The Corporation of Beers

The trivia roundup is in the middle of a weeklong bender. Get out your mash tun, add your hops, and malt your barley for a story about beer…

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On June 15, 1933, Hamm’s brewery president William Hamm Jr. was walking to his St. Paul home for lunch when he was accosted by several members of the famed Karpis/Barker gang. He was subdued, loaded into a car, blindfolded, and taken to a remote cabin in Illinois while his captors negotiated a $100,000 ransom (if movies taught me anything, the ransom letter was composed of individual letters cut out of magazines). The bagman was instructed to collect the money and drive north on Highway 61, where he was overtaken by two cars, then told to leave the satchel behind and keep driving. Hamm was released the next day; lucky for him I guess the bagman didn’t just drop a briefcase full of dirty undies like Walter Sobchak

File photo: ransom bagman
File photo: ransom bagman

It was nearly the perfect crime. The FBI, for the first time ever, managed to pull latent fingerprints from the ransom note, which eventually linked the Barker/Karpis gang to the crime (Ma Barker’s involvement with the gang, by the by, was very probably a figment of J. Edgar Hoover’s imagination). Linked or not, the suspects weren’t apprehended for years. (FYI: strongly recommend Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies for more on Depression-era crime and in particular the role of corrupt St. Paul police.)

Hamm's: Beer for people with pet bears
Hamm’s: Beer for people with pet bears

Weirdly, the Hamm’s kidnapping wasn’t the last abduction of a St. Paul brewer. Flush with success, the Karpis/Barker gang struck again six months later, kidnapping Schmidt’s brewery heir Edward Bremer (actually that wasn’t the last kidnapping of a beer heir—Adolph Coors III was murdered in 1960 after a botched abduction). Schmidt’s (note: not Schmitt’s Gay) was founded in 1855 as the Cave Brewery by Christopher Stahlmann. It quickly became one of the largest breweries in Minnesota, but in a total 19th-century cliché, Stahlmann and all three of his sons died of consumption within a decade of one another, sending the business into a tailspin. By the turn of the century the facilities had been taken over by Jacob Schmidt and the Bremers (Schmidt had previously been brewmaster at Hamm’s—wheels within wheels).

Schmidt’s was the nation’s 7th-largest brewery in 1936 and one of the first to offer beer in cans. They were even contracted to supply beer to America’s troops in WWII (because they were low bidder? Ha, no: the Bremers were pals with FDR—patronage being an even more long-standing American tradition than binge drinking). Schmidt’s isn’t around today: it was bought out by Pfeiffer in the 1950s, who were bought out by Heileman’s in the 1970s (brewers of Grain Belt, Blatz, National Bohemian, and Old Style at the time). In the 1980s, Heileman’s was bought—because it was the 1980s—by a junk bond trader. When the junk bonds came up empty in 1990, the Schmidt’s brand was done.

American classics

Except no, this is capitalism, it wasn’t done. Please read the following three paragraphs really fast in one breath like a big run-on sentence: <deep breath>Heileman’s was purchased in 1996 by Detroit brewery Stroh’s (because Stroh’s already owned Schlitz—”the beer that made Milwaukee famous”—and Heileman’s owned Colt 45, the merger meant Stroh’s had mostly cornered the lucrative malt liquor/Billy Dee Williams celebrity endorsement market). Capitally overextended by the purchase, Stroh’s sold in 2000 and its subsidiary brands were divided up between Pabst and Miller.

To further express the dystopian, incestuous, oligopolous hilarity of corporate mergers: Hamm’s started when the founder inherited the defunct Excelsior Brewery. It was later purchased in 1968 by Heublein, a spirits conglomerate that owned rights to Smirnoff, Jose Cuervo, Guinness, Bass, and non-alcoholic brands like Grey Poupon, KFC*, Perrier, and Rose’s Lime Juice. Shortly thereafter Hamm’s was sold by Heublein to Olympia, the regional northwestern beer peddler and Evel Knievel sponsor that, like Hamm’s (slogan: “the land of sky blue waters”) had used the allure of spring water to sell their brews (Olympia’s slogan: “it’s the water”). Heublein was later swallowed up by tobacconist/cracker maker RJR Nabisco.

