Telling Today’s Craft Beer Drinkers the Story of Yesterday’s Breweries
Beer history is a fragile thing. So much of it has been lost to time because objects, artifacts, and recipes lacked a caretaker at a crucial time. Closings can happen quickly, and beer history is simply swept aside or discarded.
Fast forward to today. Craft brewers are increasingly using their platforms—including beer labels, draught chalkboards, or stories told by staff—to remind their customers of beer’s ties to the past. Many modern craft brewers have chosen to restore and preserve the stories—and beers—of the brewers who have come before them.
Finding a Beer to Celebrate Indiana
For Upland Brewing, the brewery’s 15th anniversary was a reason to delve into Indiana’s brewing history. Upland Brewing director Patrick Lynch says that the brewery wanted to do something special for its home state, and their research pointed them toward a historical beer called Champagne Velvet from the former Terre Haute Brewing Company (THBC).
“Even if you don’t know anything about the Champagne Velvet story, when you see the name, it still catches your eye, catches your ear.” Lynch and the team at Upland thought reviving Champagne Velvet for their anniversary would celebrate their state and bring the community together.
In researching Champagne Velvet—a pre-Prohibition Pilsner whose tagline was “the beer with the million dollar flavor”—Lynch discovered that the beer was “the most successful brand to come out of Indiana.” It turns out that Terre Haute Brewing had a storied history in the Hoosier State, and there was already a movement to bring the beer back to life.
Champagne Velvet in Its Prime
Lynch and the Upland team investigated Champagne Velvet’s past and discovered that the beer had enjoyed two heydays in Indiana and beyond. The story of Champagne Velvet is tied to the Terre Haute Brewing Company, originally founded in 1837. By 1880, Terre Haute Brewing was brewing 30,000 barrels of beer—double what the team is producing today at Upland.
By 1902, when the brewery released Champagne Velvet for the first time, THBC was producing more than 100,000 barrels, making it one of the leading U.S. breweries before Prohibition. Following Prohibition, the brewery reopened with new owners, this time in the boom days of World War II. THBC saw a revival after Prohibition and quickly grew to more than 500,000 barrels per year. In 1943, THBC was the 25th largest brewery in the U.S. Champagne Velvet had quite a following, it seems.
As Lynch and the team at Upland explored how to revive the brand, they discovered that someone already owned the rights to Champagne Velvet. Terre Haute historian and beer enthusiast Mike Rowe wanted to open a bar that paid homage to the THBC brewing history. Rowe had purchased the rights from Pabst Brewing, which had owned THBC beers previously. However, Upland and Rowe were able to come to an agreement. “[Rowe] wanted a caretaker for Champagne Velvet who would have the passion to continue the legacy and stay true,” said Lynch. “He was looking for someone to take Champagne Velvet to the next level. We were able to form a nice partnership with him: we’re able to brew the beer, and he’s happy to see the beer still being brewed.”
Bringing Champagne Velvet Alive for Modern Drinkers
With Rowe’s help, Lynch was also able to obtain the vintage recipe to brew Champagne Velvet. “[Rowe] was flipping through a textbook that Terre Haute brewer Walter Braun owned in the 1900s, and a little slip of paper fell out with handwritten notes for what was clearly a beer recipe,” Lynch recounted. “That’s what we have turned into the Champagne Velvet recipe as best we can.” The note mentioned “the water-to-grist ratio and the corn-to-barley ratio, the starting gravity, and some information about what this beer would be. It didn’t mention hops or yeast, so that’s where the combination of staying true to that handwritten note and historical research played into each other.” With the recipe as a guide, Lynch and the Upland team brewed the Pilsner and released it for their anniversary, adding pre-Prohibition malt from a local malthouse north of Indianapolis
Although Upland is based out of Bloomington—about 60 miles from Terre Haute—Lynch said the local community has embraced the beer, and Champagne Velvet has gone on to limited national distribution.
“Champagne Velvet is what national markets are clamoring for,” said Lynch. “It’s our number two brand right now, behind our Dragonfly IPA. It’s great seeing the response from our customers—the name grabs your attention, the story grabs your attention, and then the beer holds your attention once you try it.”
