In the 1840s, newspapers in Norwalk, Ohio, published numerous advertisements for breweries begging farmers to sell the beer makers more malting barley. Today, over 170 years later, Norwalk home brewers and craft brewers alike could make the same largely
unanswered request. In fact, in most places in the U.S., local malting barley production does meet the needs of beer makers. The same could be said for hops, but that is a story for another blog entry.
Today, the emphasis on using locally grown ingredients in the brewing process is likely a reflection of the farm-to-table movement and the desire to capture the essence of terroir (how local climate and soil impart flavor). Just ask the Trappist Monks in Belgium who insist on only using water from within the monastery’s walls to brew their Chimay beers. In 19th century Norwalk on the other hand, the demand by breweries for locally produced malting barley had less to do with discerning tastes and terroir, and more to do with the economic survival of their enterprises.
Barley availability presented just one of many challenges to sustaining robust breweries in Norwalk, but it is a good place to understand why early brewing efforts in Norwalk were not sustainable. The troubled story of Norwalk’s early breweries begins with unreliable malting barley supplies but is further fermented with numerous sub-plots including failed partnerships, death, debt, fire, and the temperance movement. Fast-forward to the 20th century, and Prohibition put a long-lasting cork in Norwalk’s beer brewing days. Today, there are no commercial breweries in Norwalk. The nearest craft breweries are Catawba Island Brewing of Port Clinton, about 31 miles northwest, and the Franklin Brewing Company in Elyria, about the same distance to the east.
The Norwalk Brewing Story: A Series of Unfortunate Events
Norwalk is located in Huron County, in northern Ohio, about halfway between Toledo and Cleveland. It was incorporated in 1828 and is the Huron County seat. Today, Norwalk has a population of 17,000, and not a single distillery or brewery, although that was not always the case. Norwalk is best known historically as a furniture manufacturing center. Norwalk’s largest growth period occurred between 1830 and 1840 when its population swelled 259%–from 310 to 1,113 souls. During these decades the first breweries and distilleries were established. But just as the breweries were opening, the temperance movement was catching fire in the region; definitely not good news for those who enjoyed lifting a pint or two. Huron County Temperance Societies were organized in the early 1830s. The first “Temperance Tavern” in Norwalk opened in 1834 and offered customers a chance to slake their thirsts with non-inebriating beverages such as “small beers.” Today you could equate small beers with the increasingly popular “session beers” such as Anchor Small Beer, produced by the Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco.
Distilleries appeared on the Norwalk landscape in the 1820s and predated the city’s brewing enterprises by almost a decade. Neither the distilleries nor the breweries, however, enjoyed long-term success. The city’s first brewery was established in the early 1830s, roughly six years before Toledo’s Buckeye Brewery began making beer in 1838. Despite Norwalk’s early entry into the northern Ohio beer market, things got off to a rocky start when the first brewery burned to the ground in 1833. The Norwalk brewery was rebuilt and owned by a German immigrant named George A. Merkle and his partner Russell Matthews. Prior to entering the beer business with Merkle, Matthews operated a distillery in Norwalk. Matthews had taken over operation of the troubled distillery in 1835 from Leverett Bradley. Bradley had cash flow problems that resulted in the distillery’s assets being liquidated at a sheriff’s sale. Distillers Bradley and Matthews had at least two things in common. Both recycled their spent mash through a herd of hogs at the distillery as was the fashion at the time, and both were shadowed by bad luck. For example, not long after Russell Matthews took over Leverett Bradley’s distillery, it, along with the ancillary sawmill and barns, burned to the ground. Subsequently, Bradley gave up on Norwalk, walked away from his unpaid debts, and moved his family to La Porte, Indiana, and then later to California, where he died around 1868.
