Winona Beer History
Winonans love their beer. They always have.
We know this because soon after Winona was settled by immigrants in the 1850s, the town had a brewery. Gilmore Valley Brewing opened before the city had a flour mill.
That was in 1855. At least four breweries would crop up in the Winona area from the mid-1850s until the time of Prohibition in 1920. It would mark the golden age of Winona's commercial beer industry before Prohibition and then post-World War II consolidation snuffed it out.
Nearly a half century after Winona's last local brewery closed, the city's beer industry has begun to show new signs of life.
"In pre-Civil War America, if you wanted to open a brewery, you needed five ingredients: Water, grain, hops, yeast and German immigrants, and Minnesota had all five," said Scot Simpson, a Winona beer historian.
Now the Winona County Historical Society is featuring a look-back at the area's rich beer-making history. As Simpson will tell you, you don't need an excuse or pretext to delve into such a history. A love of beer and history should suffice.
Yet "Brewing Up the Past: The History of Winona's Beer Industry" makes its debut at a historically propitious time for the craft beer industry. The U.S., now in the midst of a beer renaissance, has more than 6,000 breweries, more than at any time in its history. The only time the U.S. came even close to producing so many breweries was in the late 1870s, when Winona was in the midst of its own beer-making heyday.
The exhibit opened last Thursday and will run through Jan. 20.
Simpson says the industry's growth in Winona and other westward-expanding places was fueled by some factors that were unique to the times. Transportation and refrigeration wasn't nearly as reliable as it is today. There were no long-haul truckers crisscrossing the country delivering six-packs to satisfy consumer's yen for beer. So the best way to satisfy townsfolks' thirst was to build a brewery.
"All these towns that were starting up wanted to have a brewery," Simpson said.
Simpson said the life cycle of most of Winona's nearly forgotten breweries shared common threads. A group of partners would open a brewery. Old partners would leave and new ones would come on board. Partnerships evolved into sole proprietorships. And names would change to reflect changing ownership. Gilmore Valley Brewing, Winona's first brewery, eventually became C.C. Beck.
But that wasn't the only commonality.
"They all seemed to involve German immigrants. They all evolved in a proprietary way. And they also had a lot of catastrophic fires," Simpson said.
The most legendary brewery in Winona — and one whose name resonates to this day — was Bub's Brewing. Pronounced "boobs," which is the Bavarian way of saying it, the brewery was named after Peter Bub. Bub started out as a brewmaster and foreman of a brewery founded and then owned by Jacob Weisbrod.
When Weisbrod died of typhoid in 1870, Bub became the brewery manager, renamed the brewery and married Weisbrod's widow to boot.
Simpson said Bub's has the distinction of being the only Winona brewery to survive Prohibition, which it did by producing and selling soft drinks and near-beer, a concoction with a less than 1 percent alcohol content. But after a long run, it succumbed in 1969 in the midst of a nationwide consolidation of the beer industry.
"Bub's went under, but it wasn't because its beer wasn't doing well. They were doing just fine," Simpson said. "What did them in was they didn't have the advertising budget firstly. The second part was acquiring cans and bottles. They couldn't get the volume discount."
Like Rochester and other Minnesota cities, Winona has benefited from the craft beer renaissance sweeping the country. Today Winona is home to two craft breweries, Island City Brewing Co., in Winona, which opened in 2017 on St. Patricks Day, and Olvalde Farmhouse Ales, in Rollingstone.
"When I was coming up, your choices were lager, lager or lager," Simpson said. "And then people started to home brew. They started these little craft breweries, and they started popping up all over the country. And frankly, that's where the growth in the beer industry has come from."
A timeline of Winona beer history.
1. THE PIONEERS
1855 - Gilmore Valley Brewery opens. After several partnership
changes, German immigrant C.C. Beck becomes sole proprietor and
changes name to Beck's Brewery. Fire destroys brewery in 1877. Beck
takes insurance settlement and becomes a 'gentleman farmer'.
1856 - German immigrant Jacob Weisbrod establishes brewery which would
become Sugar Loaf Brewing. 1869 - Weisbrod hires German immigrant
Peter Bub as brewery foreman. 1871 - Weisbrod dies of typhoid, Bub
marries Weisbrod's widow, takes control of brewery with a partner, the
brewery burns down. After brewery rebuilding and partnership changes,
Bub becomes sole proprietor and changes brewery name to Bub's Brewing.
Bub's survives prohibition by selling soft drinks and 'near beer'.
Bub's stays in business until 1969 when national competition forces
1862 - German immigrant Otto Vill and a partner found Minnesota City
Brewery. After partnership changes Vill becomes sole proprietor and
changes name to Otto Vill Brewery. Brewery closes with the onset of
1863 - Winona Brewing opened by German immigrant partners. After
several partnership changes, German immigrant William Schellhas
becomes sole proprietor and changes brewery name to William Schellhas
Brewing. 1897 - Schellhas survives fire but not Prohibition in 1920.
Soft Drink sales fail and brewery closes.
1904 - Park Brewery opens with a more traditional corporate structure
and a German immigrant as president. 1920 - Park closes with the
onset of Prohibition.
2. THE GREAT CONSOLIDATION
Post WWII until 1980 market share of 5 largest U.S. breweries grow
from 19% to over 75%. AB Inbev and Miller/Coors grow to be the
dominant world brewing conglomerates.
3. THE CRAFT BEER RENAISSANCE
1995 - Backwater Brewing founded by brothers Chris and Geoff Gardner.
Geoff passes away in 2007. Backwater Brewing moves and becomes
Wenonah Brewing in 2013.
2011 - Farmhouse-style brewery Olvalde Brewing founded by Joe Pond -
still going strong.
2013 - Wenonah Brewing founded by Backwater Brewing founder Chris
Gardner and partners. Wenonah closes in 2017
2017 - Island City Brewing opens - still going strong.