Like Schmidt’s, in 1983 Olympia and Hamm’s were sold to Heileman’s, then bought by Stroh’s and divvied up: Hamm’s became a Miller product and Olympia went to Pabst (though it’s actually brewed by Miller, in case your head isn’t spinning already). Miller had previously been owned by a) a chemical conglomerate responsible for at least one Superfund cleanup site and a John Travolta movie and b) Philip Morris; the company went on to join forces with Coors and Molson to form mega-brewer-Voltron MillerCoors (“all corporations merge into OmniCorp. OmniCorp: The corporation of beers.”). Pabst was bought in 1985 by a self-proclaimed “self-made beer and real-estate baron” who died in 1987. Control of the company went to his charitable trust, whence the IRS mandated they sell it or lose their tax-free status, which did not happen until 2010. In 1996, Pabst contracted their brewing out to Stroh’s, turning them into a “virtual brewery.” Completing the circuit they, with Miller, proceeded to buy Stroh’s in 1999.

*Side note: Heublein was the target of Colonel Sanders’s ire when he said “It’s my face that’s shown on that box of chicken and in the advertising. It’s me that people recognize, and they stop me everywhere I go to complain. The damn SOBs don’t know anything but peddling booze, and they sure as hell don’t know a damn thing about good food.” and “That friggin’…outfit…They prostituted every goddamn thing I had. I had the greatest gravy in the world and those sons of bitches they dragged it out and extended it and wa­tered it down that I’m so goddamn mad.” You may know the latter as my favorite quote ever. If there’s room, please put it on my tombstone.

The casual sexism that made Milwaukee famous
The casual sexism that made Milwaukee famous

Anyways, back to the Schmidt’s heir Edward Bremer. He was kidnapped by the Karpis/Barker gang in St. Paul in January 1934 while walking to work. Bremer’s father, Adolph, at first refused to pay unless he had proof his son was alive. Upon receiving said proof, he then tried to renegotiate the ransom (it’s always good to get an exact numerical value on how much your wealthy parents value your life) before finally paying it. Bremer was released, and the Karpis/Barker gang were finally tracked down several years later (and sent to Alcatraz: Doc Barker died in a 1939 escape attempt; Alvin Karpis was eventually released and published his memoirs).

The interesting thing—if not the immediately obvious one—is the timing of the abductions. Hamm was kidnapped in June 1933, Bremer in January 1934. Prohibition, meanwhile, was repealed in December 1933 (Yuengling, America’s oldest brewery, famously delivered a case of beer to FDR the day Prohibition was repealed; unmentioned was the beer’s three-week brewing time). It’s at least a little strange that brewery owners were being targeted at a time when the breweries weren’t actually brewing beer. Most breweries, Hamm’s included, tried to survive Prohibition by selling soft drinks and near beers. Some sold foodstuffs—Stroh’s ice cream was popular and profitable enough to be spun off into its own business that survives even today. Yuengling, employing the “any port in a storm” approach, purchased and rented out dance halls.

An unfortunately named near-beer
An unfortunately named near-beer
Slightly better name
Slightly better name

Schmidt’s, though, may have survived extralegally. The original name, Cave Brewery, was an apt one because part of the brewery was built on/next to the caves in the bluffs along the Mississippi River in St. Paul. Those caves would later hold a speakeasy called Royal Lounge (frequented by gangsters in the 30s), a disco club in the 70s, and intermittently be used to grow (non-hallucinogenic) mushrooms. Urban legend holds that Schmidt’s continued to produce beer during Prohibition, surreptitiously spiriting the illicit elixir through the caves to boats waiting along the Mississippi. Never verified, though.

• • •

Final unrelated beer trivium: National Bohemian is a Baltimore-based beer (now owned by Pabst) whose mascot, Mr. Boh, is a one-eyed man with a handlebar mustache. When asked why he had only one eye, the marketing director at the time it was introduced claimed to have no idea.

Mr. Boh



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