I recently read of the great job they have done with the old Fitger’s Brewery in Duluth, Minnesota.
Now called the Fitger’s Brewery Complex, the big building was converted into shops, resturants, and a luxury hotel that houses a microbrewery. More on this present-day complex in a future posting.
For now, we wanted to go back and learn about the original Fitger’s beer itself.
Beer production continued for forty years until Prohibition began in 1920, forcing breweries to close their doors or change production. Luckily Fitger’s was able to find demanded products other than beer to produce, and was one of the few brewers in the entire country that remained open throughout Prohibition. Fitger and Anneke sold their shares and retired in California. Percys son Victor H Anneke, who had taken over from his father in 1920, wanted to keep as many employees as possible working at Fitger’s, but the beer product sales alone could not justify the employment level. In order to keep employees, he decided to get into soft drink and candy manufacturing, and cigar distributing. Fitger and Anneke had set out a strategy several years prior in order to keep the brewery open during Prohibition, which they only expected to last a short time. The company produced five cent candy bars such as The King Bee Nougat, the Flapper, the Spark Plug, the Nut Goodie, and the Skookum. Candy sales steadily increased for several years, but did not prove to be profitable for the company.
Fitger’s was one of the first breweries to start distributing carbonated soft drinks by the bottle. The soft drinks featured numerous flavors that often changed. Some of the usual flavors included grape, orange, and strawberry, but they also experimented with other flavors such as imitation chocolate milk shake, black calf, black cow, ginger ale, lemon soda, strawberry fizz, and carbonated water. Their experimenting lead them to the production of champagne like beverages such as Extra Dry and Silver Spray. Both of which were immediate successes through mass amounts of advertising.
However the most innovative idea for promoting Silver Spray came not from advertising and sales people but from Victor H. Anneke himself. In September 1927, Anneke opened the Silver Spray Gym at Fitger’s. He converted the building that had replaced the old brewery into a boxing gym, harnessing the popularity of the sport at the time. The Silver Spray Gym was considered high class for its time. The main floor was a boxing arena and the basement was a training facility. Anneke believed the gym would be a benefit to the community and also good publicity for Fitger’s. Many popular boxers visited the gym, making the facility well known, amongst them the German boxing legend Max Schmeling during his first tour of the U.S. in 1928. When prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, the demand for strong Fitger’s beer grew.
From 1933 to 1936, Fitger’s experienced tremendous growth and record sales. Much of the success was due to the companies continual creation of new products and innovative ways to market them. One of the most successful revolutions in the business was the invention of canned beer. Fitger’s became one of the very first companies in the nation and the first brewery in the Midwest to offer canned beer. Once again Fitger’s focused its manufacturing on beer instead of soda pop and other products they sold during prohibition.
Just when things were going well for the Fitger’s company, World War II began and Fitger’s was once again fighting to stay open. It became extremely difficult to get the supplies needed to keep the brewery going. Many resources ended up being cleaned then reused because of the lack of materials. Yet some good did come from these years, Fitger’s came out with a number of new beers known as “War Beer”, this type of beer was different than most, it was considered watered down due to the fact that ingredients were scarce and labor was shorthanded. Also since workers were limited because of the draft, women were brought in to work in the factory. Fitger’s successfully stayed open during WWII, which was a remarkable accomplishment. Before Prohibition, there were more than 70 breweries in Minnesota and now only 23, with Fitger’s being one of them.
Post-war changes were of course some of the most exciting to say the least. In 1944, the Beerhalter family bought the brewery. Fitger’s was once again back on its feet, and ready to get down to business. Regular beer was back since ingredients and laborers were now available. Along with that, Fitger’s managed to purchase brand new equipment, it was said that Fitger’s beer was now “more pure” bringing in excited customers.
In 1972, Fitger’s received a letter from the State of Minnesota regarding the two significant problems, Minnesota Pollution Control ordered the installation of expensive pollution abatement equipment and that State Highway Department planned to purchase some of Fitger’s property for the possible expansion of I-35. Fitger’s was unable to afford the equipment needed so on September 30, 1972 they closed their doors, ending 115 years of brewing on the shores of Lake Superior.