Oct 20, 2008

The National Brewery Museum

Monday, October 20, 2008 -- Potosi, WI

From the earliest days of settlement in America, brewing beer was a common and highly valued skill that most wives possessed... right up there with cooking. Because stream and ground water was often unsafe to drink, brewing beer was a way of producing a drinkable liquid that was safe and contained natural preservatives. The fact that it contained alcohol and made one feel good may have been a convenient side-effect. Benjamin Franklin once said "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to have a good time".

As immigration increased and communities formed, commercial breweries popped up in almost every town and village, especially those of German heritage. The area of Wisconsin where Dar and I grew up was a classic example. In Beaver Dam and almost every surrounding small town, there was at least one brewery to meet the demand of people who considered a couple'o beers after a full day of work nearly a right. Dar's Mom remembers from her childhood on the farm that it was essential to provide beer to threshing crews, who would go from farm to farm in the fall to separate grain from the stalk with big threshing machines. These hard-working crews got a ration of beer at noon and again at the end of the day.

In Potosi, WI., one of these small breweries was the Potosi Brewery. Started in 1852, the brewery supplied beer to a growing population in Southwest Wisconsin for many years. During the 1910's and 1920's, they grew to become a regional supplier and shipped, by barge and truck, their product as far as Chicago, Minneapolis, and Des Moines. But, as with most breweries, a combination of prohibition, depression, wars, and inability to compete with more efficient and technologically savvy larger brewers. As a result, by the end of World War II, most of these small town breweries had gone out of business. Some struggled to hang on and survived a while longer -- like Potosi, who produced beer until 1972. But economics were against them and they nearly all eventually went out of business.

In the last few years, a group of local business people formed the Potosi Brewing Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the Potosi Brewery and the heritage that went along with it.  The old brewery buildings were remodeled, a restaurant and brew pub added, they started micro-brewing beer again, and they attracted the National Brewery Museum, winning out over other beer towns like St. Louis and Milwaukee.

Even if you're preferences run more toward history than the beer itself, a visit to the National Brewery Museum should be on your short-list of things to see. Housed in the upper two floors of the remodeled Potosi Brewery, this excellent collection of American Breweriana -- various cans, bottles, advertising, signs, photos, and other brewery collectibles -- included many items from Ziegler's Brewery right there in my home town of Beaver Dam. I was fascinated by items from other nearby towns that I hadn't known even had a brewery. It was a way of viewing history through the lens of an industry that filled a need to a growing population and provided so much for so many.

In the last few years, a growing number of people have grown tired of the large scale offerings of the major breweries (Bud, Miller, etc.) which seem to be more about making an inoffensive product that anyone can drink and marketing the heck out of it, than making unique and richly flavored beers. Small brew pubs and micro-breweries have sprung up all over the place to meet this growing demand for something different, something with taste. I think this is a positive sign that we, as consumers, don't have to put up with mass-marketing, large scale manufacturing, and tepid, watered down, highly profitable products. This is America after all -- we're perhaps learning to celebrate diversity, uniqueness, and choices.


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