Iowa Brewed in a Real Family Tradition
Site Update 7/01/08 - some new pics
When I was back home in Wisconsin in the 1970s and didn't quite feel motivated enough to go out to Discount Liquor in Waukesha to buy Walters, I used to pop over to Ray's in Wauwatosa. They used to carry Fox Head 400 and Weber, two classic brands from defunct Waukesha breweries that were being brewed by Jos Pickett in Dubuque, Iowa. In case you haven't gathered by now, I am not a big fan of the "sodee pop" beers now being churned out by Bud, Miller, and Coors. The Picketts brands weren't bashful with the hops and at $3.99 /case for 24 - 16 oz bottles, a real beer drinkers bargain.
My dad stopped in at the brewery in the late 70s to see if he could get some Pickett's souvenirs for me and old man Pickett nearly ran him off the property. Apparently having visitors wasn't on the top of Joe's priorities that day. But, being the consummate salesman, my Dad talked him out of these two patches. J My dad also stopped by Leinenkugel's around the same time to pick up some stuff for me. The nice gentleman working in the gift shop that day turned out to be none other than President Bill Leinenkugel. He was manning the counter because the help hadn't shown up. He was "over the moon" because he had just sold a 20 ft container of empty beer cans for collectors in California at a higher price than for full ones in Wisconsin! He invited Dad out for lunch to celebrate. What a super guy. Oh yeah, thanks, Dad J.
The Pickett Brewery could trace its origins back to May 1898 as the Star Brewery in the center of Dubuque, Iowa, right on the banks of the Mississippi River. The founder was Joseph Rhomberg, whose name later graced the brewery's products in the 1980s. Like most other small family owned breweries, it closed during Prohibition. The plant was reopened in 1933 as the Dubuque Star Brewing Company and remained under this name until 1971. Prior to Prohibition, there were 138 breweries in Iowa, but for many, many years Dubuque Star was the only brewery in the state.
In 1965, the Dubuque area suffered extensive flooding from the Mississippi River. An estimated 3500 volunteers filled 500,000 sandbags but to no avail. Because the brewery was located only 100 feet from the river, it was particularly hard hit. Arnold A. Caitham, the President at the time, devised a protection plan for a flood stage of 23 feet, the previous record of 22.7 feet being in 1952. Doorways and lower windows were covered with plywood and polyethelene and then sandbagged. Most important, walls of cement blocks were built around the vital refrigeration machines.
Unfortunately this year the flooding hit 26.8 feet, and the floor buckled within the walls built to protect the refrigeration machines. The engine and boiler rooms were inundated and the pumps were knocked out. Luckily a crane was able to life one refrigeration unit above the water line and the brewery was soon back into operation. Volunteer students from the area helped clean sludge and debris that were left inside the building.
You really have to admire the courage of Mr. Caitham trying to save his business. In case the pic is not clear, the water is over waist deep. / A volunteer in a row boat saving the draught beer..
The hospitality room and the offices were damaged but most of the beer was saved. It had been loaded into railroad boxcars until the water rose to the tracks. From then on four 20 foot commercial fishing boats were used to move the packaged and draught beer. Because of the very cold weather during the flood, around 32 degrees, and because the cellars were insulated, very little beer in storage was lost.
the brewery is in the upper left of this thumb - thanks to Bryan Monaco for the flooding pics
The Dubuque Star Brewing Co. was in sorry shape when Joseph Pickett assumed ownership in 1971. Equipment was geared to the 1930s, with no can production facilities and with a single bottle production line (returnables only). It was primarily a keg beer plant, an anachronism in the 1970s. The two brands, Dubuque Star and Vat 7 could only command a 5% share of the local market with sales of 11,000 bbl per year.
Pickett graduated from Duquesne University in 1931 with a B.A. in chemistry and bacteriology. After playing pro football with the Pittsburgh Steelers for two years. he took up the brewing trade, graduating from the Siebel Institute in 1934. For the next eight years he served many breweries, including Tube City, Storz, and Overland finally becoming assistant brewmaster in Chicago for the Schoenhofen Edelweiss Brewing Co. in 1942. At one point he was brewmaster for three breweries at the same time. He stayed with the firm through its merger with the Atlas Brewing Co. and its acquisition by Drewerys Ltd of South Bend, IN in 1951. When Drewerys merged with Associated Brewing of Detroit, Mr. Pickett became a vice president of Drewerys. Photo of Dubuque Star Neon by Matthew Coles
Under Pickett's ownership, an extensive modernization was begun, and by late 1977 was 95% complete. The new principal brand, Pickett's Premium introduced in 1973, already accounted for 12% of the Dubuque County market and was also sold in Illinois and Wisconsin..
The Edelweiss and Champagne Velvet labels were acquired from G Heileman in 1972 who had obtained them from Associated when it folded in the 1960s. Edelweiss had a sentimental attachment to Pickett, as he spent many years with the original brewer Schoenhofen in Chicago.
