Buckeye Brewing Company

North Michigan and Bush
Buckeye Brewing Company

Okay, lets’ get back to our Buckeye Brewing story we started on the East Side. Julius Kohler purchased the east side brewery in 1853 and moved it across town to the Bush and Champlain Street, which was strategically located just one block east of the Miami and Erie Canal. By the way, one of Kohler’s early employees was Joseph Grasser, who would go on to his own illustrious brewing career—more on that later.

In 1857, Andreas Stephan, who had just left his partnership with Peter Lenk at the City Brewery, we’ll learn about that too later in our tour, he bought and renamed the company as the Toledo Brewery. He produced ale, common beer and lager beer and met with enough success to expand the facility, building a four-story brick brew house on the site. 

By the late 1870’s, the brewery had gone back to the name the Buckeye Brewery. By this time, they were brewing between 14,000 and 19,000 barrels of lager beer annually, making it the fourth largest brewery in the city.

Jacobi, Coghlin & Co purchased the brewery in 1878. It was led by Irishman Dennis Coghlin and German John Jacobi. Within the next few years, production more than doubled. By the 1890s, they were producing more than 60,000 barrels per year – making it on par with the Finlay Brewery as the city’s largest.

 

The ice portion of the business was big too. In the early years of brewing, large ice blocks were used to create a natural refrigeration system for storing and aging beer.  Buckeye’s ice houses, located on the other side of Bush street, got their supply in winter from several large ice ponds which were located on site – at least one was located just north Champlain and another just east of Bush – as you can see from this Sanborn insurance map.

 

In 1885, Buckeye underwent major renovations. They built an ornate five-story brew house and converted the original building to cellar buildings and a malt house. Around this time, Buckeye introduced its Green Seal brand, for its Lager, Pilsener and Export beers. The Green Seal brand would remain its leading brand for the next 50 years.

The turn of the century brought many new challenges. As is mentioned elsewhere on the tour, a popular response to growing competition in the industry was to form combines, consolidating several local breweries under one operation. The Toledo combine was led by the Huebner Brewing Company. Its efforts for complete domination of the local market were thwarted by the Home Brewing Company and Buckeye, both of whom chose to stay independent.

A far greater challenge presented itself when Prohibition went into effect in 1919. Like many other breweries, Buckeye’s initial response was to brew non-alcoholic beer as well as a variety of soft-drinks, such as root beer, ginger ale and cider. Seeing that this wasn’t profitable, The Buckeye Brewing Company made a brilliant move. They changed their name to the Buckeye Producing Company and converted all of the brewery buildings and operations to cold storage. They lent this storage to other business, mainly grocers, but a rumor persists that other creative uses were employed as well – including renting some of the cold storage to the city and medical establishments to house cadavers.

Throughout Prohibition, Buckeye kept its bottling plant in full production bottling soft drinks for other companies. In late 1932, when Roosevelt was elected, it seemed likely that Prohibition would soon end. Buckeye returned to the production of Green Seal cereal beverages. Thus, when beer sales became legal on April 7, 1933, the Buckeye Brewing Company was ready, and immediately converted all production back to beer.

The golden age of Buckeye beer began on December 30, 1935. This was the first time that the Buckeye brand name and logo, of a small cartoon waiter, appeared on their products and in advertising. Most breweries were abandoning more traditional pre-Prohibition style beers, which tended to be heavier and malt-based, in favor of lighter Pilsener beers. This switch was also strategic in that consumers could drink more lighter beers. This style of light beer relied more heavily on hops for taste and was increasingly popular with the public – and continues to be among the most popular styles of beer today.

Buckeye’s unique twist on light beer was the brainchild of Paul Kaiser, who became brew master at the end of 1935. Kaiser employed a process called “kräusening,” which was a popular European method for carbonating beer. In this process, actively fermenting wort was added before bottling so that the yeast continued to ferment in the bottle. In Buckeye’s process, the beer was “aged” for an extra 30 days in a pressurized glass-lined tank, and held at a few degrees above freezing. Although Buckeye heavily advertised their new beer, and the kräusening process, as beer “brewed as of old,” the process was entirely modernized and used cutting edge technology.

