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Over 100 Years Of Better Beers: A Short History of the Reisch Brewery

Frank S. Reisch - Founder of Reisch Brewery

 (Photo Courtesy George E. Bernard & Mary Bernard Magrinat)

    Franz Sales Reisch was born in the small village of Niederhausen, in what was then called "the grand duchy of Baden", close to the Rhine River. While he was still a young boy a United States envoy passed through his village, inviting men to come to the U.S. to start breweries and wineries. At that time strong whiskey was the only alcoholic beverage available.

    Reisch resolved to become a brewer and immigrate to the United States. At the age of 17 he was apprenticed to a brewer in the nearby village of Alsace. As part of his trade he learned coopering, so he could make the vats in which the beer was fermented and the barrels in which it was sold. After serving three years as an apprentice and another three years as a journeyman in 1832 he traveled to New Orleans by ship, crossing the Atlantic in forty-two days. [After arriving here he began to use the Americanized version of his name, Frank Reisch.]

    Reisch worked his way across the states of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, earning a living as a cooper and looking for the place to build his brewery. At one point he considered going to the Great Lakes, but he was told (incorrectly) that they were salt water, so he decided not to go there.

    As soon as he could save enough money he bought a quarter section (forty acres) of white oak timberland. During the day he cleared the land and tilled the soil, building a house, workshop, stable, cribs, and a granary. At night he made barrels by candlelight.

    In 1847 he bought an acre of land in Springfield, Illinois, and began construction of the large underground cellars where the beer would be fermented and stored. He did all the work himself. He dug a well, made the aging vats, and built a 3-story frame building 20 feet by 24 feet above the cellars. His first brew kettle was copper and had an 8-barrel capacity. In the winter he brewed enough beer to meet the summer demand. He also cut ice from nearby ponds and rivers to keep the beer cool in the summer. The first Reisch Beer was sold in 1849.


(Photograph from Sangamon Valley Collection, Lincoln Library, Springfield, Illinois.)

    Eventually three of his four sons joined their father in running the brewery. When his eldest son completed his education in 1862 Frank Reisch took him into partnership, renaming the firm "F. Reisch and Son." A few years later, in 1969, two more sons joined the partnership and the firm became "F. Reisch and Sons."

    By 1870 sales had reached 5,000 barrels a year. In 1875 Frank Reisch fell from the third floor of a new malt house being built, struck his head, and died a few hours later. He and his sons had become prominent leaders in the community and 197 vehicles were in the funeral procession. The same year the name of the firm was changed to "F. Reisch and Brothers."

    Over the years, under the leadership of his sons, the sales continued to grow: 15,000 barrels in 1880, 30,000 barrels in 1890, 50,000 barrels in 1896, the year his son Frank died, "the largest property owner in Springfield."

    In 1903 the firm incorporated, becoming the "Reisch Brewing Company." In 1912, when the brewery was at its peak, they sold 100,000 barrels of beer. The collection of buildings now included a 42-foot by 80-foot brew house, a 5-story brick ice house 40 feet by 70 feet, two malt kilns, one 30 feet by 30 feet, the other 40 by 40 feet, a 3-story malt house of 100,000 bushels capacity, and stables 35 feet by 80 feet for 48 horses.

    The Reisch Brewery had a number of different brands over the years. On a letter dated 1913 the letterhead lists their brands: Bimini, Pilsner, Extra Pale, Bohemian, and Muenchener. They also brewed a Wiener Style Special sometime after 1906, when the Food and Drug Act was passed. (But it could have also been sold before then as well.) And they brewed a Sangamo beer, which pre-dated prohibition. Before World War II they brewed a Gold Top beer. During the war a competitor brewed a watered down beer called Gold Coast. To avoid confusion after the war the label was redesigned to feature the name "Reisch" in large lettering and the words "Gold Top" in very small lettering. This was the final label change, and was the only beer they were selling when the brewery closed in 1966.

(Photograph by Tony White, of his collection.)


