During the 1980s, there were only a handful of “craft” beer breweries in the U.S. Still, a young Kalamazoo entrepreneur went into the brewing business, armed only with a recipe, a 15-gallon soup pot, and a $200 birthday gift from his mom. Today, Bell’s Brewery, Inc. is the largest craft brewer in Michigan, with the capacity to produce more than 500,000 barrels annually. Others have since followed suit, leading to the annual Kalamazoo Beer Week celebration and Kalamazoo’s nomination for “Beer City USA” in 2013.
Larry Bell, along with Kalamazoo’s other brewmasters at Olde Peninsula, Boatyard, Bilbo’s, and elsewhere, follow a long line of local brewers and maltsters, reaching back to the early nineteenth century. In fact, the art of crafting fine (and some perhaps otherwise) beers and ales can be traced to Kalamazoo’s earliest days as a frontier village.
Early Home Brewing
Many of the first brewers in Bronson (Kalamazoo) Village were do-it-yourself operations. Recipes published locally during the summer of 1838 gave instructions for “cheap and agreeable table beer,” made with water, molasses and yeast. “Spruce Beer” was made by adding spruce oil or twigs and leaves to the same basic recipe. Some advocated brewing with the shells of green peas, which were said to closely resemble malt. Others added wintergreen and sassafras. A recipe for “Sugar Beer” called for water, sugar and yeast, but it cautioned that “this beer [would] not keep any length of time.” (Don’t expect local brewers to resurrect this recipe anytime soon!)
No matter what recipe was used or what quantities were made, brewing supplies were readily available in nineteenth century Kalamazoo. By 1837, hops could be found at the Medical Store, opposite the Land Office. Barley was grown locally, and could be purchased at Edwards’ Grocery Store on Main Street. Brewer’s thermometers were found at J. P. Clapham’s Drug Store, and by the 1860s, the Roberts & Hillhouse City Drug Store was selling large quantities of extracts of roots expressly for beer making. By the end of the decade, A. C. Wortley was advertising “a large and varied assortment of barometers, intended expressly for the use of brewers.”
By April 1837, Kalamazoo had within four short years grown from a handful of log huts into a bustling frontier village, with more than a thousand inhabitants, a dozen stores, a weekly newspaper, mills, offices, shops, and at least one established commercial brewery. In 1842, Foster & Fish were advertising “Strong Beer” by the barrel and half-barrel at their dry goods store on Main Street.
By the end of the decade, population had increased fourfold and business was booming. At least two commercial breweries were by then operating within the corporation limits of Kalamazoo.
John Hall’s ‘Kalamazoo Brewery’
One of Kalamazoo’s first commercial brewers was John Hall. In December 1846, the Kalamazoo Gazette referred to the great many improvements being made in Kalamazoo Village, including “(t)he large brewery of Mr. Hall” which had “just gone into operation.” Hall’s brewery was located just west of the village on Ansel K. Post’s property where today’s Oakland Drive (then “the road to Genesee Prairie” and later “Asylum Road”) meets what is now Michigan Avenue (then the “Paw Paw Road”) next to Arcadia Creek, about where WMU’s Physical Plant is now located.
In May 1849, an English immigrant named Benjamin Hall formed a partnership with native New Yorker Jason Russell* under the name of Hall & Russell and took over John Hall’s brewery operation. By 1850, Hall & Russell were consuming some 2,000 bushels of barley annually and producing 14,000 gallons of product each year.
*Some accounts refer to Jason Russell as “Rupello,” perhaps due to poor handwritng on the 1850 census.
For reasons yet unknown, Hall & Russell gave up the brewery trade on Arcadia Creek and in April 1852, Ansel Post put the “celebrated Kalamazoo Brewery” up for sale, describing it as “one of the best and most convenient establishments of the kind in the state” (Gazette).
James Holmes & Jacob Harlan
Kalamazoo’s other pre-1850s brewery was located on Burdick Street near the Michigan Central depot. This could very well have been Kalamazoo’s first brewery as described in an April 1837 Gazette article, but details of its exact origin are sketchy. An 1853 Gazette article describes the location as “Wood’s Brewery,” though other details of its original ownership have yet to be found.
