The following article was researched and written by Carl Miller for the Portsmouth (Ohio) Daily Times.
Breweries Once Flourished in Portsmouth.
According to legend, a 12th century Flemish nobleman, King Gambrinus, brewed the world's first barrel of beer. In reality, some form of beer is known to have existed centuries earlier. Nevertheless, King
Gambrinus -- invariably portrayed with foaming goblet held high in mid-
toast -- has long been established as a symbol of the universal and eternal
regard for beer.
Indeed, the King's rule has been felt just about everywhere,
including Portsmouth, which has been home to more than one brewery
throughout its nearly 200-year history.
The first known commercial brewery in the city was established in
1843 in a small frame building on the west end of Second street near
Madison. Known simply as the "Portsmouth Brewery," the venture was
under the management of partners Schiele and Muhlhauser. However, by
1845, Schiele had passed away, leaving Thomas H. Muhlhauser alone in the
It is likely that the brewery initially made only English-style brews
such as ale, porter, stout and the like. But, being that Muhlhauser was a
native German, he most probably added the German-originated lager beer
-- most common today -- to his production when that beverage began its
rapid rise in popularity during the 1850s.
After Muhlhauser's death in 1858, his widow operated the brewery
in partnership with Felix Geiger, who came to Portsmouth from Jackson,
Ohio for that purpose. But, by 1864, local resident Frank Kleffner, who
had since married the widow Muhlhauser, was advertising himself as the
The Portsmouth Brewery had gained some local competition by this
time. Undoubtedly a result of the increasing number of Germans in the
city, a handful of breweries were established in Portsmouth during the
years just prior to the Civil War. Frederick Lauffer opened a brewery
and malt house on Front street between Jefferson and Madison, just around
the corner from the Portsmouth Brewery. The "City Brewery" was
established by John Layher next to his saloon on Sixth street west of
Chillicothe. And William Schirrmann set up a brewery on Chillicothe
between Seventh and Eighth streets.
The Civil War years were a difficult period for Portsmouth's
breweries. The departure of about 4,000 of Scioto County's young men --
now soldiers in the Union Army -- would have an obvious impact on the
consumption of beer locally. In addition, a federal tax of $1 per barrel of
beer sold was imposed to help finance the war effort. Portsmouth brewers
eagerly awaited better times.
The conclusion of the war, however, brought little relief. The
federal tax was not lifted as anticipated. And the city's population growth,
which had enjoyed a steady rise for several decades, slowed substantially
during the 1870s, leaving the local beer market sluggish. By the middle of
that decade, only the original Portsmouth Brewery remained in operation.
Although having survived the difficult economic conditions, the
Portsmouth Brewery spent the next several years passing through a series
of changes in ownership.
In 1878, Frank Kleffner sold a half interest in the brewery to August
Maier, a European-trained brewer who had worked in Philadelphia and
Cincinnati before coming to Portsmouth. Conrad Gerlich, a local
businessman, joined the partnership in 1881. One year later, Kleffner and
Gerlich both sold their interests in the business to Henry Roettcher, a
recent arrival from Cincinnati. By 1884, Maier had sold his share to
Roettcher as well, and the latter was now the brewery's sole proprietor. Be
that as it may, Conrad Gerlich was back in control of the brewery by 1888.
The following year, the brewery changed hands yet again. But the
new owner, Julius Esselborn, was determined to make a success of the
business. The German immigrant paid $12,500 for the brewery and
reported that he would immediately invest another $10,000 in new
equipment and "improvements of all kinds."
Julius Esselborn had spent several years living in New York and,
later, in Cincinnati where he was a milliner and dealer in "fancy goods."
Exactly what prompted Esselborn and his family to travel to Portsmouth
and engage in the brewing business is not known.
Nevertheless, the Portsmouth Brewery flourished under Esselborn's
management. Various enlargements and improvements were made to the
works throughout the 1890s, including the construction of an entirely new
brewhouse. By 1904, the plant boasted an annual brewing capacity of
20,000 barrels of beer (32 gallons per barrel).
The brewery was merged with a local ice company in 1892 and
incorporated as "The Portsmouth Brewing and Ice Company." Due to the
requirement of cold temperatures throughout much of the brewing process,
many brewers chose to invest in their own ice-making facilities rather than
pay the high cost of obtaining ice from outside sources.
By the turn of the century, the ice plant was capable of producing
about 75 tons per day, only a small percentage of which was consumed by
the brewery. The remainder was sold to local households and businesses. In
an 1897 "industrial review" published by the Portsmouth Ladies Auxiliary,
it was noted that the company's ice "has always found ready sale because of
its purity." Interestingly, no mention was made of the fact that beer was
also produced by the company, lest the Ladies Auxiliary be accused of
contributing to the social evils of the day.
But, of course, beer was the company's cornerstone, and a variety of
different brands were marketed over the years. Among them were O.K.
Bohemian, Portsmouth Bock, Culmbacher, Excelsior Export, and The Elk
Beer. The latter brand, perhaps the most popular, was presumably named
in honor of the Portsmouth Elk's Lodge, an organization to which Julius
Esselborn was avidly devoted.
The Portsmouth brewery's primary trade was within Portsmouth
itself. However, a significant amount of "export" beer was shipped to
outlaying areas within a radius of about 50 miles. Quantities of beer were
undoubtedly sent up river to Huntington, West Virginia, possibly the
brewery's largest market outside of Portsmouth.
