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Monday, March 4, 2013

Grand Rapids Brewing Company: Good Press Since 1913

The original GRBC sat at the corner of
East Bridge (Michigan St) & Ionia*
Recently, while researching old newspaper archives, I came across a full page article about the Grand Rapids Brewing Company that ran in the August 23rd, 1913 edition of The Grand Rapids Press.

I use the word “article” loosely as the anonymous writer unabashedly praised both the wholesomeness of the company’s products and the wonders of its state of the art facilities. In reality, it was a paid advertisement wrapped in the guise of a feature story—an attempt by the GRBC to counter the anti-alcohol campaigns that were at the time threatening Michigan’s brewing industry. That fact alone gives the piece historical value. It’s a bonus that we find scattered throughout the blatant horn blowing and purple prose a number of interesting details regarding the workings of a “modern”  brewery in the early 20th century. 

The article begins by stating that “in the modern brewery one will find none of the lamentable conditions which are too prevalent in restaurants, dairies, bakeries, etc. Rather one finds the greatest possible cleanliness and freedom from circumstances which breed and propagate disease producing bacteria.” The reader is then informed that six local breweries consolidated to form the GRBC in 1892 and that the company moved into its “splendid” and “stupendously large” plant three years later.

A discussion of the brewing process follows. Readers are informed that “brewing begins with malt” and that malt is barley that has been germinated and kilned after the sprouts had been removed. We learn that the GRBC mechanically elevated its malt to storage bins on the upper floor and that gravity was used to move the grain to the lower level of the brew house. The author states that corn and rice are used in the production of American beer, explaining that adjuncts aren’t utilized by brewers in Germany “not for the reason of securing a fine quality of beer but because corn and rice are not produced in Germany. Indeed, the best authorities today favor the use of corn or rice with the malt.”

The author further educates the reader by stating that hops are another component of beer and that chemical hop substitutes are never used by the GRBC brewers. According to the article, the company purchased hops once a year from Washington, Oregon and Germany, and stored “the vast supply at low temperatures so as not to become rancid.” 

We learn that after the malt was milled it was placed in “cookers” and immersed in hot water. The malt was mashed, the liquid was strained through perforated bottoms and was then transferred into large kettles where it was boiled with the hops. At the end of the boil the liquid passed through a hop jack, was pumped into coolers and was then transferred to the fermentation tanks in the cellar. GRBC had thirty-two open fermenters, each having a capacity of 150 barrels, that were made from California redwood. The brewery’s yeast, the reader is told, was cultivated in a laboratory from strains initially imported from Germany.

After fermentation the beer was transferred into wooden tanks, also located in the cellar, where it aged for six months “during which time it ripened and matured.” The finished beer was then packaged in wooden kegs or sent to a bottling line that was capable of packaging 400 barrels of beer in ten hours. In 1913, the brewery kegged and bottled four beers—Silver Foam, Export, Pilsner and Alt Nuernberger.

After describing the brewing operation the author states that “No one can go thorough the plant of the Grand Rapids Brewing Company and not feel very deeply that the modern brewer is not like his ancestor, a bungling workman and empiricist. Rather he is an educated observer of scientific laws who has an adequate knowledge of chemistry and biology and who follows out well established rules in his everyday work in order to conform to modern tastes and modern economy.” This rather curious statement may have been an attempt by the brewery to distance itself from the anti-German sentiment that was sweeping west Michigan. Most of the area’s breweries had initially been established by German immigrants and the temperance movement was linking the unwholesomeness of consuming beer to the legacy of the German brewers.

In an obvious attempt to refute prohibitionist claims that beer is unwholesome and that the alcohol it contains is, indeed, poisonous, the writer ends the article by providing a quote attributed to a Professor T.J. Clouster of Edinburg University: “Alcohol excites the appetite, improves digestion, stimulates certain nutritive processes and is beneficial in the laying down of fat.” Apparently the GRBC had decided it was time to fight the outrageous claims being spouted by the dry movement with its own sort of scurrilous fire.

*Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids Historical Commision

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