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Walter Brewing Co.-The Beer That Is Beer

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Update 9/18/12  When I became "of age" in Wisconsin (only 18 back then) I tried a number of beers, looking for "my beer". The one I liked the best was Walter's, which I used to get at Discount Liquors in Waukesha. This beer was so good, I could even drink it at room temperature, and it stayed "good" sometimes for years after it was brewed (not like the six month shelf life now). The secret was Walter's aged their beer for a full 90 days before shipping it to the consumer, the nationals only age their beer a couple of days as the "bottom line", not the beer drinker, is king. At one time I think Schlitz had the entire brewing process down to 11 days from start to finish. 

The story of the Walter family and their contribution to the growth of the brewing industry in America was typical for the German immigrants in the late 19th century. Fleeing war & social unrest in their homeland, they arrived in America with only a few dollars in their pocket but with a will to succeed. They also brought with them a thirst for lager beer. Up until this time, brewing was a cottage craft in America, primarily producing top fermeted ales and ports. In a matter of a few years a whole brewing industry sprang up, primarily in the Midwest, to satisfy the increasing demand for German style lager beer. While not as well known as the Busch, Uehlein, or Pabst family, in the 1950s, the extended Walter family were the largest brewers in America, operating breweries in Eau Claire, Menasha, Appleton, and West Bend, Wisconsin as well as in Pueblo, & Trinidad, Colorado. Unable to match the marketing and sales budgets of the big nationals, one by one the Walter breweries closed in the 1960s and 70s. This is the story of the last one to survive, Walter Brewing in Eau Claire, WI.

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Seated left to right: Matthaus Walter, Millie Walter, Christian Walter (owned brewery in  Menasha), grandmother Elisabeth Walter, grandfather Jakob Walter, Anna Walter Doerer, Jakob Doerer. Standing left to right: Martin Walter (owned brewery in Pueblo, CO), John Schlichter, Kristine Eichert Walter, John Walter (owner of Eau Claire brewery), Magdelena Walter, John Plocher (cousin) Georg Walter (owner of brewery in Appleton) Emma Walter (click on thumbnail to view - family photo thanks to Gregory Walter)

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Based in Eau Claire, WI the Walter Brewing Company started by Johannes (John) Walter in Spencer, WI in 1874. John was one of nine children born in Wurtemburg, Germany all of whom emigrated to America save one.  A fire in his original brewery forced Walter to move operations to Eau Claire in 1893 where he purchased the shuttered Dells Brewery. This plant had been started by another branch of the Leinenkugel family from the Chippewa Falls brewery fame, but the venture had  failed. John Walter proved to be a bit more adept at running the business than the Leinenkugels & his company prospered. His original site, on Forest and Elm streets was destroyed by a fire in 1909. It was rebuilt on 318 Elm Street, where the buildings still stand today. In 1913, a new bottle house was constructed which was one of the first in the industry to have tiled floors for sanitation purposes. 

The Walters tried to sell near beer during Prohibition, but this only lasted one year. They mothballed the brewing operations but continued to produce and sell wort for it's "nutritional" value, though no doubt it's primary purpose was to produce home brew bootleg beer. (How much wort do you see being sold in supermarkets today?) LOL

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By the time Prohibition had been repealed, John Walter had passed away and the business  remained in the hands of his widow, Linea. in 1933, John's cousins Martin, Charles, & Edgar Walter all journeyed to Eau Claire from Appleton, WI  along with partners John Balliet, Charlie Hofenburger, and Mr. Stroby to negotiate the purchase the brewery from Mrs. Walter. Martin and Charles had previously run the Lithia brewery in West Bend, Wi. Being a devout Lutheran Mrs. Walter somewhat was reluctant to sell to two of the family members because in her eyes they had "gone to the dark side" by converting over to Catholicism.... (But I guess she was willing to finally overlook this when the price was right).

With the repeal of Prohibition, the other branches of the extended Walter family also reopened their breweries in Menasha, Appleton, and West Bend, Wisconsin as well as Pueblo, Colorado. Martin Walter was named President of the Eau Claire operations and remained at the helm from its reopening until 1967.