The new logo came to life when a Buckeye employee found 4 foot 5 inch Carl Walinski bar tending at the Green Light Inn. Walinksi personified the Buckeye Beer waiter from 1938 to 1942. He had previously worked as a bat boy and general errand boy for the Toledo Mud Hens during the entire tenure of legendary Casey Stengel, including when they brought home the pennant in 1927.

For Buckeye, Walinski worked six days a week advertising for the company. Most often, he was dressed in a green jacket, black bow tie and red pants. Carl’s first assignment was to learn to roller skate. After a few weeks, he roller skated around town throughout the day, traveling from bar to bar to promote the beer. While he skated, he carried a tray that was glued to his glove, which had a bottle and a glass glued to it. He was often offered drinks by patrons and bar owners and had to be careful not to drink too much to affect his his skating. Walinski was popular with children, who would line the streets along his regular route to waive and cheer as he skated past. He also appeared in parades, sometimes as far away as Indiana and Michigan.

After a few months on the job, Walinski was given an angora goat to promote the Buckeye Bock Beer that was released each spring. Although he knew nothing about goats, Walinski trained “Billy” – as the goat came to be known – to pull him around in a special cart. Advertisements from the time say that Billy pulled Bucky over 10,000 miles. While this may be a stretch, the two did travel to other regional cities and towns, reportedly as far as Lima.

Walinski was a natural entertainer. An example of this is that he trained Billy to perform tricks. When they would walk together in a parade, Bucky would walk ahead a few paces and then bend down to tie his shoe or pick something up. Sure enough, Billy would butt him in the behind and Bucky somersault to the delight and cheers of the crowd. In 1942, Walinski asked for a small raise. When it was denied, he quit. Nevertheless, he never harbored any ill will towards Buckeye and remained a local celebrity until his death in 2002 at the age of 91.

After the war ended, Buckeye spent significant sums on enlarging the plant and making improvements. By 1946, the plant had an annual capacity of 300,000 barrels and reportedly employed as many as 500 workers.

By 1949, both of Toledo’s other post-Prohibition breweries had closed and Buckeye enjoyed local dominance. In its prime as much as 80% of beer sold and consumed in Toledo was made at the Buckeye Brewery.

In January 1955, the Buckeye Brewing Company celebrated the production of its 10-millionth barrel. This volume was equivalent to a three-hour flow of water over Niagara Falls. They had used 500 million pounds of barley malt and 4 million pounds of hops.

The last years of the Buckeye were led by Richard “Red” Smith. Red Smith was well-known from a long history in sports. He played college football under Knute Rockne and Notre Dame and played professionally with the Packers under Curly Lambeau. He also played minor and major league baseball and coached with the Chicago Cubs during their 1945 pennant-winning season.

Under Smith’s leadership, the brewery was successful enough to be courted for purchase by Chicago’s Peter Hand Brewing Company.  In an effort to stay competitive with national brands, Buckeye was sold in 1965.

The Peter Hand Brewing Company was a pioneer in brewing low-calorie “Lite” Beer. Meister Brau, their premier brand, and Meister Brau Lite Beer, were soon brewed and sold alongside Buckeye in Toledo. The company saw tremendous success but also spent wildly, acquiring other breweries as well as a host of companies in the “diet” industry, including pharmaceuticals, candy and foods. By 1972, the only hope for the company to survive was to sell off assets. Meister Brau, Meister Brau Lite and Buckeye were all sold to the Miller Brewing Company of Milwaukee.

The Buckeye plant closed for good on September 1, 1972. Most of the building was demolished within a couple of years, but the bottling plant and the adjoining boiler plant still stand.

The last beer brewed at the original Buckeye Brewery can still be experienced today by drinking a Miller Lite. Yes, the “taste great, less filling” beer was based on Meister Brau Lite and the last iterations of Buckeye Draft. However, if you want to taste a kräusen-brewed Buckeye from the golden age of this Toledo icon, you need look no further than the Maumee Bay Brewing Company. Maumee Bay purchased the naming rights from Miller and has been brewing and selling Buckeye since around the turn of the millennium.   

Stay right here at the curb cut in front of Buckeye for the next segment.

Copyright © 2020 Tedd Long