There are lots of stories that people want to believe about history,” says Tony Dierckins, publisher at Zenith City Press in Duluth, Minnesota. “Like the People’s Brewery ‘creation myth,’ for example. It was supposedly started as this socialist movement of tied house saloon-keepers that revolted against the corporate breweries, and all this other stuff, but it turns out that it was actually a group of independent saloon-keepers who just wanted to buy their beer cheaper than they were getting from other places.”
Dierckins and fellow beer historian Pete Clure should know. They’ve spent countless hours poring over Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin, brewery documents, area newspaper clippings, and other historical resources to pen their new book, “Naturally Brewed, Naturally Better: The Historic Breweries of Duluth & Superior,” released on September 20.
In delving into every historical nook and cranny of Twin Ports beer past, the historians found that local independent bar owners were approached by a man from Detroit who had a fairly capitalist pitch. “He went from community to community going to the independent saloon-keepers and saying, ‘If we all invest in this, a hundred dollars apiece, 300 of us, we’d have all of this money, we could build a brewery, and we’d be buying beer from ourselves so we’d be making money twice every time we sold a beer,’” explains Dierckins. “Duluth was the 17th community he’d done this with across the country—it wasn’t even the first brewery named ‘People’s’ that he’d started! And he would incorporate it, get the construction underway for the brewery, and then resign, take a chunk of money for doing it all, and then move on to the next community.”
Dierckins laughs, adding, “Personally, I like the myth better—that it was this powerful cultural uprising that started in Duluth—but it turns out that just isn’t true.”
We spoke with Dierckins about the new book, the difficulties of researching the Twin Ports beer history, and the most surprising things he learned along the way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Growler: How did “Naturally Brewed” come about?
Tony Dierckins: One of the first coffee table books I ever helped produce was a book about Fitger’s, by the late Coopen Johnson—Coopen actually died while we were in the middle of the process. So my editor and I had to help finish the book, and it really got me interested in the topic. I had this great idea for a book, and I was waiting to get a chance to do it, and then I ran into this guy named Pete Clure. Pete is a local guy who works as a beer distributor for Michaud Distributing, and he’s been collecting breweriana since he was 13 or 14, so like, 40 years. And not just cans and bottles and signs, but minutiae, like the actual diplomas from the brewmasters. We have the correspondences between the Fitger’s president and brewmaster from 1933‒1942. We’ve just got this incredible body of research that he’s been collecting his whole life, so between Pete and his resources and then his connections in the breweriana world, we were able to amass over 800 photographs of people and memorabilia. As it is, we had to whittle it down to the 590 images in the book itself. Besides that, we’ve got the local archives. So the resources were there for me. I just had to find the time to do it.
Why now, and why Minnesota beer history?
As you probably know, beer is huge in Minnesota; and in Duluth, it’s incredibly huge. We now have—or we will, when Ursa Minor opens—nine active breweries in Duluth, and two in Superior. In the past, there was never more than five breweries operating, and that was in 1900. Beer brewing started in 1859 both in Duluth and Superior during a huge nationwide financial panic just to keep people living here. That’s why we started the industry. So it’s one of our oldest industries here in Duluth and Superior—beer brewing. Today, beer brewing is the newest craft industry in Duluth. We’ve come completely full circle, and we’re thriving with a smaller population and more breweries. I just find that fascinating.
What were some of the difficulties in writing this book?
Well, the same difficulties you encounter with all history books. Depending on the subject, if you go too far back, not every newspaper article can be counted on to be accurate. There weren’t retractions or corrections printed to note mistakes. Name spellings are always tricky when you’re looking up specific people in the historical record. Let’s take Duluth’s pioneer brewers. There’s always the story that there were four unemployed guys right after the Panic of 1857 who wanted to retain the population of the region, and so Sidney Luce, who eventually became one of our mayors, financed this brewery on the creek because one of these guys was a practical brewer. Well, it turned out that he wasn’t a brewer—he was a cooper, he made barrels.
We traced all of these guys back to their origins in Germany. One of the guys’ names was Falconer—I found him as “Falkner.” With the tools we have now, through Ancestry.com and GenealogyBank and everything, I can find these people when they emigrated, where they first went, when they first got to Duluth, and what happened to them afterward. So we’ve traced the lives of a lot of our early pioneer brewers from the time they came to America to their deaths.
We found things that for years everybody believed, such as the fact that, starting in 1883, they started to refer to August Fitger not by name but as “Fink’s brewer from Milwaukee.” (He had just been hired by Mike Fink.) But when Fink found Fitger, he was working in St. Louis as a brewer. That’s also where Fitger met Fitger’s co-founder Percy Anneke, who was a salesman for the bottling company that took over Schlitz eventually.
What is the most interesting or surprising thing you learned in writing the book?
As a historian, the most surprising discovery was Percy Anneke’s revolutionary parents, Fritz and Mathilde Anneke. They were friends of Karl Marx while he was writing “The Communist Manifesto,” fought in the German revolution of 1848, and later started German-language newspapers in the U.S. Mathilde also had romantic relationships with other women and ran a school for girls in Milwaukee. Susan B. Anthony said Mathilde inspired her to become a suffragette.
Also surprising was the early Superior breweries. I wasn’t aware of any operating in Superior before Northern [Brewing Co.] formed in 1898, but through research and working with Doug Hoverson (“Land of Amber Waters”) Pete and I discovered brewing started in Superior in 1859, the same year as in Duluth, and that several breweries came and went before Northern was established.
Are there any lessons from Duluth and Superior’s beer history that apply to today’s brewers and beer drinkers?
I think today’s brewers already know the big lesson of the Twin Ports’ historic breweries: Lake Superior water makes fantastic beer. And they all seem to be aware of the mistakes made by the likes of Northern and Fitger’s and Schlitz when those breweries turned to liquified hops in the 1960s to save money: inferior ingredients make bad beer. But the modern business landscape is much different than it was for the historic breweries, and today’s craft beer drinkers take a much more sophisticated approach to their drinking. So, as it is for many other industries, the combination of a quality product and marketing, marketing, marketing is key to success.
[Update: 09-27-2018, 9:15am]: This story has been updated with clarifications from the author.