Past Treasure of the Month – July 2012
Nothing beats an ice-cold beer on a hot Texas day. To celebrate what is arguably the most popular summertime beverage on the island, the Rosenberg Library displayed artifacts related to the historic Galveston Brewing Company as its July Treasure of the Month.
By the early 1880s, the population of Texas was growing rapidly, and many of the two million plus residents were immigrants. German immigrants in particular were attracted to opportunities available to them in the state, and many settled in Galveston or the nearby Houston area. With the influx of Germans came a demand for their drink of choice — beer.
Unfortunately, beer was often hard to come by. Prior to the 1890s, beer had to be shipped from one of the major St. Louis breweries down the Mississippi River, along the coast of Texas, and into the Port of Galveston. Additionally, few railroads existed in Texas at the time, and transport via horse-drawn wagons on rough, unpaved roads provided less than ideal conditions for shipping beer.
The high demand for beer in Texas and the problems with transporting it over such long distances led St. Louis brewers Adolphus Busch (of Anheuser-Busch fame) and William Lemp to expand their brewing interests into Galveston. In 1893, the two teamed up with several of Galveston’s wealthiest and most business-savvy citizens including Bertrand Adoue and John and William Reymershoffer. The men raised the $400,000 of capital needed to form a corporation, purchase equipment, and construct a state-of-the-art brewing facility on the island.
The biggest problem faced by the newly-formed Galveston Brewing Company was water. Prior to 1895, the supply of quality water to brew large quantities of beer was not available. However, during the mid 1890s, Galveston established a water works department and an 18-mile pipeline was laid from the mainland’s Alta Loma wells, providing the needed supply of fresh water to the island.
A second challenge came with the building site at Postoffice Street between 34th and 35th. The firm of E. Jugenfeld & Co. of St. Louis was selected to design the brewing facility. Prior to the 1900 Storm and subsequent grade-raising, most of the land in Galveston was only slightly above sea-level. In order to sink the necessary supports for the foundation of the massive five-story building, the architects decided to raise the elevation of the site ten feet. Tons of dirt and silt were hauled in to meet these requirements.
Despite the construction delays, the new brewery produced its first batch of beer in October 1896. A two-day public grand opening was held in February 1897. (The four-month delay was to allow for proper aging of the beer.) The impressive Romanesque-style brewery complex consisted of a large ice plant, a brew house, a storage house, a boiler house, a wash house, a racking house, and wagon sheds. The plant also had railroad tracks running along two sides. Beer was stored in adjacent cold rooms and loaded onto rail cars so that the product could be transported to the mainland for larger distribution. The Galveston Brewing Company was well-equipped to manufacture 100,000 barrels of beer annually.
Just four years after Galveston Brewing Company opened its doors, the devastating hurricane of September 8, 1900 struck the island with unprecedented force, killing thousands of people and causing monumental destruction. Due to its site elevation and concrete and steel design, the brewery plant incurred only minor damage. In fact, the brewery played an extremely important role in the post-storm recovery efforts. It provided pure drinking water for survivors of the storm and ice for the preservation of corpses awaiting burial.
Galveston Brewing Company’s original brew was similar to a light, Munich-style German beer that was popular in the warm Southern climate. Containing only 3.5% alcohol, the beer was advertised as a medicinal tonic “especially good for people of a nervous temperament and frequently prescribed by physicians.” Beers were sold under the “Seawall Bond” and “High Grade” product labels. The brewery was an immediate success and in less than ten years, the facility had to be expanded in order to meet production demands. Improvement included an ice plant with a 100-ton daily output and a bottling plant with a capacity of 30,000 bottles per day. Eventually more than 100 men were employed at the plant.
Just before Prohibition, the assets of the Galveston Brewing Company were sold to the Southern Beverage Company, est. 1917. The brewery managed to stay in business by producing a non-alcoholic “near beer” called Galvo as well as a successful line of flavored soft drinks. Their most popular beverage was Triple XXX Root Beer. Though it struggled financially for several years, Southern Beverage was one of the few breweries in the nation that managed to remain profitable during Prohibition.
With the repeal of Prohibition in 1934, the company was reorganized once again to become Galveston-Houston Breweries, Inc. after Southern Beverage merged with the Magnolia Brewery in Houston. Under new ownership, it produced the “Southern Select” beer brand. In 1955, Galveston-Houston Breweries was sold to the St. Louis-based Falstaff Brewery. Falstaff continued its operations in Galveston at the original site.
During the 1960s, Falstaff was the third largest brewer of American beer with several plants nation-wide. The company fell into financial decline through the 1970s which led to the closing of its Galveston facility in 1982. The last Falstaff brewery plant, located in Fort Wayne, Indiana, closed its doors in 1990. The Falstaff brand became licensed property of the Pabst Brewing Company who continued its production until 2005 when sales were in a deep decline.
In the thirty years since its closing, the abandoned Galveston Brewing Company plant has fallen into disrepair. Some city officials have argued that it is unsafe and should be demolished. Others hope to see a rehabilitation of the historic structure. The Galveston Brewing Company facility was placed on Galveston Historical Foundation’s official Heritage at Risk List. It is one of the last relics of Galveston’s once-booming factory district.