The Matthews-Merkle Brewery was located near South Pleasant Street, on what Norwalk locals referred to as “Brewery Hill.” The first advertisement the pair placed for the brewery in the Norwalk newspaper had “Cash paid for good barley” as the headline. The partners continued to run that same ad for barley through early 1838. And then things began to unravel. Russell Matthews died suddenly on May 2, 1838, at age 37, leaving Merkle to fend for himself. At the time of his death, Matthews had little to show for his business ventures as evidenced by his estate that was valued at just $200. After Matthew’s demise, matters continued to go downhill. Merkle’s brewery and house went up in flames for the second time in five years, in July, 1838. Days after the conflagration, Merkle placed a letter in the Norwalk newspaper beseeching those who owed him money to repay their debts so he could rebuild the brewery. He also wanted to assure saloonkeepers that he would be back in business as soon as possible and to be ready to place orders. But George Merkle had no more luck rebuilding his brewery and finances after the fire than did Norwalk distillery owner Leverett Bradley.
Two years after the brewery fire, Merkle sold what was left of his operation to James Pearse. The deal was awash with sour beer from the start. In April 1841, Pearse announced that he was the new proprietor of the Norwalk brewery. He soon found himself in need of skilled labor and placed a “help wanted” ad seeking a “Good Maltster” in the Cleveland Herald and the Detroit Advertiser. He also began a very public war of words with George Merkle. Pearse’s ads in the Norwalk newspaper not only solicited farmers for barley but also included claims that George Merkle owed him over $1,000 in cash and additional money for beer that Pearse delivered to Merkle the previous summer. Merkle countered with an advertisement of his own and stated that in fact it was Pearse who was the debtor and owed he, Merkle, $1,000. Merkle also resented being cast as broke and delinquent. But Pearse continued to run ads for “barley wanted” that included his public airing of grievances with Merkle. In one advertisement, he even demanded that Merkle return a stolen beer barrel. The vitriol continued to flow until May, 1842, when it appears that Pearse ceased operating the Norwalk brewery. In all likelihood, he was unable to secure the barley he needed for his brewery either due to lack of availability or his lack of capital to purchase enough barley. If Pearse was truly owed $1,000 and was unable to recover that debt, the loss could have bankrupted him. George Merkle did not wait around for the final judgment. He left Norwalk around 1842 and moved to Mansfield, Ohio, where he died in 1843 at age 37, leaving a widow and five children in dire poverty.
The downfall of early 19th century beer brewing in Norwalk was the result of several factors, but the common denominators were the unreliable supplies of local malting barley, lack of capital, labor uncertainties, personal hardships, and the vagaries of external forces such as the temperance movement. Barley shortages appear to have been a universal complaint by brewers across Huron County and Ohio in general. In 1833, one enterprising brewer in neighboring Erie County even offered farmers free barley seeds in return for their promise of grain deliveries the following year. In the 1840s, Cincinnati brewers complained of barley shortages and market uncertainties. Financial setbacks at local, regional, and national scales stymied brewery development across the state. Capital appeared to have been scarce and debts to brewers difficult to collect. It was not uncommon for brewers to place ads in Norwalk newspapers pleading with the customers to make good on their accounts. The lack of a local skilled labor force hindered brewery growth. German immigrants, who were among Norwalk’s earliest brewers, typically didn’t linger there. They rarely remained in Huron County long enough to appear in more than one census period. Other factors including calamities such as frequent fires and the demise of business partnerships, darkened the future of brewing in Norwalk. Finally, the well-organized local temperance movement fueled by the religious fervor of Methodists and and Presbyterians of Yankee extraction created a hostile business climate for distillers and brewers alike. In 1834, a “Temperance Tavern” opened in Norwalk offering small beer, cronk (sarsaparilla), soda, and coffee as alternatives for alcohol-averse teetotalers. One local resident, William S. Wickham, recalled that, “The [Norwalk] beer manufactured is said to have been of a less elevating character than the ‘lager’ of today, and was known as just plain ‘strong beer.’ As a matter of fact, I did not drink strong beer in those days. I eschewed it—confining my efforts in that direction to Yale’s small beer” and [Zachariah] Standish’s ‘cronk.’” (in, “Norwalk, Its Men and Women, and Some Girls I Have Met,” The Firelands Pioneer, Vol. 20, 25 Dec 1918, pp. 2071-2145)
Norwalk began brewing beer before the much larger and nearby city of Toledo. Despite the head start, however, Norwalk was not destined to become a long-lasting brewing center, a claim that Toledo can make today thanks to craft breweries such as Black Cloister, Great Black Swamp Brewing Company, and Maumee Bay Brewing Company. Unlike Toledo’s robust brewing landscape, no more than two individual breweries operated at any one time in Norwalk in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1906, two breweries, Star Brewery and the Norwalk City Brewery, merged to form the Henry Lais Brewing Company. The Star Brewery was established in 1874 by German immigrant Anthony Lais. The Norwalk City Brewery was the descendent of the Merkle-Matthews enterprise. The new consolidated brewery was created by Anthony’s son Henry. Unfortunately, the Henry Lais brewery closed in 1912, just six years after the merger and seven years before national Prohibition arrived in 1919. And, with its demise, so went the tradition of beer brewing in Norwalk. All that remains on the landscape to remind us of its presence is a street named “Lais Avenue,” that intersects with South Pleasant Street, home to Brewery Hill.
