Milwaukee’s three founders (Juneau, Kilbourn, and Walker) may have helped turn wild rice fields and marshland into a unified city, but it was the “Big Four” beer barons of the 19th century that secured Brew City a place in America’s heart, mind, and liver. 

When discussions rage in Milwaukee’s neighborhood watering holes over which classic city brew is the “true Milwaukee beer”, common (and legitimate) arguments are made for Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz. Only rarely, perhaps from a distant, dusty corner of the bar, will one hear the name Blatz dropped in. And though he certainly would’ve preferred his famous brew to be in as many hands today as it was years ago, Valentin Blatz would’ve had no issue with his personal name remaining out of the discussion. According to the 1886 Milwaukee historian James Buck (per the book Breweries of Wisconsin by Jerry Apps), Blatz was

“a man of few words, but a hard worker and one who watches over his business very closely.”

Portrait of Valentin Blatz in 1887 by anonymous dictionary authors [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

At merely 20 years old, Valentin Blatz emigrated to the United States from Bavaria, bringing along with him his experience as a brewer’s son and apprenticeships in multiple major German breweries. Upon his arrival to Milwaukee in 1849, his youthful experience was quickly grabbed by downtown brewer John Braun, who employed Valentin as foreman at the City Brewery while also providing room and board in the Braun home.

Not long after, Valentin raised some $500 to found his own brewery next door to Braun’s, which must’ve made for awkward hallway conversations back at home. Not long after, in 1851, John Braun was thrown from a horse-drawn beer wagon and killed. Young Valentin, ever the opportunist, soon united both his work life and personal life with those of John’s, combining his and City Brewery together and marrying John’s widow, Louise. They already shared a home, after all. The Valentin Blatz brewery and family were born together.

City Brewery aka Val. Blatz Brewing Company in 1886 by E.E. Barton publishers (anonymous authors) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Blatz wasted no time in expanding his output, increasing production capabilities at an astounding rate year over year. According to his obituary in The Milwaukee Journal, dated Monday May 28, 1894 (courtesy of the Sussex-Lisbon Area Historical Society),

“It has been claimed that Mr. Blatz was the first brewer to give Milwaukee beer a reputation outside of the state.”

With “distribution centers in Chicago, New York, Boston, New Orleans, Memphis, Charleston, and Savannah“, and as the first brewery in the city to bottle their beer in 1875, Blatz was probably the first Milwaukee beer to make it in the hands of consumers across the country.

A historic 1890s Val. Blatz Brewing Company bottle. Photo by Joe Powell for The Squeaky Curd.

In just over four decades, Blatz had grown the City Brewery from 500 to over 365,000 annual barrels of beer, making it the third largest brewery in Milwaukee with a complex covering multiple prime city blocks. Many of these Cream City brick buildings still remain, today operating as condominiums and buildings for the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE).

Supposedly the former brewery office building still “features an image painted in the ceiling window that includes Joseph Schlitz, Frederick Miller, Frederick Pabst, and Valentin Blatz… Blatz’s face is a cut-out, which could be removed for him to look down upon his workers from his office.” and was built to 3/4 scale for the shorter Valentin.

Blatz family tombstone in Forest Home Cemetery. Photo by Joe Powell for The Squeaky Curd.

The City Brewery did not actually bare Valentin’s name until 1889, when he incorporated as the Val. Blatz Brewing Company, which Blatz shortly thereafter sold to a British “syndicate” oddly called the United States Brewing Company. They kept Valentin and his family on staff and in charge of the Milwaukee operations until his untimely death in 1894 of heart disease and a case of eating too much ice cream for dinner (per the Milwaukee Sentinel obit, dated Sunday May 27, 1894) – tell that to your kids!

The Goethe House on the campus of MSOE, formerly a building at the Val. Blatz Brewing Company. Photo by Joe Powell for The Squeaky Curd.

The story of the Val. Blatz Brewing Company continues beyond the man himself into the 20th century. The company survived prohibition but struck hard times in the 1950s, causing it to be sold back and forth between competitors for decades. Today it’s owned by Pabst and brewed by Miller.

Even though the Blatz beer brand has lost some of its luster over the last 150+ years, the story of Valentin Blatz has not gone quite as skunky. The brewer and entrepreneur (and world traveler, bank president, city alderman, and philanthropist) quietly grew Milwaukee’s most-urban brewery into the city’s initial beer exporter.

Here’s a toast to Valentin Blatz, Milwaukee’s first true Beer Baron.

Val. Blatz Brewing Company. Photo by Joe Powell for The Squeaky Curd.

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