Although Cincinnati was one of the largest beer-consuming centers
in the Midwest, it was probably not a routine destination for Portsmouth
beer. The dozens of large breweries which thrived in the Queen City
before the turn of the century made it difficult for outsiders to gain a
strong foothold there. In fact, several large Cincinnati breweries
maintained distribution facilities in Portsmouth.
Waged largely in the saloon trade, competition from outside
companies was difficult for small regional brewers such as the Portsmouth
brewery. Aggressive and highly-capitalized brewing companies offered
Portsmouth saloonkeepers various incentives to sell only the sponsoring
brewery's brands. Favorable terms on fancy saloon fixtures, interest-free
loans, and payment of expensive license fees were among the more
common enticements. Forced into parallel tactics, the Portsmouth brewery
supplied bar fixtures to several of the city's saloonkeepers.
The Next Generation
On May 6, 1900, Julius Esselborn passed away at age 64. Although
his widow Pauline Esselborn was officially made president of the company,
it was son Paul Esselborn who seems to have actually taken over
management of the brewery.
The young Esselborn was no stranger to the brewing business, he
having spent many years working in the brewery with his father. He also
served as vice president of a local bank and trustee of the Portsmouth water
works. His involvement in both of these entities can clearly be tied to the
interests of the brewery.
The young Esselborn lead the brewery into what was perhaps the
most turbulent period in the history of the brewing industry. After the
turn of the century, the Anti-Saloon League and other prohibitionist groups
began making great strides for their cause all across the country. Ohio, in
particular, was a hotbed of prohibitionist activity.
In 1908, the Anti-Saloon League succeeded in affecting the
enactment of the Rose Law, which allowed every county within the state of
Ohio to vote its saloons out of existance. The vote in Scioto County came
down squarely on the side of the "drys," and all 55 saloons within the
county were ordered shut down.
Attacks on the saloon were not new to Portsmouth. The temperence
movement had been an ever-present annoyance to saloonkeepers and
brewers alike for decades. During the 1870s, bands of bible-toting
temperence advocates routinely made unannounced appearances at local
drinking establishments to demand an immediate cease of business. In 1874,
a group of Portsmouth crusaders reportedly convinced 17 of the city's
saloonkeepers to stop selling alcohol -- a heralded victory for the local
But the days of the old fashioned saloon raid were long gone, and
Ohio's Rose Law was a clear indication that legislation had become the tool
of the modern prohibitionists.
With the saloon now abolished throughout much of Ohio, it was
concluded that the Portsmouth Brewery had no alternative but to close its
doors. In what was called an "affecting scene" by a reporter for the Daily
Times, Paul Esselborn gathered his 40 employees inside the brewery to
deliver the bad news. Many were reduced to tears. The brewmaster of 26
years, Anton Schriek, reportedly "cried like a baby."
Somewhat ironically, just days after announcing the closing of his
brewery, Paul Esselborn was elected president of the Ohio Brewers'
Association, a position which he held for a number of years.
By 1911, it had become apparent that abolishing the saloon was not
an effective solution to the liquor problem, and the residents of Scioto
County voted to re-legalize saloons. The Portsmouth brewery was
promptly put back into operation by the Esselborns, and business resumed
Not long after its re-establishment, the brewery was stricken with
another temporary set back: the Great Flood of 1913. Although the
brewery was submerged in nine feet of water, Paul Esselborn reported
only minimal damage and the loss of a handful of kegs which floated away.
However, heavy damage was sustained by all of the city's saloons, many of
which were equipped with brewery-owned fixtures. The loss was said to
have represented a significant investment by the brewery. Once the flood
waters receded, Paul Esselborn wrote, "We're glad we are back on earth."
Although saloons were again legal in Portsmouth, the relentless
pursuit of the prohibitionists soon spelled more trouble for Ohio's
breweries. In a 1918 referendum for statewide prohibition, Ohio was
officially voted completely dry. The following year, the National
Prohibition Amendment was ratified by the required 36th state (which
happened to be Ohio) and the entire nation entered what has been called
"The Noble Experiment."
Brewers nationwide were forced into new fields of business. Most
attempted to make use of their brewing equipment by producing dairy
products or soft drinks. The production of near beer (de-alcoholized beer)
was a popular alternative. The Portsmouth Brewing and Ice Company
briefly tried its hand at a near beer called "Flip," which contained less than
one-half of one percent of alcohol -- the legal limit.
However, the market quickly became saturated with similar
products, the result of countless breweries struggling for survival. And,
anyway, it was soon apparent that demand for a non-alcoholic beer simply
did not exist in any great abundance.
After the brewery closed in 1920, the bottling works was taken over
by the Portsmouth Whistle Bottling Company, and the ice-making plant
housed the new Portsmouth Ice and Fuel Company. Not wishing to continue
in beverage-related fields, the Esselborns left Portsmouth for Cincinnati,
where Paul Esselborn became involved in the machining business with
The repeal of National Prohibition in 1933 meant the return of beer,
and it seemed likely that the Portsmouth brewery would be refurbished and
put back into operation. Indeed, a group of local investors organized "The
Germania Brewing Company" in 1938, intending to reopen the old
brewery. However, the venture did not fully materialize and Portsmouth's
brewery never again produced beer.
Paul Esselborn, incidentally, made his return to brewing in 1933
when he established the Clyffside Brewing Company in Cincinnati, where
he successfully brewed "Felsenbrau Beer" for a number of years.
The old Portsmouth brewhouse, which still stands on the west end of
Second street, has been used for a variety of purposes over the years.
Looking somewhat the worse for wear, the old structure serves as a quiet
reminder of an era long forgotten.