If shortage of suitable barley provided a barrier to 19th century brewers in Norwalk, Ohio, what, if anything, has changed in the past two centuries? Could a Norwalk brewery in 2016 capture the essence of terroir in their beer from locally sourced Ohio barley? It sounds like an intriguing idea, but not an easy one to implement. Since the 1990s, barley production has been in a steady decline in the U.S. and today, Ohio isn’t even a top-ten producer. The leading barley state is Idaho which produced 49 million bushels in 2012. That same year, Ohio produced just 220,000 bushels. If Norwalk brewers had a hard time securing enough malting barley to meet their needs in the 19th century, they would be in even more dire straits today. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, only two Huron County farms raised barley, one farm fewer than in 2007. In 2007, three Huron County farms harvested 2,400 bushels of barley. For some perspective, in the 1840s, one brewery in the Huron County advertised that it wanted to buy 10,000 bushels of barley, nearly five times the amount of barley raised in all of Huron County today.
Even if Ohio farmers planted more barley, the barley varieties grown in Ohio are typically not the types suitable for malting. The Ohio barley crop is predominately six-row winter barley and is raised primarily for animal feed. Spring barley, which is better suited for the malting process, does not do as well in Ohio due to the region’s harsh winters and potential pest infestations. The Ohio State University (OSU) abandoned its research program on barley in 1980s but renewed interest in the crop in response to the demand from craft brewers resulted in a revival of the program in 2008. The Ohio State Horticulture and Crop Science Department is currently developing new malting varieties that tolerate local growing conditions and have the potential to meet the needs of Ohio breweries. The OSU researchers are also experimenting with hop varieties but to date, only about 100 acres each of hops and barley are presently being cultivated in Ohio. Maybe there is yet hope for Ohio brewers to cash in on the cachet of terroir?
With the rise of craft brewing in Ohio, there has been a similar increase in the desire to source local ingredients such as malting barley. New seed varieties and greater profitability may encourage more Ohio farmers to plant malting barley. And there are some encouraging developments further south in neighboring Kentucky that show that it can be done. Goodwood Brewing Company of Louisville recently began producing a beer brewed exclusively with Kentucky-grown barley. Goodwood is working with Walnut Hill Farms of Schochoh, Kentucky, to produce a malting barley suitable for the brewery. Walnut Hill Farms is the sole supplier of Goodwood’s barley which is in malted in North Carolina and then shipped back to the Louisville brewery. So, if Kentucky, a state that is deemed by its own extension agents as unsuitable for growing malting barley can do it, maybe Ohio may someday change from the Buckeye State into the Barley State? Keep those barrels ready, future craft brewers of Norwalk, Ohio. Brewery Hill may ferment once again someday!
This blog entry was written by guest blogger Margaret M. “Peggy” Gripshover. Peggy is an associate professor of geography in the Department of Geography and Geology at Western Kentucky University. She received her Ph.D. in geography from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her research interests are centered in cultural, historical, and urban geography. She has published book chapters and journal articles on topics including horse racing, baseball, historic preservation, material culture, and cultural landscapes. She lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with her husband and fellow geographer Thomas L. Bell. She prefers beer you cannot see through and does not, as a rule, drink Budweiser.