Florida’s Coppertail Brewing Turns a Midnight Purchase into a Florida Special
Coppertail Brewing owner Kent Bailey has a soft spot in his heart for Florida’s historical breweries, often scouring the internet to learn more about his state’s brewing past.
As his Tampa-based brewery was seeking to develop a new brand of light lager perfect for enjoying the Florida lifestyle—whether at the state’s beaches, rivers, the Daytona Speedway, or at Raymond James Stadium—branding from a beer that had come and gone decades prior resonated with Bailey. That’s what led him to purchase the rights to Florida Special, a brand from the former Southern Brewing Company. The historical brewery was born in Tampa after Prohibition and operated until the industrial beer consolidation of the 1960s.
Acquiring the brand rights to Florida Special was the beginning of a project, according to Coppertail’s chief operating officer, Ken Foutch. Bailey ended up purchasing the rights to Florida Special, including the entire branding from post-Prohibition start to 1960s finish.
The team combed through the different logos from Southern Brewing Company, deciding on which iteration of Florida Special to choose from, said Foutch. Southern Brewing had been “in business for 50 years and it’s fun to look at their brand specifically in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s—you can see how it evolved,” said Foutch. “At one point, it kind of had a World War II vibe from that era. At another point, the brand looked like Lone Star looks today, so we took some pieces from their world and then looked at nostalgic brands, some that hardly exist anymore.”
Since the purchase of Florida Special’s rights did not include a recipe, Foutch and his team got to work on shaping their Florida lager. Foutch remembers, “The beer [that would become Florida Special] started out as a beer called Dock Beer—brewed just for employees and when they’re getting off work.” Coppertail’s team loves its IPAs and their special American Trippel, but the appeal of Dock Beer was universal. “We all love crispy, light lagers for having one or two after work.”
With the rights to Florida Special and the recipe for Dock Beer, Coppertail would craft a brand of light lager that would anchor the brewery’s core beers.
“It all evolved from Dock Beer,” says Foutch. “And even since the inception of Florida Special, it’s still changing. We’re still seeking the perfect recipe for this beer.”
The brewing team recently changed the yeast strain to reduce sulfur, and as a result, “It’s a little crisper and cleaner. We’re sticking with noble hops and still trying to stay traditional.” Florida special checks in at 3.8 percent alcohol by volume.
“It’s one of those crispy boys, a beer-flavored beer—that’s my favorite way to put it,” said Foutch. “It’s great to drink whether you’re finishing cutting the grass, out on the golf course, or anywhere in the Sunshine State.”
Gerst Amber Brings Back Memories of Tennessee’s Largest Brewery
For Yazoo Brewing, restoring a piece of Tennessee’s past is a source of pride for owner Linus Hall: the production of storied brand Gerst Amber has returned to Nashville.
The Gerst Brewery was one of the largest in the South at the beginning of the 1900s. “It’s hard to find actual production volumes, but I believe at its heyday, it was producing around 250,000 barrels a year,” said Hall. “The brewery in Nashville occupied four city blocks.”
Ultimately, the Gerst Brewery closed in 1954, and the Gerst family turned to running a restaurant to continue sharing its German heritage with Nashville. When they closed the Gerst Haus in the 1980s, the family sold the rights to local restaurateurs Jim and Jerry Chandler. The Chandlers contracted with brewers in Pennsylvania and Indiana to make Gersts’ beer, but one brewery closed and the other was inconsistent with the beer.
Hall remembers that time. “We were moving Yazoo’s brewery from our original location at Marathon Motorworks to a much bigger building in the Gulch area of Nashville,” he recalls. “With more space and a new, bigger brewing system, I approached them with the idea of bringing Gerst beer back to Nashville.”
Once he worked out an arrangement with the Chandlers, Hall and the Yazoo team began bringing the Gerst recipe into the 21st century. Hall recalls, “We did not have any recipes, and in any case, modern malts and hops are much different than what brewers back then were using. Even if we had an original recipe, I am not sure we would have produced the same beer.”