According to the 1850 U.S. Federal Census, there were four professional brewers in Kalamazoo at the time—Benjamin Hall and Jason Russell, who were associated with the Asylum Road brewery, and two others who presumably operated the Burdick Street brewery; an English immigrant named James S. Holmes, and a German immigrant named Jacob Harlan. The 1850 Michigan nonpopulation census tells us that Harlan led the more modest of the two breweries, consuming some 1,100 bushels of barley each year and producing about 6,000 gallons of beer in the process.
Hall & Holmes’ Brewery & Saloon
By 1853, Harlan was out of the brewing trade and James Holmes was in partnership with former “west end” brewer Benjamin Hall when they opened their “new and spacious dining saloon” next door to the Burdick Street brewery. Business boomed and within a few months, Hall & Holmes were offering market price in cash for up to 5,000 bushels of barley for their brewery. Hall died in February 1859, leaving Holmes as the sole proprietor, yet the operation was still producing about 350 barrels (roughly 11,000 gallons) annually. By 1862, however, Holmes had evidently discontinued brewing and by 1867, his saloon had also ceased operation.
A Second Round: Commercial Brewing in Kalamazoo after 1850
Beginning in the 1850s, Kalamazoo’s brewery business witnessed unprecedented growth. As of 1856, there were still just two commercial breweries in Kalamazoo. By the end of the Civil War, however, there were no less than six commercial breweries operating within the confines of the “Big Village.” The largest of these were located 1.) on Asylum Avenue, just west of the village; 2.) on East Main Street near the river; 3.) on North Burdick Street, two blocks north of the railroad depot; 4.) on Walnut Street, one block east of Burdick Street; 5.) on Winstead Street, near the intersection of Portage and Lovell; and 6.) on Lake Street, just east of Portage Street. Still others, like ‘Old Joe’ Burchnall’s, had sprung up during the same time period in nearby outlying areas. Many were established well before the Civil War and most enjoyed modest success until the late 1870s.
John Williams’ Small Beer Manufactory
On the “light” end of the brewing spectrum, John Williams began advertising his Small Beer (low alcohol) Manufactory in May 1852, located on Main Street, opposite the court house. Soda water, lemon pop, and “Dr. Cronks compound Sarsaparilla Beer” were Williams’ specialties. William Seymour and Henry F. Schoenheit later ran similar operations.
‘Old Joe’ Burchnall’s Brewery
Joseph and Dorothy Burchnall (sometimes spelled Burchnell or Burchnal) emigrated from England in 1858. By 1861, the couple had established a brewery on their family farm south of the village in section 34 of Kalamazoo Township, between Portage Creek and the “Kalamazoo and Three Rivers Plank Road” (Lovers Lane), near where Milham Park is today. According to the Gazette, “This establishment was not a large one, in fact, it was a rather enlarged ‘home brew’ outfit, but the excellence of its product was scattered by all who loved beers and ales made in the real old English way.”
But the Burchnalls’ output during the 1860s was significant, and by 1865, they had become the second largest producer (by taxable value) in Kalamazoo, averaging up to sixty barrels or more each month. Burchnall’s “Home Brewed Ale” (known famously around the area as “Old Joe’s XX”) was available by special arrangement at Joseph Moore’s Portage Street Grocery store.
By 1867, Dorothy Birchnall had become superintendent and was overseeing the day-to-day operation of the brewery. Even after Joseph Burchnall’s death in 1873, Ms. Burchnall continued to maintain the brewery on her own for several years—her ginger ale was a specialty.
As an interesting aside, the Burchnalls’ daughter, Mary Elizabeth Burchnall (b: 1847) later married Thomas Westnedge (b: 1834) and they became the parents of Col. Joseph Burchnall Westnedge (b: 1872), Kalamazoo’s famous WWI hero.
