facility including Fitger’s Brewhouse Brewery and Grille, an operation befitting the complex’s 135-year history. 
Fitgers Brewery, Duluth, MN

Major brewing elsewhere in the city was located in West End (now Lincoln Park) and West Duluth (now Spirit Valley), where hardly any traces of their operations exist today. Duluth Brewing and Malting stood at 231 South 29th Avenue West (adjacent to today’s Clyde Iron/Heritage Sports Center facility) and the People’s Brewery operated out of 4230 West Second Street, a block south of Grand Avenue.

Like Fitger’s, both were housed in imposing castle-like buildings, with Duluth Brewing and Malting

operating in a six-story brick building a stone’s throw from today’s path of Interstate 35 through that part of Duluth. According to Lost Duluth, Duluth Brewing and Malting’s headquarters had at least three towers and was trimmed with stone quarried at Fond du Lac.

I remember the building, usually called the “Royal Brewery” (after one of its popular brands) in my lifetime. It contained a taproom where parties and wedding receptions were held well into the 1960s. Royal went out of business in 1966, with most of the property purchased by the Minnesota Department of Transportation for Interstate 35 construction.

Royal’s West Duluth neighbor, the People’s Brewery, was established in 1908 by socialist entrepreneurs (a seeming oxymoron) “to avoid having to buy beer from Fitger’s and large national breweries and so they could…resist the evils of capitalism,” according to Lost Duluth. That didn’t stop them from erecting a five-story, castle-like structure for their brewing operation. 

And for socialists, the People’s people seemed pretty impressed with European royalty, as were their competitors a few block eastward at Duluth Brewing and Malting. The People’s Brewery’s best known beer was named “Regal Supreme” while Duluth Brewing and Malting produced a popular product called “Royal Bohemian” which later became “Royal 58.” That brewery also developed the “Rex” trademark, which later was sold to Fitger’s where it became one of the brewery's most popular beers. Rex has a strong royalty association as well—“Rex” is Latin for “king;” The beer’s full name was “Rex ImperialDry Beer.”

Portions of these huge complexes remain today. Carlson Duluth Plumbing is housed in what was once the offices of Duluth Malt and Brewing, and Brock-White Landscape Products and Serv-Pro operate out of remnants of the former People’s facilities. In fact, the brewery’s tanks are still inside the building Serv-Pro owns, as the walls would need to be partially demolished to remove them.

With modern brewing methods, it no longer takes multi-story, rambling factory-like buildings with scores of employees to produce beer. Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood alone houses two of the many craft beer producers that have cropped up in the Zenith City over the past several years: Lake Superior Brewing Co. at 2711 West Superior St., which bills itself as Minnesota’s oldest microbrewer, and Bent Paddlebrewing at 1912 West Michigan Street. Several other microbreweries—including the Brewhouse, Carmody Irish Pub & Brewing, Blacklist Brewing, and Canal Park Brewing Company—operate out of brewpubs found downtown and in the Canal Park business district, where you will also find a microdistillery.

Beer, beer everywhere, and plenty of varieties to drink, unlike those days of yore when there were just three breweries in the city, housed in massive buildings. They were three too many, though, as far as folks clinging to temperance attitudes were concerned.

Prohibition, the American experiment that likely spawned more beer brewing than we have even today—but undercover—ended in 1933 after 14 dry years, but the attitudes it promulgated lasted well into mid-century and beyond. Protestant (but not Catholic) churches, in particular, condemned “demon rum” (as all drinking alcohol was often called) and Duluth had an active chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union until well after World War II.

In the Lutheran environment I was reared in, any drinking of alcohol was soundly condemned from the pulpit, with card playing and dancing not far behind. And while that message received lip service by many congregants, plenty of booze rendered its own lip service in the confines of people’s homes. And of course, for those less concerned about the religious attitudes toward drinking, the city’s West End offered plenty of taverns for open defiance of drinking strictures laid down in the churches.

Even in the 1960s, when, as a young newspaper reporter in Duluth I would cover meetings of the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Board, its members—led at the time by a Lutheran minister—tried to keep a tight lid on all purveyors of malt beverages and spirits.

Today, thanks to the most recent session of the Minnesota Legislature, you can even buy a growler of beer to take home on a Sunday, a move that remained controversial due partly to those blue-nosed attitudes of the past, which continue to prohibit, in Minnesota, off-sale beer and liquor sales on the Sabbath.

Those attitudes are fading fast, though, as more and more small brewing operations compete for a public that today views beer drinking in moderation as an innocent libation and not a ticket to eternal damnation.

So today we can celebrate this new era of Duluth’s brewing history by raising a glass of local brew without fear of the afterlife—and we should do it while we can, for as the song says, “In heaven there is no beer.”

Originally appeared on August 16, 2015 in Zenith City Online

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