*This is the one-hundred and second post in an on-going chronicle dubbed the Great Wisconsin Brewery Tour. Follow the journey here.*
1) How many different beers?
City has a few of their own labels, but they mostly contract brew other brands.
2) How long operational?
1858-1872 (City Brewery), 1872-1996 (G. Heileman Brewing Company), 1999-today (City Brewing Company).
3) Why? (here, this, etc)
Currently, because contract brewing is a sound investment.
One of the largest contract brewers in the country.
5) What sets you apart?
6) How did you get your name?
Throwback to original brewery on this site’s name.
Chicago is a sprawling metropolis, one of the largest cities in the country and certainly the largest in the Midwest. Naturally, the nearby brewery-heavy cities of Milwaukee and St. Louis wanted nothing more than to brew the beer of choice for the Windy City. But, surprisingly, Chicago’s historic go-to beer since the late 1800s, and still prevalent today, first came from a small city about 450 miles up the Mississippi River from STL.
The G. Heileman Brewing Company operated in La Crosse, WI from 1872 to 1996, and started shipping their iconic Old Style Lager down to Chicago and across the country in 1895. Their ability to infiltrate new markets, buy up flailing competitors (including Stag, Pabst, Lone Star, and Blatz) and develop iconic recipes (like the go-to non-alcoholic drink of choice for today’s hipsters, La Croix) helped them grow to be the 5th largest brewery in the country.
However, the historic brewery fell to industry pressure in the mid 1990’s, and G. Heileman’s was sold to investment firms and other brewing conglomerations, and the buildings sat idle.
But not for long: in 1999, a group of individual investors purchased the old brewery site, fixed up the equipment, and reopened the place as City Brewery (it’s original name before G. Heileman’s).
Although this new iteration was started with the hopes of becoming a hometown favorite again, it transitioned to focus on contract brewing other brands rather than fostering their own.
Though recently there was celebration around Old Style (Oktoberfest) starting to be brewed again in La Crosse, our visit to the brewery was…underwhelming.
The “World’s Largest Six-Pack” (which holds 22,000 barrels of beer) is kind of cool, but it could use a little TLC to spruce it up. There’s a large tour and information building that has been abandoned, and our own requests for a guide were denied.
The campus is scrubbed of nearly all vestiges of a small-town brewery. With the exception of the Heileman’s old house and a lone remaining historic facade, the rest of the buildings are utilitarian and stark.
At the same time, there’s no denying the impressive scale of the brewery even today, especially in comparison to the popular microbreweries popping up around town. And at the very least, it was worth a walk around the buildings, paying a little homage to one of the country’s historically great breweries that’s still working, in their own way, to fill us with good beer.