Robert Walker’s Plank Road Brewery
But the Burchnall story doesn’t quite end there. In 1876, three years after her husband’s death, Dorothy Burchnall married Robert Walker, a Kalamazoo farmer and English immigrant. Walker engaged in the brewery trade on the former Burchnall property at least until 1878, though the operation apparently didn’t last long after that. Little else is known about Robert Walker or his brewery. When the census taker came around in June 1880, Robert and Dorothy Walker were identified as married and living in Kalamazoo Township; he was a farmer and she was “keeping house.” No mention is made thereafter of a brewery operation on the Burchnall property. By 1881, Dorothy Walker was listed as a lone resident on her farm, perhaps widowed once again. Dorothy Burchnall (Walker) passed away a widow in April 1892; an accidental fire claimed the old brewery barn and house later that same year.
Sebastian Syke & George Foegele
Born in Spain of German parents about 1795, Sebastian Syke came to Kalamazoo from Rochester, New York, in the 1850s and took over Hall’s old Kalamazoo Brewery on Asylum Road. In 1856, Syke went into partnership with a young French master brewer named George Foegele, also from Rochester. Together, they called their operation the Kalamazoo Spring Brewery.
Frederick William Seyfferth
By 1860, Syke & Foegele’s Kalamazoo Spring Brewery had become a three person operation, led by Syke, Foegele, and brewer Frederick William Seyfferth. Their brewery consumed some 3,700 bushels of malt and 2,500 pounds of hops each year, and produced “a superior article of ale and lager beer” (Gazette), with annual output of approximately 1,500 barrels (nearly 46,000 gallons). An 1861 advertisement promised a “pure and lively tonic beverage, unsurpassed [for] those suffering from debility, ague and chill fever.”
Nicholas Baumann & Co.
About 1862, Syke and Foegele were joined by Nicholas Baumann (see Portage Brewery), who eventually took over the operation as Nicholas Baumann & Co. By 1865, Foegele & Baumann were the largest producers (according to taxable value) of the four local (licensed) brewers.
In October 1867, fire broke out at Bauman’s Asylum Road brewery. The large main (wooden) building burned to the ground, although the residence house next to it and other buildings were spared. The following summer, Baumann rebuilt and enlarged his brewery with a $25,000 addition built by Henry W. Coddington, a prominent local architect and builder. Baumann renamed his operation the Kalamazoo Steam Brewery. Of note were the brewery’s ice-chilled cellars where some 150 butts (large wooden storage tanks) were kept for aging, each of which contained roughly thirty barrels (900+ gallons) of ale. By 1868, William S. Downer was Baumann’s head brewer. Sebastian Syke left the operation about this time.
Baumann sold his interest in the brewery in 1871 for $42,000 (roughly $750,000 today), and went on to become a successful local developer. He built the Baumann block on Burdick Street in 1870, two stores on Water Street in 1872, and a saloon on Main Street in 1875. Perhaps his most recognizable work is the Peninsula building, built by Baumann in 1874 at the corner of Main (Michigan Avenue) and Portage Street, which now, interestingly enough, houses the Olde Peninsula brewpub.
“Three of our boys went to Long Lake Sunday. On their return home, they became very dry and stopped at the steam brewery for a glas(sic) of ice water (their emphasis). While enjoying the invigorating glass a train of cars approached, which so frightened their horse that he started for home, but had gone but a short distance before the carriage and horse were both upset. When found the horse was under and a somewhat demoralized carriage on top. The horse had none of the ice water either.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 July 1879
In 1875, the State of Michigan imposed an annual tax on beer and liquor retailers, wholesalers, distillers and brewers. For a “class B” brewer (producing less than 500 barrels per year), this meant a flat annual tax of $50. For a “class A” brewer (producing in excess of 500 barrels per year), the annual fee was $100.
George Neumaier & Leo Kinast
Four local brewers were on the 1875 list for tax collection, including a new arrival, George Neumaier. Born in Baden Germany (27 April 1842), George Neumaier and his wife, Valentina, arrived in Kalamazoo from New York in 1872. George immediately went to work at the old Steam Brewery on Asylum Road, and by the following spring had become its proprietor, in partnership with fellow German Leo Kinast. Neumaier & Co. began distributing its “Bock Beer” in May 1873, along with a “fine Lager for Family use” (Kalamazoo Telegraph).
George Neumaier left the Kalamazoo Steam Brewery about 1878 to begin his own brewing venture. Kinast maintained the Steam Brewery on his own until about 1880. The landowner, Robert R. Howard, attempted to revive the brewery in 1883 by renting it to a firm from Marshall, but his efforts were of no avail. After Kinast’s death, the brewery remained vacant for several years, save for “a number of casks and vats” (Gazette).
