The following is the work of Wilhelm W. Seeger, former professor of German at Grand Valley State University. This is the seventh and final part of his essay published in the Grand River Valley Review, Volume VIII, Number 1, 1988, by the Grand Rapids Historical Society. Posted with permission.
After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, it wasn’t long before beer again became available in the Grand Rapids area. At first, the product was provided by local distributors working for Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee breweries. The First load of Blatz beer was delivered from Milwaukee to Grand Rapids by airplane on May 1, 1933.
Local breweries also began gearing up for production. In 1933 the Great Lakes Brewing Co. occupied the site of the old Petersen Brewery on Indiana and Bridge (Note: was apparently never operational). The Imperial Brewing Co., organized by Lewis, Albert and Arthur A. Geistert, started up on West Leonard Street. Later known as the Old Kent Brewing Co., the firm would become the Valley City Brewing Co. in 1935, with C. B. Pfeifler as president.
The onetime giant of the Grand Rapids beer industry made a brief comeback, too. In December of 1932, the Grand Rapids Brewing Co. filed articles of incorporation with the Michigan Dept. of State and in the following year merged with the Furniture City Brewing Co., another pre-Prohibition brewery. Operated by a group of officers whose names continued to reflect the local industry’s German heritage – G. A. Kusterer, Frank A. Veit, Frank Neuman, George Gruenbauer and William J. Pulte – the new company hoped to begin operations at the old H. M. Reynolds Shingle Company site, which it owned. But it was not until 1935, when Frank D. McKay, local businessman, financier and politician, purchased the former Muskegon Brewing Co. property in Muskegon and became the Grand Rapids Brewing Company’s secretary-treasurer, that the firm actually began brewing beer. The beer was produced in Muskegon and shipped to Grand Rapids where the company offices were located. But the business never prospered, and by the late 1930s the Grand Rapids Brewing Co. vanished from the list of brewers in the city directory. Its assets were liquidated and the firm dissolved in 1946.
The rival Michigan Brewing Co. met with a similar fate. Organized in 1935, the firm purchased the old Grand Rapids Brewing Co. property -originally the site of Christoph Kusterer’s brewery -on Michigan Street. After extensive remodeling and the installation of new equipment, the Michigan Brewing Co. was ready to begin selling beer in the fall of 1936. Named Old Michigan beer, the product was sold in a new metal barrel to on-draught retailers and in the new, shorter, fatter, 12 ounce “Brownie” bottle to consumers.
But the Michigan Brewing Company, like all of the other local beer makers, could not make a go of it. In June of 1940 the company’s assets came into the hands of a bondholders’ committee, and in December the brewery was purchased by the Peter Fox Brewing Company of Chicago (and named the Fox Deluxe Brewing Co.). Fox Deluxe beer was brewed at the site until 1951 when the company suspended its Grand Rapids operations and removed to Chicago. Thus ended more than a century of beer manufacture in Grand Rapids.
In November of 1954, the city of Grand Rapids purchased the brewery property for $160,000. Ten years later, in May of 1964, the ten-unit complex of old brewery buildings was demolished to make way for urban renewal. Today, a parking lot stands on the spot where Christoph Kusterer opened his brewery in 1850, and the last vestiges of a once-proud German-American business are gone forever.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. I know I’d never forgotten reading it back when it was originally publish. Much thanks to Wilhelm Seeger, The Edelweiss Club of Grand Rapids, Gina Bivins and The Grand Rapids Historical Society and the fantastic Michigan breweriana & historical website, MI-Brew, who hosted many of the public images seen here.
Since Professor Seeger’s work was originally published, obviously much has changed in Grand Rapids and the brewing industry. Schelde Enterprises (a Michigan restaurant chain) re-opened a brewpub verson of Grand Rapids Brewing Company in 1993 (which has since closed, but the same name is due to re-open later this year under separate ownership) which poured the first locally produced retail beer in the area in three and a half decades…and seemed to literally open the “floodgates” for beer.
Although several have come and gone, the Grand Rapids metro area is now home to well over a dozen breweries today, with several more in various stages of planning. The largest is Founders Brewing Company and the latest is Perrin Brewing Company (as of this posting), with a little of nearly every thing in between. In fact, the city just earned recognition as Beer City, USA, based on an online vote. It is a credit to the “Braumeisters of Old Grand Rapids” that the Brewmasters of New Grand Rapids have found such fertile soil for their efforts.