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John's brother George - who operated the brewery in Appleton - their most famous brand was Adler Brau (Eagle Brew) which has now been revived by a microbrewer - thanks to Gregory Walter for the picture and John Adler for correcting the image

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When the great beer shakeout in America began, the first of the Walter Breweries to fail was the small Walter Bros. Island Brewery run by Jacob and Chris Walter in Menasha, WI in 1956.

The Eau Claire brewery, however, continued to prosper and even expanded its distribution within the state of Wisconsin and into Minnesota. After 43 years, Martin Walter finally retired as president of the company and was replaced by Edgar Walter. Edgar was later appointed the Chairman of the Board of Walter Brewing and his son George Walter took the title as President. But only six years after being named President George Walter passed away. He was followed by his father Edgar just one year later.

In 1969 the labels of the failed Peter Bub Brewing Co. ("Makes it Fun to be Thirsty!") of Winona, MN were added to the Walter portfolio. A major remodeling of the brewery took place around this time. The original cypress tanks were removed and sold to a Canadian food processor. 25 new glass lined stainless steel tanks with a 12,000 bbl capacity were installed. As part of the modernization, the smoke stack and malt house (which can be seen at the bottom of the page) were also razed.

The Walter Brothers around 1963 - (l to r) John Walter, Bill Walter, Edgar Walter, Karl Walter, and George Walter. They were being honored by the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce. Photo thanks to Dan Walter.

 

But the consolidation in the American beer industry continued to take a heavy toll on the Walter enterprises. Charles Walter, Jr., son of one of the principals of the Eau Claire brewery, finally gave up and sold his West Bend Lithia Brewing Co. (named for the lithium salts in the brewing water) in 1972. The plant site was rented out to a hardware dealer, (who are still using it today- see below). The brands were all sold to the Eau Claire operation; the most popular of which was Old Timer's Beer. Two years later, with the passing of CEO Edgar Walter, Charles Jr. was asked by the family to come north to run the Eau Claire brewery.

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Only two years after West Bend Lithia had closed, the industry consolidation claimed another victim. The George Walter Brewing Company closed its Appleton, WI facility and the buildings were torn down. By the mid 70s there were only two of the original five Walter family breweries remaining, Eau Claire and Pueblo, CO 

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Having a West Bend Lithia Ca 1900 - Photo by Augie Bilgo - Wisconsin Local HistoryNet  

In order to continue to grow sales and continue to survive, the Walter brewery looked for new markets. 1974 they acquired the labels of yet another small Wisconsin brewery, the Rice Lake Brewing Co. whose primary brand was "Breunigs Beer".  While the company was still profitable, the owners saw the writing on the wall and were not willing to go into debt to finance further expansion of their business. And towards the end of the decade, Walters branched out to sell their brands in Chicago, and a few taverns around Wrigley Field started to feature it. Walter's also won a convert in Mike Ryoko, a columnist for a Chicago newspaper, who sang their praises. The Old Timer's brand won second place in a beer tasting contest sponsored by the Chicago Sun Times (pretty amazing for a supposed "budget" beer!).        

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Band members were back row left to right: Weebie Phillips, Don Kappus, Burt Ross, Bill Havat, Art Blodgett Front row: Les Holbrooks, Gould Starks (missing Bernard Starks) The baton was created by Gould                  

The brewery even sponsored a Walter's Dutch Band, led by Gould Starks for more than 30 years, that played at various outings & local conventions (pics thanks to Bill Starks - note the baton made from now pretty valuable Walter's conetops!).

The had was initially started by Palmer "Pump" Anderson sometime prior to WWII and both Gould Starks and his father Bernard Starks both played in the original line up. Concerts were suspended during the war years but was started again by Gould Starks in 1946 and kept going for another 30 years. For local picnics, conventions, or other celebrations, the band was always available to support Walter's Beer. During festivals and conventions in Eau Claire, the band would go up and down Main Street in Eau Claire, stopping and playing music in each tavern along the way. On special holidays, Gould would take his sons over to Walters for a cool beer at the brewery tap. He always had an open invitation from the Walter family.

