The following is the work of Wilhelm W. Seeger, former professor of German at Grand Valley State University. This is the first of a planned seven “chapters” from his essay published in the Grand River Valley Review, Volume VIII, Number 1, 1988, by the Grand Rapids Historical Society. Posted with permission.
Beer has been a popular beverage in the United States ever since the days of the earliest colonists to these shores. In 1620, the Mayflower, which carried the Pilgrims to the New World, stocked a goodly supply of beer on board, not only to satisfy crew and passenger thirst, but also as a measure for preventing scurvy. The English colonists in Virginia and all along the eastern seaboard chose beer as a healthful alternative to the dangers of drinking the water.(1) The Dutch who settled New Netherland in the early part of the seventeenth century were even fonder of the foaming brew. The Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, founded in 1626, had a population of 350 by 1629; about three years later the Dutch West India Company, proprietors of the colony, built a brewery not far from the fort. (2)
Seventeenth-century Philadelphians were beer drinkers, too. So was their leader, William Penn, whose conversion to Quakerism did nothing to dull his appreciation of good food and drink and who maintained a brewhouse at his Pennsbury estate.(3) Although hard cider emerged as a serious rival in the eighteenth century, beer retained much of its earlier popularity. Such founding fathers as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison drank beer, and George Washington was so fond of porter that he had a supply sent regularly to his Mount Vernon home (4).
After the American Revolution, the new nation favored the production of beer or cider over the manufacture of hard liquor as a means of encouraging temperance among the population. And local breweries enjoyed state and federal government support in the form of tax relief and protection from foreign competition.
Beginning in the early years of the nineteenth century, substantial numbers of immigrants from Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Netherlands made their way to the United States, bringing with them their love for beer and creating an expanding market for the products of the brewer’s art. German-born immigrants began arriving in Grand Rapids in the 1840s, and within a decade Germans were one of the city’s largest immigrant groups. Their growing presence increased the local demand for beer and led to the need for more breweries and trained brewmasters to run them.
The first brewer in Grand Rapids was an Englishman named John Pannell, who came to town in 1836 and built a small brewery over a stream at the bottom of Prospect Hill on the east side of Kent Street. His modest output – “a barrel or two at a brewing” – of English hop beer gradually increased, and by 1844, thanks to rising demand, his brewery was doing quite well. That same year, Christoph Kusterer, a brewer trained in Germany, established a brewery on the west side of the river and shortly thereafter went into partnership with Pannell.
Christoph Kusterer was a prominent figure in the local German-American community. A founding member of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Immanuel in 1857, he was the captain of the Grand Rapids Rifles, a German- American militia unit. He also served as a parade marshal for the “Grand German Jollification,” an event which celebrated Prussia’s victory over France in 1871. Kusterer’s life came to a tragic end in October 1880 when he, along with all others on board, went down with the steamer Alpena in a violent Lake Michigan storm. His brewing business, however, was carried on by his sons and grandsons, and the Kusterer name remained linked to the brewing of lager beer in Grand Rapids well into the twentieth century.
1. J.C. Furnas, The Americans: A Social History of the United States, 1587-191.4 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969), p 55.
2. Stanley Barron, Brewed in America (Boston and Toronto, Little, Brown and Company, 1962), pp. 19ff.
3. Ibid. pp. 43ff.
4. Ibid. pp. 113-17.