The following article is reproduced
by permission of the authors from the
March-April 1999 edition of American
William J. Lemp Brewing Company:
A Tale of Triumph and Tragedy in
St. Louis, Missouri
By Donald Roussin &
Kevin Kious (618-346-2634)
The Lemp family and brewery story is one of phenomenal success, wealth, and fame. It is also a tale of sadness, scandals, and suicides.
DAWN OF THE LEMP DYNASTY
The Lemp saga began with the birth of Johann Adam Lemp on 25 May, 1793, in Gruningen, in the German province of Hessen, presently a part of central Germany. Adam Lemp, as he preferred to be called, had learned the brewer's trade at his as a youth in Eschwege, and went out to become a master brewer in the cities of Gruningen and Eschwege, both in Hessen. His father, Wilhelm Christoph Lemp, had been a master cooper and church warden.
Following many of his countrymen, Adam sailed to America in 1836. After spending time in Cincinnati, Adam moved further west to St. Louis in 1838, where he established a small mercantile, or grocery store at what is now Delmar and 6th Street. In addition to the general merchandise that was sold in mercantile stores of this era, Lemp also sold in small quantities two additional items he manufactured himself: vinegar and beer. Apparently, Adam saw a greater future in manufacturing, because after two years he established a new factory at 112 South Second Street between Walnut and Elm Streets. The new plant was built to produce both beer and vinegar, a common manufacturing practice at the time. For the first few years, Adam Lemp sold his beer in a public house, or to use the more popular term, pub, which was attached to the brewery. Between 1842 and 1845, the growing popularity of Lemp's beer was great enough to allow him to discontinue vinegar production, and concentrate on beer brewing only.
While 1840 was the date usually given by the William J. Lemp Brewing Company for the founding of the enterprise, the actual date that Adam Lemp began brewing beer in commercial quantities, and in particular lager beer, is in doubt. One source on the industrial history of the area gives the date as 1838. It is certainly possible that he carried the lager yeast with him, since he arrived in 1836 from Germany last employed in a brewery. Gregg Smith, in his Beer: A History of Suds and Civilization, states that strong evidence exists that Adam Lemp made a lager as early as 1838, beating the otherwise widely acknowledged Philadelphia brewer John Wagner by two years. If Adam Lemp did indeed bring the lager yeast with him upon his immigration, and used it while brewing in his mercantile store in 1838, then he indeed may well deserve the crown as the first lager brewer in America.
Other sources however, seem to point to a date as late as 1842 for the start of his lager beer brewing. For example, The (St. Louis) City Directory of 1840-41 lists Lemp as still in the grocery business that year, with no mention of the Lemp brewery on Second Street. James Neal Primm, in his Lion of the Valley, St. Louis, Missouri, gives 1842 as the date that Lemp 'revolutionized the city's brewing industry by introducing lager beer at his new plant on south Second Street." The May 30, 1857 edition of the Daily Missouri Republican newspaper states that the Western Brewery was established '15 years ago,' which would again point to an 1842 establishment date for the brewery.
Whatever the exact date that Adam Lemp introduced his lager beer, few dispute that his was one of the first produced in America, and without question the first brewed in St. Louis.
The term lager comes from the German verb "lagern," meaning to stock or to store. Early German brewers, like their later American counterparts, stored their product in cooling caves during the summer, hence the use of the term. The lagering, or aging, process does several things to beer which only time can do -- allowing unremoved yeast a chance to settle, improving the beer flavor, allowing the beer to store better.
The end result is a sparkling, effervescent beverage called a lager. This style of beer is also different in using bottom fermenting yeast, while "true" ales use top fermenting varieties. Lager beer is more stable than top fermented malt beverages. Thus lager beer became commercially important to the brewers in the years before artificial refrigeration, because it gave them a product that did not have to be consumed quickly before it went bad.
Lager beer was quick to catch on in St. Louis, eventually almost to the exclusion of other styles. Helping it to do so were the many natural caves in the area and the huge influx of German immigrants soon arriving on the scene.
Adam Lemp helped start a revolution in the industry, and for that reason is rightly called the "father of modern brewing in St. Louis."
ADAM LEMP'S NEW CAVE
The expansion of Adam Lemp's new enterprise was relatively rapid, due to the great public acceptance of his new beer, and his brewery was soon too small to meet the demand for his beer. The main problem was a limit on space available to store, or lager the beer. The solution, he believed, would be found in a newly discovered natural limestone cave, located just south of the St. Louis City limits at the time, which is now at the northwest corner of Cherokee and De Menil Place. By utilizing ice chopped from the nearby Mississippi River, the temperature in the cave could be controlled during the lagering process.
