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Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co.

 

DESTINATION: MILWAUKEE - Savoring Schlitz; April 5, 1998

BY DAVE HOEKSTRA STAFF REPORTER


MILWAUKEE--One of my most repeated day drives takes me to the south side of Milwaukee. First, I'll buy a case of old 45s at Mean Mountain Music. Then, I'll walk across the street for a case of Schlitz beer from Oklahoma Beer & Liquor, 933 W. Oklahoma.

The 24 brown bottles cost $7.99 (not including the $1.20 deposit). Drive home a happy man.

Who needs Paris in the springtime?

    Schlitz is making a comeback. At least that's what I tell my friends when I offer them cold, long-necked bottles of Schlitz while we listen to rare Dean Martin 45s.

    Schlitz is now being served at popular Chicago music clubs such as the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave., and Schuba's, 3159 N. Southport, which features a classic Schlitz globe in its facade.

    But any real fan of Schlitz should pay homage at the legendary Brown Bottle Pub, 221 W. Galena, in the regentrified Schlitz Park Office Complex on the north side of downtown Milwaukee. The Brown Bottle celebrates its 60th anniversary this summer.

    It was opened in August 1938, as a meeting place for visitors at the end of brewery tours. By 1952, with production in excess of 6 million barrels a year, Schlitz had earned the title of "largest brewery in the world." Erwin C. Uihlein named the Brown Bottle to honor Schlitz's introduction of the brown beer bottle in 1911 as a shield against sunlight. Uihlein was the nephew of Arthur Krug, the German immigrant who founded the brewery in 1848. Following Krug's death in 1856, his widow married the company's bookkeeper, Joseph Schlitz.

There's no accounting for good taste.

    During a labor dispute in 1981 Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. was acquired by Stroh Brewing Co. in Detroit. Stroh closed the Milwaukee brewery in 1982.

    But the Brown Bottle endures. All of the restaurant's wood is antique oak, salvaged from European castles and estates. A Schlitz globe with the legendary logo, "The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous," was carved into the wood paneling behind the back bar and has since moved into the barroom's center booth.

    The hallway entrance contains pictures of dignitaries, such as the portrait of some mighty thirsty country singers with the caption "Schlitz Entertains the WLS Roundup at the Brewery, Feb. 1, 1934" and a picture of Schlitz fans Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.

    The Brown Bottle is next to the Schlitz brewhouse, long drained of beer but still filled with inoperative copper kettles and vats.

    Today, the Brown Bottle not only serves Schlitz on tap, but 115 other beers to wash down a full menu that includes a New Orleans Po' Boy ($5.50), a Friday Night Fish Fry (with beer-battered haddock, corn bread muffins and waffle fries for $8.95) and, naturally, a Wisconsin Brat with hot sauerkraut ($4.95). "After Miller Lite, Schlitz is our second-best seller," said manager Chuck Doerrer, a St. Louis native, or a Bud Man. "I like it."

    For perspective, the Brown Bottle turns to Schlitz collector/historian Leonard P. Jurgensen. The Milwaukee area resident doesn't want his address known for obvious reasons. He not only has the biggest private collection of Schlitz stuff in America, he has one of the biggest collections of anything I've seen.

    His basement has thousands of Schlitz artifacts, including neon signs, barstools, trays, prototypes and tire covers. One blue tire cover, circa 1915, is pre-Prohibition and says "Drink Schlitz the BEER that made Milwaukee Famous." Another blue tire cover was made during Prohibition (circa 1925) and says, "Drink Schlitz the BREW that made Milwaukee Famous."

    One of Jurgensen's upstairs closets is filled to the ceiling with thousands of empty Schlitz brown bottles and collector cans. It's the largest Schlitz bottle collection in the world.

    His son's former bedroom is an office space for precious Schlitz correspondence, photographs, labels and bottle caps. And in his garage, Jurgensen is restoring a white oak Schlitz beer wagon that is 7 feet high and 18 feet long. "Five years in restoration," he said, patting a wagon wheel. "Two years of research. Two years of trying to find this wagon. This is an eight-hour story alone. You don't have time.

    "I'd like to find a founding (Uihlein) family member who is as enthusiastic as I am and get them to sponsor this wagon in (Milwaukee's) Great Circus Parade," said Jurgensen, 57. "The parade founder went to 13 corporations before he found a sponsor in Schlitz. For 10 years (1963-1973) they underwrote the whole parade. If it wasn't for Schlitz, would we have a circus parade today? I don't think so. Why, if I found an authentic Schlitz boxcar, it would be in the yard. If I could persuade my wife."

"When You're Out of Schlitz (You're Out of Beer)."

But not at the Jurgensen house.

    "I'm a real advanced collector," Jurgensen said, pointing toward vintage white Schlitz hotel china. "What made Schlitz so successful is that they invested in real estate. . . . If they could, they'd buy up all four corners of a city block to eliminate competition. They'd open a saloon on one corner, and the other corner would be commercial and so on."

    Jurgensen, who by day works in the food industry, has loaned portions of his collection to the Brown Bottle as well as to the Milwaukee Public Museum, which last year had a popular exhibit "Schlitz Brewery Art: The Ads That Made Milwaukee Famous." The display featured Jurgensen's rare pieces that covered the 1870s to 1920, the year Prohibition closed American breweries and killed their advertising.

    Jurgensen hopes that someday his collection will become part of a permanent exhibit in Milwaukee. He said, "The brewing industry, with all its associated needs, has provided a livelihood for several generations and thousands of Milwaukeeans from all ethnic backgrounds."

    I asked Jurgensen if he liked the product.

    He walked behind a long black leather bar into a back room and returned with two brown bottles of Schlitz. One for him, one for me. "I'm not a big beer drinker," he said. "I may have one beer a night and that's it."

    Jurgensen then took a sip of Schlitz. He was born and reared in the shadows of the Schlitz brewery. As a teenager he delivered groceries to the Uihlein family. Jurgensen began collecting Schlitz memorabilia 20 years ago when his wife, Diane, served the family drinks on a 1954 Schlitz tray during a backyard barbecue.

    "My dad is 85 and living in a nursing home," he said. "He's a changed man. My mother passed away. They were alcoholics. I had a terrible childhood. When I was 10 years old my goal in life was to blow up every tavern. And what am I doing today? This is my life."

With all of life's gusto, of course.

 

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