Modernizing the recipe took “many 10-gallon test batches on my old homebrew system,” and attention to detail in each one. After producing each batch, the team tasted, critiqued, and adjusted.
“In the end, we made a light-bodied amber ale, with German Munich malts and a touch of flaked corn, as many U.S. brewers were using at the turn of the century.” All of this was accomplished with no written recipe—just recollections of how the beer looked and tasted.
Gerst Amber Springs to Life Again
In the end, when Hall and the Yazoo team had nailed down the final recipe, Gerst Amber returned to the Gerst Haus with fanfare and celebration. “‘I’m very proud of bringing it back to being brewed in Nashville again,” Hall said. “When we tapped the first ceremonial keg, we invited the mayor and all the local media. I had a German beer stein with Mayor Karl Dean’s name engraved on it, and when I offered the first beer to him, he made a short speech to commemorate the occasion, making reference to tying the future of Nashville brewing to its famous past.”
That final recipe is available year-round through Yazoo. “Nashville beer drinkers have really taken to Gerst Amber,” Hall said. “It’s now one of our consistent bestsellers.”
Brewing Team Brings Happy Hops and Velvet Glow Back to Russian River
When a young Vinnie Cilurzo moved to Santa Rosa, Calif. in the 1990s, he heard stories about an area beermaker called Grace Brothers Brewery. At one point, the brewery had a presence in both southern and northern California, brewing in Los Angeles as well as Santa Rosa, Cilurzo recalls.
Cilurzo had begun working for Russian River Brewing until the brewery’s owner, Korbel, decided to exit the beer business. Vinnie and his wife, Natalie, formed a team that purchased the rights to Russian River Brewing, opening a small brewpub in Santa Rosa.
Even when he had the new brewery up and running, “Grace Brothers Brewery kind of hung there in the back of my mind,” said Cilurzo.
He researched more about the brewery and discovered a brand called Happy Hops. “It has that great artwork—that’s one of the coolest things about these retro brands.” After additional research into Sonoma County’s past—the area used to be one of the hop-growing capitals of America before the Pacific Northwest emerged as the epicenter—and coming across the rosy-cheeked hop adorning the Happy Hops label, Cilurzo knew he wanted to incorporate that beer into the Russian River family.
As with many other historical brands, Happy Hops (and eventually Velvet Glow Pilsner, another Grace Brothers brand) had no official recipes that came with the branding. This was no surprise to Cilurzo.
“You have to think back to that era which is both pre- and post-Prohibition,” said Cilurzo. “These beers were around post-Prohibition, but there wasn’t anything else but industrial lager.”
He looked further into the brewery’s history and found that, “Grace Brothers had 50 or 60 labels, but there wasn’t much to really build with recipes.” Cilurzo knew the brand would tell a story, but the liquid had to speak for itself.
Bringing Happy Hops Back to Life
Cilurzo and his team rolled up their sleeves and got to work. “We brewed a beer called Happy Hops, probably in 2009 or 2010, with 100 percent experimental hop HBC 369, which eventually became Mosaic. Happy Hops was an all-Mosaic pale ale to start.”
After trademarking the assets and artwork from the historical beer, Cilurzo and the Russian River team eventually decided to make changes from that first batch in 2009. Around 2015, Happy Hops morphed from a pale ale to an IPA. After all, Cilurzo says, “a beer with a name like Happy Hops should have an even more expressive hop note to it. So I started bringing in other hops into the mix. Instead of being just Mosaic, it’s got Strata, which at the time was an experimental, some Simcoe, Centennial, Brewer’s Gold, Amarillo, and a handful of others. That’s where it is and now Happy Hops is a year-round beer.”
Reminding the Next Generation of Beer Drinkers
Happy Hops IPA and Velvet Glow Pilsner both have a solid place in the Russian River Brewing lineup. Cilurzo said he loves “the history and referencing an old brand and keeping a bit of Sonoma County’s history alive. We have two brewpubs and two gift shops and it’s a nice way to tell some cool historical stories. I feel like it’s our duty as brewers to keep the history going—to remind the next generation of the beer drinkers and brewers who came before us.”