A fire, perhaps caused by a passing Michigan Central locomotive, gutted the old brewery building and destroyed a nearby ice house in June 1886. The growing local temperance movement celebrated the event, declaring that “it was an act of providence to do away with the nefarious business of brewing the devil’s drink” (Gazette). Nevertheless, the ruins of the burned building stood until 1900, when the land was cleared and platted for residential use.
Born in Kent, England, in 1820, George Judge settled in Kalamazoo and soon became a successful maltster (malt maker). In 1857, Judge opened his celebrated Kalamazoo Malt House in Isaac Moffatt’s former distillery building near the corner of Frank Street and Burdick (where Judge Avenue now stretches between West North and Frank streets).
Judge’s Kalamazoo Malt House was primarily a wholesale and retail supplier of malted barley and rye (used for animal feed, brewing and baking) and hops, but locals knew the establishment well for its small batches of light amber and “black as ink” dark ales, both said to be very good.
By 1880, George Judge was supplying malt to the Goebel Brewing Company in Detroit and doing business with his son-in-law, John Bommerscheim, a saloon operator and proprietor of the Detroit Bottling Works on Main Street in Kalamazoo (the local bottler and distributor for Goebel).
Judge retired from active operation about 1882. Bommerscheim later purchased the former Judge property on North Burdick Street in 1886 and moved his saloon and beer bottling operation to that location. George Judge remained in Kalamazoo until his death in 1893. The entire block, including John Bommerscheim’s saloon and warehouse, was destroyed by a massive fire in June 1895.
The other so-called “Kalamazoo Brewery” was built during the 1850s by Lorenz Brentano at what was then 7 Walnut Street, just east of John Street, roughly where the Bronson Hospital emergency room is now located. In 1858, Brentano was advertising his “celebrated Bavarian lager beer and ale” delivered free of charge. Brentano offered the “highest market price” for hops and barley, and called special attention to his product, “a choice article of Ale and Beer, expressly for family use... (an) excellent, wholesome, healthy beverage.”
By 1860, Brentano was in Chicago (where he eventually became a prominent politician) and Peter Heirboldsheimer had taken over ownership of the Kalamazoo Brewery. Heirboldsheimer’s small two-person operation consumed approximately 300 bushels of barley and 400 pounds of hops each year, and produced roughly 150 barrels (nearly 4,700 gallons) of beer annually.
By 1863, Heirboldsheimer was brewing beer in Topeka, Kansas, and Bernhard “Barney” Locher (born about 1838 in Württemberg, Germany) had become proprietor of the brewery on Walnut Street, selling “good Hay and Harvest Ale and Beer” at $9 per barrel. When Locher and his resident brewers Albert Fogt and Michael Henkee took over, it was the smallest of the four local breweries (in terms of taxable value). By 1865, Locher’s operation had grown to the point where it was second only to Foegele & Baumann.
Locher added a new brick building to his operation during the early months of 1874. Federal and state tax assessments show that Locher operated consistently through 1878, when he was advertising the release of his “celebrated Bock Beer.” But competition was stiff and by 1879, Locher’s luck had apparently run out. After losing one of his buildings to an accidental fire and with his 1878 state liquor tax listed as “uncollected,” Locher defaulted on a mortgage. In October 1879, the brewery on Walnut Street and all of its contents went up for public auction. After Locher’s unexpected death a year later, the land was sold and platted for residential use. Portions the old Kalamazoo Brewery buildings survived as an apartment building until 1968, when the last remaining brick walls were town down to make way for a Bronson Hospital expansion project.
About 1862, Richard Frank established a small “class B” brewery at 77 East Main Street, near the corner of Main (Michigan Avenue) and Kalamazoo Avenue, just west of the Kalamazoo River bridge. Frank’s operation started small and remained consistent, averaging between ten and and thirty barrels each month. By comparison, Frank’s Brewery produced in 1865 roughly one quarter (in terms of taxable value) that of Foegele & Baumann’s outfit.