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In 1974 the only other remaining Walter brewery in Pueblo, CO was sold to asset stripper Paul Kalmanovitz and suffered the same fate as his General, Falstaff, and Pabst operations, closing forever on January 3td,1975. The labels were transferred to other locations but sales of the brands eventually disappeared from the marketplace. (for an insight on this, go to the Working for Falstaff page). (there is also a page on the web just about the Colorado brewery, just click here)

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From five family breweries after the repeal of Prohibition, now only the Eau Claire brewery remained. In 1980, Walter Brewing hit a production peak of 80,000 barrels per year  and then began to suffer the same fate as the other breweries as sales  declined. In 1981 as a response to changing consumer demands in packaging, Walters tried selling their beer in packages other than 12 oz. But volume continued to slide quickly due to the marketing onslaught of the national brewers, who sometimes used nefarious means to capture supermarket shelf space and replace draft beer outlets. Walter also did not have sufficient volume to be able to advertise on television, which became an important factor in marketing beer.  In just four short years Walter's were down to an annual production of 18,423 bbl and the 22 brewery workers were putting in one day per week. Sales had fallen an amazing 58.4%. Part of the reason for the fall in sales was the change of the legal drinking age from 18/19 in Wisconsin and Illinois to 21. Walter's sales in Chicago were cut in half as a result.

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 In 1985,  Michael Healy, a vice president of United States Bank Note Corp. from Chicago, approached the Walter family to buy the brewery. Healy was the son of a bar owner and was interested in starting a brewery in Chicago. He had already contracted Alan Dikty, an industry consultant and editor of the New Brewer to help find a location. Dikty and Healy ran into zoning troubles in Chicago so began to look elsewhere. The Walter brewery had now been put up for sale, and Dikty advised Healy that they should go to Eau Claire & take a look at the facility.

The brewery was struggling financially and Healy made an attractive offer to the owners. Some of the younger members of the family were against selling the brewery, and wanted to promote Walter's Special Beer, a high quality German style lager and reposition the product range to a more profitable tier. (Most of the Walter's brands were being sold "at popular prices" i.e. rock bottom levels). But the company had it's back up against the wall and really had no choice but to sell out or close. Healy purchased the company and injected $300,000 in capital into the project.

Healey reorganized the company as the Hibernia Brewing Company. The name "Hibernia" came from the Latin word for Ireland, and of course, Healy was of Irish descent. They started to brew and sell Eau Claire All Malt Lager, a rich super premium beer. Eau Claire was brewed according to the German Rheinheitsgebot (purity laws) and did not use any corn, rice, or other fillers as used by the major brewers.  The recipe was one developed by a Milwaukee home brewer named Gary Bauer.       

winner.jpg (25690 bytes)The Walter family was retained in key management positions, & the future seemed bright. John Walter stayed on as brewmaster, Charles Jr. as the V.P., Jake worked in the brewhouse, and Steve in distribution. In the first few months after the Hibernia team took over, Walter's brewed more beer than in all of 1984. The brewery workers went back to a 40 hour week. Dikty and his staff noted in the company archives that there had been a beer garden at Walters prior to Prohibition, and opened one in a former parking lot. The beer garden was located about a quarter block NW of the brewery and was the site of a former dance hall, and had been used for storage for years. The dance hall had been razed in the 1960s and stay as an empty lot until 1985 when Walter Park was constructed. The beer garden was a big marketing success and nearly 1000 people visited it every year. 

Hibernia's new beers were very well received and the Dunkel Weizen received first prize in a national beer competition. In 1987 Walters brewed 37,000 bbl, almost three times more than in 1984. In 1987 they added flavored and carbonated water to their product range as well as some contract brewing, (which included the Griesedieck Bros. brand). The company finally closed in August of 1990, citing a lack of insurance as the reason.

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Michael Healy had a good idea, and a great product, but he was clearly some years before his time. Hibernia found little interest in craft brews within Walter's traditional trading area who sometimes confused "all malt" with "malt liquor". And the majority of American beer drinkers were beginning to move away from richer brews to lighter beers.  So Hibernia had the daunting task of building new brands in new markets on a shoe string budget against the likes of Anheuser-Busch and Miller. The sales of the quality Hibernia brands just could not generate enough volume fast enough for the company to reach the breakeven point while Pabst, Miller, and Bud ate away at Walter's traditional customer base. 