Adam Lemp purchased a lot over the entrance of this cave, then began the task of excavating it for use as a storage area for lagering beer. Early in 1845, the remodeling activity had been completed. Apparently this underground activity had caused something of a local stir, as the editor of the Daily Missouri Republican visited the cave, and wrote about what he found in the April 10, 1845 edition of that newspaper. The editor described it as extending to a depth of over fifty feet, about one hundred yards long, and averaging about twenty feet in width. Inside were several oak casks, each holding twenty or thirty barrels of Lemp's beer, which had been brewed at the Second Street brewery, and carted to this cave for the lagering period. By the end of the first year of operation, over 3,000 barrels of beer had been stored in this cave.
Lemp's Western Brewery continued to grow during the 1840's. By 1850 it was already one of the larger breweries in St. Louis, with an annual production of four thousand barrels of beer, worth $24,000. Manned by a crew of six, the plant was valued at $40,000. The following decade continued to see the brewery slowly grow.
While Adam Lemp's lager beer did lead to financial success for the brewery early on, surprisingly, as late as 1857, only about 57% of production (4,000 barrels verses 3,000 of 'schlenk', or common beer) was lagered. In 1858 Lemp's beer captured first prize at the annual St. Louis fair. That same year, Adam Lemp was listed in R. G. Dun Credit Reports as "The most substantial brewer in the city - has made sufficient money to make him independent - owns valuable real estate."
Lemp's Saloon was also a major factor in the early growth of the brewery. The tavern was improved throughout the 1850's, becoming the largest in the city. The popular hot spot served only Lemp's beer, and no hard liquor. This policy served a dual purpose, as not only were beer sales enhanced, but the saloon's reputation improved as well, with beer seen by many as a beverage of moderation which would serve to keep the drunks off the premises.
On August 25, 1862, Adam Lemp died, a rich man (but no where near being a millionaire as has been reported), having built and managed his brewery to a good competitive position in the St. Louis industry. Adam must have been a popular citizen of his community, as his funeral procession consisted of over thirty horse drawn carriages.
In his will, Adam bequeathed the Western Brewery in common to both his son William Jacob Lemp and grandson Charles Brauneck, along with "all of the equipment and stock." There may have been friction between the two inheritors of the brewery, as the will contained the condition that if either contested the will, the other would receive the property. Charles Brauneck and William J. Lemp formed a partnership in October 1862, and agreed to run the business under the banner of the William J. Lemp & Co. This partnership, however, was destined to be short lived, as it was dissolved in February 1864 when William J. bought out Charles' share for $3,000.
However, unlike many businesses that wilt when a strong leader dies, the Lemp Brewery actually grew and blossomed after William J. Lemp took control. The Western Brewery was then producing 12,000 barrels of beer annually, virtually all of the lager type.
William had been born in Germany in 1836, and spent his childhood there until brought to St. Louis by his father at age 12. William had struck out on his own as a brewer after working with his father, partnering with William Stumpf for a time in a St. Louis brewery established by the latter in 1852. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted into the Union Army, but was mustered out within a year. A short man at not quite five feet, one inch, he and his brewery would nonetheless both become giants in the brewing industry.
MOVING TO CHEROKEE STREET
In 1864 William J. Lemp purchased a five block area around the storage house on 13th and Cherokee, and began construction of a complete new brewery. By putting the new facility over the storage caves, moving all the kegs by wagon from the Second Street brewery would no longer be necessary.
By the early 1870's, Lemp's Western Brewery was the largest brewery in St. Louis in a field of 30, with E. Anheuser & Company's Bavarian Brewery coming in second. The brewery was the 19th largest in the country, producing 61,000 barrels in 1876. A bottling plant was added the following year. By the end of the decade, William Lemp, Sr. had risen to vice-president of the United States Brewer's Association in addition to having overseen the tremendous expansion of the brewery.
Before the introduction of artificial refrigeration, the Lemp brewery had four ice-houses on the Mississippi River levee in south St. Louis, each having a storage capacity of five thousand tons each. These ice houses were cleverly built so as to be able to directly receive the cargoes of river barges, also owned by the Lemp brewery. 1878 marked the first artificial refrigeration machinery being added to the facility. It was also the year production reached 100,000 barrels.
FIRST BEER COAST TO COAST
On November 1, 1892, William J. Lemp's Western Brewery was incorporated under the title the William J. Lemp Brewing Company. The stockholders elected the following officers: William J. Lemp, Sr., president; William J. Lemp, Jr., vice-president; Charles Lemp, treasurer; Louis F. Lemp, superintendent; and Henry Vahlkamp, secretary. In addition to learning the business at their family's brewery, all the Lemp sons had attended the brewing academy in New York.
By the mid-1890's the Lemp brewery was well on its way to becoming a nationally known shipping brewery. In fact, Lemp was the first brewery to establish coast-to-coast distribution of its beers. Lemp beer was being transported in some 500 refrigerated railroad cars, averaging 10,000 shipments per year. The brewery proper employed 700 men. Over 100 horses were required to pull the 40 delivery wagons to make St. Louis City deliveries. The twenty-five beer cellars went down to a depth of fifty feet, and could store fifty thousand barrels at one time. The rated production capacity of the brewery was 500,000 barrels a year. It was the eighth largest beermaker in the nation.