By December 1865, Frank’s Brewery, by far the smallest operation in the village, had been taken over by Henry Schroeder, an immigrant from Prussia. George Foegele of the former Kalamazoo Spring Brewery later joined Schroeder’s operation.
Schroeder himself was a lively character who often decorated his brewery wagon and took part in local holiday parades. Schroeder was seen more than once in front of a judge for selling beer on Sunday.
Village tax rolls for 1877 and 1878 indicate $50 was collected each year from Schroeder (as a Class ‘B’ brewer), but at some point, evidence suggests that Schroeder’s tax payment schedule went awry. “Many thousands of gallons of brew went into the placid Kalamazoo,” recalled the Gazette, “when revenue officers breached the barrels and sent their contents into the ditch when this place went out of business.” In November 1884, the remains of the Schroeder Brewery was sold to Albert Frank for $3,400.
“The brewery ceased business because the great concerns in Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis shipped in their products much cheaper than the home product could be sold for,” explained a Kalamazoo Gazette writer in 1920. “Other breweries here ceased operations for the same reason.”
Another small brewery that sprang into operation during the 1850s was the Portage Brewery, built by Nicholas Baumann along the west side of Winsted Street (since absorbed by a parking lot) at what was then known as the “lower end of Portage Street” near the intersection of Portage and Lovell. Baumann, who would later join George Foegele’s Kalamazoo Spring Brewery, arrived in Kalamazoo in 1855 from New York’s Allegheny Mountains, and began working in a boarding house. A year later, he built the Portage Brewery and managed it for four years until the early spring of 1859, when an argument with one Peter Herboldsheimer resulted in Baumann being severely scalded with a bucketful of hot beer. Herboldsheimer was sentenced to 40 days in jail for the incident, while Baumann turned his operation over to Sesemann & Co. as he recovered from his injuries.
Sesemann & Co.
Like Brentano at the Walnut Street brewery, Sesemann offered his own “celebrated ale and lager beer,” delivered promptly “free of charge.” As well, Sesemann—like Brentano—advertised “a choice article of Ale and Beer, expressely for family use,” once again emphasizing that their product was an “excellent, wholesome, healthy beverage.”
Hughes & True
By the spring of 1864, William L. Hughes & Samuel True had taken over the operation at 6 Winsted Street and were calling it the Burr Oak Brewery. Hughes ran the operation until about 1870, when Frederick William Seyfferth, a former brewer at the Steam Brewery, then became proprietor. Charles Seyfferth, presumably William’s son, was employed there in 1872.
Though clearly shown on the 1873 village map, the Portage Brewery did not appear on the 1876 or 1877 liquor tax assessments, and by then Seyfferth was working as a bookbinder. In September 1881, “the old brewery opposite Egleston’s” (Kalamazoo Spring and Axle Company) was purchased by H. A. Gibson for use as a machine shop.
Cold Stream Brewery
Taylor, Thackwray & Co.
Reuben J. Taylor, Richard Taylor, and brother-in-law John Thackwray, all arrived in Kalamazoo about 1865. Together, they formed Taylor, Thackwray & Co. and established a brewery on the south side of Olmstead Road (Lake Street), just east of Portage Road, near a portion of what was then Merrill & McCourtie’s mill pond. The brewery operated until at least 1870 before it closed. In February 1872, the parcel of land along Lake Street, including the brewery, was sold by the village of Kalamazoo for delinquent 1869 taxes.
In 1878, George Neumaier left the Steam Brewery on Asylum Road and took over the remains of the old Taylor Thackwray operation on Lake Street. According to the Telegraph, the old brewery building was “overhauled, renovated and enlarged” by Neumaier and was in full operation by fall.
Neumaier’s brewery became known as the “Cold Stream Brewery” after Merrill & McCourtie’s nearby flour mills of the same name. By 1884, Neumaier’s brewery was the only such operation left in Kalamazoo, and was producing about 1,500 barrels annually.
Kalamazoo Union Brewery
Nearly a decade had gone by when in the fall of 1894 Alfred G. “Fred” Neumaier took over his father’s brewing operation and formed the Kalamazoo Brewing Company with Leo Wagonman (Wagemann), an experienced brewmaster from Toledo, Ohio. The new company leased the old Lake Street facility and made significant changes within the organization. After four months spent perfecting its product, the first kegs from the new company were tapped in January 1895, and according to the local press, the firm was “turning out a fine article” (Gazette).
