A history of Indiana Beer: Indy's first brewery through Prohibition 

A look at our 200 year brewing history

  • Bass Photo Co. Collection, Indiana Historical Society
Editor's Note: This is part two of a three part series on the history of Indiana beer. If you haven't read part one, check it out before continuing with this story. 

1830s: From Whiskey to Beer

Things definitely were picking up — so why was there no resident brewery?

It has been suggested that the answer was to be found with the demographics of the elected officials and of much of the resident population that settled Indianapolis, most of whom had Southern roots. The traditional beverage of choice for early Southern Indiana residents has been whiskey.

Libby Cierzniak, in Indianapolis Collected, notes: “Everyone drank whiskey in the early days of Indianapolis — and the whiskey was drunk every which way. For a time, no birth, wedding, funeral, shucking, quilting or barn raising was complete without large quantities of whiskey. Even the most mundane marketing chores were spiked with whiskey, since it was common practice for merchants to set out a half-gallon bottle of whiskey for all to enjoy. …Whiskey was so popular that in October 1827, it was reported that the city’s 1,000 residents had managed to consume nearly 300 barrels of whiskey in the previous year. This was quite an accomplishment, considering that half of the population was female and 400 were under the age of 15.”

Cierzniak then goes on to note: “The Temperance Society of Marion County was organized on October 3, 1828. Its aim was to ‘discontinue the use of ardent spirits, except as medicine, both by precept and example.’ The organization espoused total abstinence from ‘ardent spirits,’ which was harmful to one’s physical and mental being and also tended ‘to shorten life.’ Most of the town’s leading citizens participated, all of whom had regularly used liquor.”

  • Indiana Historical Society
“There was, of course, a loophole,” underscores Cierzniak. “Many members of the early temperance societies did not consider beer, wine and hard cider to be ‘ardent spirits.’”

This view was supported by the Methodist Episcopal Church, which published an editorial in 1841 opposing “teetotalism as contradicting the acts of the Savior and Saint Paul.” Even the state Supreme Court weighed in on the issue, ruling in 1836 that port wine was not covered under the law regulating spirituous liquors because it was fermented and not distilled.

Beer received a reprieve.

Is one to surmise beer was produced at home and on premises of taverns and hotels at that time? Beer was allowed, even favored, as a regular part of meals at home.

In 1828, successful breweries already were established all along the East Coast of the United States, breweries were functioning in other Indiana towns and nearby Cincinnati had a thriving brewery that was celebrating its 18th year of operation.

So why didn’t a brewery happen in Indianapolis before 1834?

It is generally pointed out in early histories of Indianapolis that there was virtually no money in and around the city until after completion of the National Road in Indiana. The last section was finished in 1834 and that year a branch of the State Bank of Indiana opened in Indianapolis. Commercial brewing in a frontier town was not a viable enterprise until a guaranteed consumer base surfaced.

Fort Wayne attorney and banker Hugh McCullough, who came from New England, referred to Indianapolis as “an almost inaccessible village,” adding that he had seen few towns “so utterly forlorn as Indianapolis appeared to me in the Spring of 1833.”

But with the completion of the National Road we see more than one standout reason as to the opening of our first brewery. Simply put, there was more access, more business and more people.

More workers would be arriving. New Statehouse construction began in 1835, and canal construction began in 1836. In addition to increased worker population, travelers would be coming to Indianapolis on the way to and from elsewhere. For example, the stagecoach line of P. Bears advertised to make the trip between Dayton and Indianapolis in two and a half days. This included stopping each night at a tavern.

1834: Our First Brewery

And in 1834, Indianapolis 5th Ward Trustee John L. Young and National Road bridge builder William Wernweg founded Wernweg & Young, referred to as “The Indianapolis Brewery” in some later reports.

The 1883 Review of Manufacturing and Mercantile Resources of Indianapolis notes: “As early as 1835 one Joseph L. Young established a brewery on Maryland Street between the line of the coming canal and West Street, south side, and maintained it until about the year 1843. Ostrander & Morris give the dates as 1834-1840.
Perhaps the closest encouraging precedent for Young & Wernweg was Richmond’s Main Street Brewery, opened in 1833 by German immigrants Christian and George Buhl to fill the gap left by the death of Ezra Boswell, whose brewery had enjoyed success. The Buhls’ enterprise continued until 1912 through three other ownerships.

Did Wernweg & Young close in 1840 for lack of support for their product? One beer blogger, who wished to remain anonymous when I asked for permission to cite and credit by name, reported learning from someone whose family goes back to the 1840s and who for some reason has been passing along the story of Indianapolis’ first brewery making a dark, bitter brew. The blogger surmised it failed to gain a lasting patronage because settlers were used to a “small beer,” even though it probably was dark. Dark wasn’t the problem, bitter was, she said, with the kind of authority that impresses casual listeners and seekers of hard facts alike. So I pass along this bar stool story as a reminder that history is always in the present when you’re sipping a beer. Then again, an entrepreneur, in the midst of opening a brewery in early 2016, assessed the six-year Wernweg & Young ownership from his perspective. “Not every business succeeds. That’s the nature of businesses.” Then he wondered, “Did they simply want to move on? Running a brewery is a tough business.”