In addition, Pickett's produced two classic brands from defunct Waukesha breweries for the Wisconsin market, Fox Head 400 and Weber. These beers were sold in 16 oz returnables only.
Classic Weber and Fox Head 400 Railroad Cars available from Greenway Products
In 1978, the brewery had its moment of glory when the hospitality room / bar was featured in the Sylvester Stallone Movie F.I.S.T. The movie was loosely based on the life of Teamster's President Jimmy Hoffa. The bar had beautiful woodwork and was in fact a tourist attraction in the region. The bottling line was also featured in the comedy "Take This Job and Shove It" released in 1981.
In 1980, the brewery was sold to Agri Industries who converted it into a super premium craft brewery. The main brand was Rhomberg Beer, named for the founder, and these were a truly excellent family of brews. The brewery was renamed Dubuque Star again in 1982. However, a limited advertising budget brought only limited public acceptance of the product.
Agri sold the brewery to a group of investors from Milwaukee in 1983 who operated the plant for six years. In 1989 it was sold to a Seattle based firm, Zele Industries, who closed the brewery the following year.
Mr. Pickett passed away on New Year's eve 1990, just shy of his 83rd birthday.
In 1992 Brandevor Enterprises of Seattle tried to re-open the brewery and again brew craft beers. Despite some excellent brands such as Big Muddy Red Ale, the company finally closed again for good in 1999. In addition to their own brands, Dubuque Star also brewed beers for the restaurant chain TGI Friday's and Marriott Hotels, achieving sales of 25,000 bbl in 1995 & 1996, but this fell to only 5,000 bbl in 1998 which could not sustain the company. They also brewed beers for west coast microbrewer Tuan Tony Nguyen's brands, including the highly rated Beer Guy and Chau Tien brands. For more on his beers, which are still available, just go here and here.
Joseph Pickett re-appeared on the scene as a consultant in the start up of the craft brewer Millstream Brewing Co. in Amana, Iowa, which is still producing great beer.
"Unfoeckingbelievable" scan thanks to Dave Agnew
One of the more interesting contract brands they brewed was called Foecking Beer. The contract company marketing it had a poster with a scantily clad woman saying "Looks Like You Need a Foecking". I thought this was cute, but apparently the rather humorless lads of the ATF did not. They tried to chase down the "evil" rouges (apparently all women!) responsible for this "criminal" play on words but the contract brewer in Davenport, IA had already closed down operations. But could you imagine going into your neighborhood joint and saying "Yo,Tony! Gimme a Foecking Beer...."
See? I didn't make this up - from the Beer Lover's Rating Guide (which showed it was also contract brewed at Jos. Huber
The Dubuque Star brewery was then purchased by the city of Dubuque through eminent domain. who hoped to develop the entire site into a tourist attraction. A 190 room hotel and amphitheater have already been built, and a conference center will open in 2003. An attempt was made in 2002 to rejuvenate the company by a Madison, WI group, which apparently did not succeed. Some of the smaller brewery contents were auctioned off in October of 2003, but the city of Dubuque put a halt to further disposal of the major brewing equipment.
Here is an update on the to revitalize the Dubuque Star brewery!
The Pickett / Dubuque Star brewery is being renovated as we speak. This is really good news in a time when most historic breweries are just torn down to make way for developments. They are looking for a brew pub to occupy part of the premises. For more info click here. Photos thank to Chad Walsh.
Below please find an update from Chad!
More to come...thanks to The Great American Beer Book by James Robertson 1978 for the info. If you have something to contribute please email me! Thanks to Terry Mozena, Bryan Monaco and Aaron Taubman of the Millstream Brewery for their contributions
Some pics taken of the Jos Pickett / Dubuque Star Brewery 8/2001- Guess nobody in Iowa wanted a locally brewed beer....
Left to right: the hospitality room / front of brewery / webguy in Staff Tshirt in the arch / southern part of the brewery that appears to be from the 19th century - I should mention that one of the cool perks of being a "webguy" is that people sometimes send me some very mega excellent stuff. This Falstaff tshirt from Pabst in San Antone was in fact a gift from Mr. Robert Ebert in Texas City, TX. Sho' do appreciate it , Hoss !
Left to right: rear of the brewery, faded logo still visible / discarded brewing equipment / metal star on the side of the brewery
Ratings from "The Gourmet Guide to Beer" by Howard Hillman 1983 This equaled scores given to Miller and Bud - there was no doubt about it, the Pickett Beers were good and very inexpensive. As I read on the web once "Expensive doesn't necessarily mean good and cheap doesn't mean bad"
From Michael Weiner's Tasters Guide to Beer 1977
Nice scan of Big Muddy Red from Corey & Nate's Brew Labels (dot) com
07/01/08 Stuff on eBay