    Two events soon greatly changed the fortunes of the sons: first, prohibition in 1920, then the great depression starting in 1929. The first event wiped out their primary source of income and caused them to default on many pieces of tavern property that depended on sales income to pay the mortgage. The second event wiped out the value of the grain futures from their farmland.

    In 1931, son George Reisch, then 89 years old, wrote, "The whole stock in trade of prohibition always consisted of hypocrisy, cunning deception and absolute falsehoods. They continually claim to be followers of our Lord, Jesus Christ ... Were He here now and acted as He did when on earth He would be arrested, prosecuted, heavily fined, and sent to prison for life, or possibly murdered by those same pretended friends and hypocrites.

    "The worst of all is that their conduct is actuated by most selfish and unchristian motives: to attain, continue, and, if possible, to even perpetuate their political power, and to destroy our Republican form of government, which was transmitted to us by our forefathers..."

    "When we look back in this the year of 1931 and view conditions we are really saddened. In place of freedom we have prohibition and paternalism and proscription. In place of brotherly love we have selfishness, avarice and graft. Strangers were at one time welcomed in every state, city and village. Now it is unsafe to welcome stranger for fear of being robbed or even killed. Prohibition has wrought this great change."

    During prohibition the firm survived as best it could, making flavored "soda waters" and malt syrups. They also grew mushrooms in the cellars. After the repeal of prohibition, in 1933, George Reisch and his sons raised $250,000 to refurbish the plant with new equipment.

George Greisser, brew master for Reisch Brewery was brought back to the company to restart production after the repeal of prohibition.   (Photograph from Sangamon Valley Collection, Lincoln Library, Springfield, Illinois.)


    George Reisch died in 1936. His three sons, Carl, Walter, and George, Jr., took over management of the firm.

(Photograph from Illinois State Journal-Register.)


    The end of World War II brought increased competition to the Reisch Brewing Company. Anheuser-Busch, only 100 miles away in St. Louis, could now easily ship beer into Springfield. They could spread their advertising budget over millions of barrels and bottles, saturating the radio with catchy copy and musical jingles; they captured the market of younger beer drinkers. (At this time the "premium" on beer referred to the extra cost of shipping the beer from a distance. This is the origin of "premium beers".)

    The Reisch family celebrated its 100th year of brewing and selling better beers in 1949.  They claimed to be the oldest brewery in the United States continually under the same family's management. Sales at this time were 30,000 legs and 90,000 bottles of beer. Forty employees were on the payroll.

    In 1966 the hospital across the street approached the firm about buying the land to build a medical school. The sons of George Reisch, getting up in years, accepted the offer and dissolved the firm. 117 years of Reisch Beer came to an end.


The last Reisch Beer brewed and bottled passes the inspector.

(Photograph courtesy of Joan B. Reisch and the Illinois State Journal-Register.)


Reisch Brewery Photos & Stories Needed

Perhaps you had a father or grandfather who worked for the Reisch Brewery, or for one of the many Reisch businesses, or at a saloon or tavern that sold Reisch Beer, or who was on one of the athletic teams they sponsored.  If you have any photos related to the Reisch Brewery, or the Reisch family homes, please contact Tony White, who is putting together a pictorial book on this subject.  He would come to your home and scan the photos.

If your photos are used in the book you will be credited.  If the photos are not used in the book they will become part of a collection of pictures at the Lincoln Library, in the Sangamon Valley Collection, and at the Illinois State Historical Library.

White would also love to hear some of your favorite Reisch stories, even if you aren't sure that they are completely accurate.

White is a descendant of the founder of the brewery, Frank Reisch.

Call Tony White at his medical business, toll-free 800-336-9848.  (Please identify yourself as being related to the Reisch Brewery.)  He can also be reached at his home, toll-free 877-548-7400, nights and weekends.  Send mail to P.O. Box 3248, Winchester, VA 22604 or send an email to him at tony@medipak.com

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