Lemp was the first shipping brewery to establish a national shipping strategy, operating its own railroad, the Western Cable Railway Company, which connected all of the plant's main buildings with its shipping yards near the Mississippi River, and then to the other major area railroads. The large shipping breweries of this time frequently formed their own trunk railroads to make shipments from their plants, due to battles with railroads over the way the brewers shipped their beer, in the years before artificial refrigeration in beer cars. That is, the breweries would cram the rail cars with as much ice as possible (overload them, according to many rail lines), to protect the unpasteurized beer from spoiling during transport. By running their own trunk lines, the major shipping breweries could gain more control of the conditions under which their golden product was transported to other markets.
Construction of new buildings, and the updating of old ones, was virtually continuous at the Lemp brewery. The entire complex was built (or remodeled) in the Italian Renaissance style, featuring arched windows, pilaster strips, and corbelled brick cornices (projecting architectural details, such as the rolling Lemp shields). Ultimately the giant facility covered five city blocks.
Having expanded their distribution network throughout the United States, Lemp continued to expand overseas. By the late 1890's, Lemp beers were being shipped in large quantities to Canada, British Columbia, Mexico, Central and South America, the West Indies, the Hawaiian Islands, Australia, Japan, and Hong Kong. Lemp beer was even available in the cities of London and Berlin, both well known for their own local brews.
AFTER THE FIRST SUICIDE
William J. Lemp Sr.'s death by suicide occurred in February 1904. By then the Lemp brewery had become the third largest in the country. The responsibility for leadership of the business fell on his son William J. Lemp, Jr., who was subsequently elected corporate president on November 7, 1904.
William J. Lemp, Jr. was aided in the management of the business by his brother Louis F. Lemp. Louis, who had been born in 1869, took advantage of the family fortune in his youth to explore his passion of sports. At 18, he admired the boxer John L. Sullivan to such a degree, that we went to New Orleans to bet $5,000 on one of his fights. Louis also said that if Sullivan didn't win, he would ride all the way home in a hearse. Sullivan lost, but Louis reneged and took the train home! In later years, Louis would continue to enjoy his love of sports by being a pioneer supporter or automobile and airplane events.
The Lemp brewery was soon facing a much altered St. Louis landscape, when in 1906 nine large area breweries combined to form the Independent Breweries Company. This was the second huge merger in the local beer business, following the 1889 formation of the St. Louis Brewing Association. Initially controlled by an English syndicate, the SLBA absorbed eighteen breweries and like the IBC continued operating up to Prohibition. The formation of these two combines left only Lemp, Anheuser-Busch, the Louis Obert Brewing Company, and a handful of small neighborhood breweries as independent St. Louis beermakers. Of even more concern to a shipping brewery like Lemp was the growing clamor of the temperance movement. The first heyday of United States brewing was about to draw to an abrupt halt.
CERVA, THE LAST HOPE
Like most of its competitors, the Lemp brewery limped on through the years of the World War. According to numerous accounts, the company's equipment was allowed to deteriorate during this time as the Lemp family, their vast fortune already made, began to loose interest in the business. The last major capital improvement to the plant was the erection of the giant grain elevators on the south side of the complex in 1911. With the shadow of Prohibition falling across the land, Lemp, like many other breweries, introduced a non-intoxicating malt beverage, named Cerva. While Cerva did sell moderately well, revenues were no where near enough to cover the overhead of the plant.
The giant plant closed without notice. Employees learned of the closing of the brewery when they arrived for work one day, only to find the brewery doors and gates locked shut.
International Shoe Company purchased almost the entire brewery at auction on June 28, 1922 for $588,000, a small fraction of its estimated value of $7 million in the years immediately before Prohibition. Unfortunately for brewery historians, virtually all of the Lemp company records were pitched shortly after International Shoe moved its operations into the complex. International Shoe used the larger buildings, and even portions of the caves, as a warehouse.
A NEW BEGINNING
In 1992, International Shoe (renamed Interco) sold the Lemp complex to L. B. Redevelopment for $200,000, about a third of the price it had brought three-quarters of a century before, and considerably less than its one-time $3 million plus asking price.
In February, 1997, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved a redevelopment plan that would give LB Redevelopment tax abatements for up to 25 years. Published plans call for turning some of the larger buildings into a dining and entertainment destination. Tentative plans for the complex include a 3,500 seat event center, a courtyard festival location, and an 80 room hotel. Of special note is the fact that LB Redevelopment's plan specifies the rehabilitation of the existing brewery buildings for commercial, entertainment, and other uses, with only 'some minor demolition.' A spokesmen for LB Redevelopment recently stated that once development at the site begins, it could continue for 20 years. Today, while many of the buildings in the complex are still vacant, some again are occupied with vibrant businesses, like the Cherokee-Lemp Studio.
With the possible re-development of the Lemp brewery complex, including the rumored addition of a brewpub, beer may well again be brewed on Cherokee Street.