Or was the impetus to terminate their six-year run the state’s bankruptcy in the midst of building the canal? Searching turned up no comments from Wernweg or Young. In 1840 they reportedly sold the brewery to Rene Faux, according to The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis – or was it “taken over by Joseph Laux,” according to the History of Indianapolis & Marion County, Indiana, Part 1? History is a slippery slope and the truth is not always obvious.

1900s: The Rise and Fall of Brewing

The rest of the 1800s saw a confluence of breweries opening along Washington Street and the surrounding areas. There were taverns and breweries at the corners of Washington and Noble (College Ave.), California, Madison, Alabama and more. In 1875 we saw Home Brewing Company come in with a reported investment of $200,000 by 90 stockholders residing in Indianapolis. Just to give an idea of how far the brewing scene in the city had come in those first 40 years or so, M.R. Hyman reports, in 1906 Home Brewing Company had sixty employees and 25 wagons distributing 50,000-60,000 bbl annually. The bottling house had a capacity of 60 bbl daily, “used entirely for home consumption.” The brands included Home Brew Pale Select, Columbia and Indiana Ale and Porter.

It’s fun to note that that 123 years later, Indiana City Brewery, with a $35,000 community-based Kickstarter campaign, made its home at the Washington and Shelby Streets site in the remaining Home Brewing Co. Bottling and Distribution building.

At the turn of the 20th century Indianapolis seemed stabilized with three large brewing operations — American Brewing, Home Brewing and the conglomerate Indianapolis Brewing. In 1905 the last of our historic breweries opened with the formation of Capital City Brewing Co., founded by Charles Krauss, John J. Giesen and Victor Jose.
click to enlarge Police seize a bootleg operation in 1920 in Wanamaker. - BASS PHOTO CO. COLLECTION, INDIANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
  • Police seize a bootleg operation in 1920 in Wanamaker.
  • Bass Photo Co. Collection, Indiana Historical Society
Hyman’s Handbook of Indianapolis reported on the opening of Capital City Brewing Company: “[T]he plant it has erected is of the highest efficiency and is equipped with the very latest and best machinery. The buildings are located at the corner of West and Kansas streets [south of Morris street] and are of exceptionally handsome architecture. From the tapping of the first barrel the product of this brewery spring into immediate favor with the public who appreciate a good article. Their well-known brands are ‘TT’ (Taste Tells) light beer, and ‘Frauenlob,’ dark. This company makes a specialty of family trade.”

Of consequence in this report is the pointed reference: “This company makes a specialty of family trade.” Yet, the following reference to: “Among the stockholders are said to be 112 saloonkeepers” leads us to recognize this was a business that was covering all its bases, and the reference after that brings attention to the social status of the founders.

As with the preceding breweries, Capital City was built with access to a railroad line.

Capital City Brewing joined the Indianapolis brewing community in making itself known on a national level with an active agenda. The August 1909 edition of Industrial Refrigeration announced:

click to enlarge Newspaper clipping from the day after Prohibition went into effect in Indiana. - INDIANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
  • Newspaper clipping from the day after Prohibition went into effect in Indiana.
  • Indiana Historical Society
“The United States Brewmasters’ Association will hold its next annual convention at Indianapolis, Ind., September 12-15, 1909, where the delegates will be entertained by the local Brewmasters’ Association, who have already arranged a splendid program including concerts, a ball, an auto ride, excursions, trip to White City [at the time an amusement park in Broad Ripple Village], a waldfest [banquet], etc. The brewmasters generally enjoy themselves at these annual gatherings as well as get through with a lot of business. The local association includes J.J. Giesen, Capital City Brewing Co.; August Hook and Peter Lawall, Home Brewing Co.; Anthony Krass, American Brewing Co.; and B. Rebrauer and Karl Weinerth, Indianapolis Brewing Co.”

With our brewing industry at its highest point in history, thousands of the working class making a living within the industry, from production to transportation, the unthinkable happened. It all came to a crashing halt with Prohibition.

According to headlines from the time, it was a bleak outlook for the industry.

Capital City Brewing Co. changed names to Citizens Brewing Co. 1915-1918, before a notice that says, “Closed by Indiana State Prohibition in 1918,” sealed their fate.

Brewers’ Journal continued this unnerving state of the industry.
January 1919:“American Brewing Company, Indianapolis, which discontinued business about two years ago, has dissolved.” “Citizens’ Brewing Co., Indianapolis, has been converted to cold storage and curing meat for export.”
May 1921: “At Indianapolis, The Home Brewery is out of business, the Citizens Brewery converted to cold storage and curing meat, the Home Brewery is manufacturing a diastic malt extract, and malt extract for beverage purposes; but the Indianapolis Brewing Co. is a large producer of cereal and carbonated beverages, soft drink syrups, malt syrup and ice, with one plant idle.”

The industry was gone, and so were the jobs.

Don't miss out on the final installment tomorrow where we come into a new, bleak age of local brewing only to be saved by a small group of beer-lovers. 

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About The Author

Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn has been covering craft beer and the arts for NUVO for two decades. She’s the author of True Brew: A Guide to Craft Beer in Indiana.

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