By year’s end, management felt that the Kalamazoo Union Brewery had perhaps outgrown the existing building on Lake Street, so Wagonman purchased a former factory building at the corner of Mill and Vine streets. Plans were to have the new larger facility up and running by February.
City Union Brewery
Come February, however, plans for the new brewery (and the Neumaier-Wagonman partnership) had evidently fallen apart. Fred Neumaier announced that he had severed his connection with the Kalamazoo Union Brewery (Wagonman) and would begin a “new concern” (Telegraph) at the existing building on Lake Street, featuring a formally educated brewer from Detroit, Steve Zanda. By May, Newmaier was advertising his City Union Brewery (823 Lake Street) with a “(f)ine stapletry of choice beer for family use” (Telegraph). “Extensive improvements” (Kalamazoo Evening News) were made in February 1899, including the installation of a new eighty-horsepower boiler by the Clark Engine & Boiler Company. By April 1899, Neumaier’s City Union Brewery was producing about 140 barrels per day. Wagonman’s brewery on Mill street never got off the ground.
In October 1900, Neumaier announced $30,000 in new improvements would be made. The brewery was to be rebuilt and made one story higher to accommodate new machinery and equipment. Production was expected to double.
Kalamazoo Brewing Company
In October 1904, the City Union Brewery was converted to a stock company, and incorporated as the Kalamazoo Brewing Company on January 1, 1905 with capital stock of $75,000. Albert Doll, a prominent local saloon owner and future president of the Kalamazoo Liquor Dealers Association, was elected company president; Carl Schanz, vice president; Henry Buechner, secretary; and Fred Neumaier, general manager; while William Farley, Frank Flaits and William Pendleton rounded out the board of directors.
“The Kalamazoo Brewing Co. aims to supply the better class of trade—those who appreciate quality and the value of a first class, healthful refreshing beverage.”
— Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 January 1909
Facing formidable competition from much larger firms in Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee, plus the ever growing opposition to alcoholic beverages, the Kalamazoo Brewing Company made every attempt to appeal to a mass audience by positioning its product as a healthful “temperance” drink, a suitable alternative to hard liquor. Brewers both locally and nationally tried to downplay the alcohol content while emphasizing food value.
“You know what is in it...”
Kalamazoo Brewing made additional attempts to promote its product as a “safe” alternative to the highly competitive national brands, implying that unlike the local product, those could be contaminated with unknown or “cheap” ingredients. Labels on the product stated clearly that Kalamazoo beer was “pure and without drugs or poison.” A 1911 article cited an “unsolicited recommendation” by the United States Health Bulletin, commending the Kalamazoo product for its “high degree of perfection from its care in preparation, its freedom from adulteration, purity of water used in its manufacture, and the sanitary and hygienic methods employed in the handling of it during both its production and delivery” (Gazette).
“Call for the Brew from Kalamazoo”
By 1909, a major advertising campaign was underway to emphasize the advantages of Kalamazoo beer, a clean and well made local product. “In manufacturing the ‘Brew from Kalamazoo’ we use hops and malt,” stated Henry Buechner, “and extend all a cordial invitation to pay us a visit so that we may show just how good pure beer is made” (Gazette). Advertisements urged the locals to “build up [their] hometown and patronize home industry by calling for The Brew from Kalamazoo” (Gazette).
In April 1915, voters in Kalamazoo County elected to outlaw the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. On 1 May 1915, sixty five business establishments were closed county wide, including thirty four saloons in Kalamazoo, and the City Union Brewery. The brewery equipment was dismantled and sold, and the building remained vacant until May 1917, when the Kalamazoo Creamery bought the building and converted it into a pasteurization plant. Kalamazoo Creamery went into operation in the new location in 1919.
After nearly eighty years of use, the creamery was closed in 1997 and the remaining building complex gradually fell into a state of disrepair. The old brewery building was finally razed in November 2011 to make way for a new mixed-used development.
Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study; rather it is a continuing work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, photos, or items you’d like to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.