A Brief History of Omaha Beer

Krug Crate

Originally published in The Reader.

After witnessing firsthand the revival of Narragansett in New England and now Schlitz in the upper Midwest, I’m ready for this retro beer craze to get local. I’m a hi/lo beer drinker. Enjoy the good stuff but there’s a time and place for some swill as well and if I’m going to drink a $2 beer I’d just as soon sip a piece of Omaha history than a PBR tallboy.

For nearly a hundred years, between approximately 1860-1960, there were three breweries (and one distillery) cranking out beer in Omaha: Metz (1856-1961), Krug (1859-1972), and Storz (1876-1972). Like most local macros, the clock started to tick as brewing giants–Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Miller, etc.–continued to find better ways of shipping their product. There was once a time where a traveling salesmen had no choice but to drink what was made nearby. Over the past twenty years or so microbreweries have risen up to brand themselves as the beer of a region or city. If you’re in Kansas City you drink a Boulevard. San Francisco? Anchor Steam. Texas? Shiner. Colorado or Vermont? The choices there seem to grow daily.

I’m all for choice, but it would be nice to have the chance to have a Storz again (or in my case, for the first time). Doesn’t really matter if it was good or not. That, of course, is not what “retro beer” is about.

KRUG: Founded by Frederick Krug, this was Omaha’s downtown brewery and, from a visual standpoint, my favorite of the old Omaha brews. In addition to Krug, they also brewed Cabinet and Luxus brand beers, the latter of which resulted in this beauty of a sign that sat atop the Paxton Hotel:

"First one thing and then another, and then the overflow." One of the great "live" signs of the day, located in Omaha, at Fourteenth and Farnam. Erected and maintained by the Fred Krug Brewing Company. Dimensions: 20 feet wide; 34 feet 6 inches high; 4 feet 6 inches elevation above roof. Built of angle and channel-back and sway braces, galvanized cables and heavy wire mesh. Equipped with ladders for relamping; flash machinery governed by five-times intermittent action; carries over one thousand incandescent lamps. Cost of erection, maintenance, including rental and insurance, amounts to a sum, per annum, wholly enormous.

Of the original Krug brewery that covered more than a city block with it’s stables, ice house and ballroom, only the Anheuser-Busch Beer Depot remains. One of my favorite buildings in Omaha.

Anheuser-Busch Beer Depot 10/09

Cabinet Ad

METZ: The first brewery in Nebraska, founded as McCumbe Brewery, was purchased by Frederick and Joseph Metz in 1861. Like most breweries of the day, the Metz brothers built a beer hall on 10th street to serve their product. By 1920, done in by prohibition, the brewery at 6th and Leavenworth had been sold to Corn Derivatives Company. Metz continued to be brewed through 1961 by Walter Brewing Co. of Colorado. You can still find a Metz ad on the “Omaha building” at 11th and Dodge.

Metz Bros. Beer Hall, 1879

Metz ad on the "Omaha building"

Metz C&W Ad

Metz cap

STORZ: Family owned for 67 years, Storz was perhaps the biggest success story of the Omaha breweries. After surviving prohibition, Storz continued to be brewed in Omaha up until 1972 when Grain Belt Breweries of Minnesota closed the brewery located at 1807 N 16th Street. The brewery’s chimney still exists today as does the mansion Gottlieb Storz built in Midtown.

Storz Brewery Chimney, 10/09

Storz Brewery Ad

Owing to the relatively recent demise of Storz, there’s a lot of memorabilia out there, including this from the days where a bucket of beer literally meant a bucket full of beer.

Storz beer bucket

So what would it take to revive one of these? The rights and an original recipe, of course, but more than anything else passion, a desire to keep a piece of history alive. Finally, Lucky Bucket looks poised to become the “Nebraska beer” that I’ve always longed for and they’ve displayed just such devotion to the craft and historical knack with their pre-Prohibition lager. As they continue to grow, maybe there will be a time where they’re ready to look back rather than forward for their next beer.

If that comes to pass, they could do worse than to look at what Narragansett has done with their branding. A great color scheme and some retro loving designers and writers can go a long way. Check out this campaign to bring their brewery–currently located in Rochester, NY–back to New England.

Further Reading: If you’re interested in the full story of beer in America, check out Ambitious Brew by Maureen Ogle. Good read.

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