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              Walter's brewkettle  & John J. Walter, Brewmaster, in the early 1980s - click on thumbnail to see full size- pic on the left from a tour brochure - 

Jerry Goldberg, a North Dakota dairy equipment liquidator, purchased the brewery at a bankruptcy auction. In 1990, Edward Miller and Cynthia Ancil, business partners from Canton, Ohio bought the brewery and contracted Huber Brewing in Monroe, WI to begin brewing Walter's Beer again. By now the brewery was in a terrible state after sitting idle for several years and the odds were stacked against them. They had a dream to bring Walter's back but had limited funding and almost no local support for the project. Edward and Cynthia spent months with a front end loader just to remove the bird droppings from the first floor. Many parts of the building were unsafe and could no longer be used.  They sold the equipment remaining at the brewery to raise money and reopened the beer garden. The plans were to contract brew Walters for a period where sales could justify the installation of new equipment at the Eau Claire site. The existing equipment had too much capacity to be profitable.

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Unfortunately the venture was not a success. Walter's had already lost many customers in the two years it was off the shelves, and many former customers had already moved to other brands.  Just two years later they put the brewery up for sale for $275,000 and the beer garden for $50,000 but could not find any takers. Edward and Cynthia owed the city a significant amount in back taxes, so they allowed scrap metal to be removed from the brewery and sold. The result was that several of the roofs either leaked or caved in completely. The company lasted 98 years. It has been said that Edward's heart was broken that he could not make a go of this once fine Wisconsin brewery.

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Dan Walter, a former employee (but no relation to the family) was blunter: "You can badmouth the Walter family, you can badmouth Michael Healy, and you can bad mouth Ed & Cindy, but there's no longer a brewery here because people didn't support it" Had people in Eau Claire supported their local brewery, it might still be here today. I guess that it was more important to hold a Bud Light in their hands than to ensure that friends and neighbors in Eau Claire had meaningful employment.

Walter's Beer is back! For more just click here. Thanks to Chris Daraska for the tip!

10/29/04 This web site is dedicated to the family of former brewmaster John Walter of Walter Brewing. Here is an obituary from the local paper and a little more on the Walter family. We also wish to dedicate the page to the memory of former owner Edward Miller who passed away from cancer in La Crosse, WI on March 5, 2007

I remember the tours we took in the 1970s, we used to leave early in the AM from Milwaukee, and drive 4 1/2 hours to Eau Claire, spend a couple of hours at Walters, and drive back. They didn't actually let you visit the brewery, but they had a nice little gift shop and you could drink as much beer as you wanted at the tap over by the keg washer. Healy later stopped this practice, and moved everyone over to the beer garden. The free beer encouraged unpaying regulars, not unlike your webguy who could cut high school in Milwaukee and get 9 free beers (legally, it was 18 then) "touring" Pabst, Miller, & Schlitz. We always hit Pabst last as they had the best beer (the Pabst dark and Andeker were great!), and they might let you have a couple extras on the last tour if you had some cute high school coeds with you...(of course, I don't tell my teenage kids or parents about this....)

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                                  Rave reviews of Walter's from a taste test at Oui Magazine April 1975

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Review of Walter's in 1978 by James Robertson in the Great American Beer Book - if you didn't get a chance to try it you really missed it! This just goes to prove Jim Morrison's theory "Who owns the media owns the mind..." Many locals thought Walter's made "cheap" beer, but when it was put in front of objective experts, it always won rave reviews...

 From "The Gourmet Guide To Beer" by Howard Hillman 1983. Best possible rating 5 stars. 

  From The Beer Lover's Rating Guide by Bob Klein 1995 - Apologies for the poor quality scan, the type was too small

6/23/08 Marty Walter of the Pueblo, Co brewery was an active radio amateur back in the day. They used to swap "QSL" cards when they made contact with one another on Shortwave by Morse code. Thanks to Bob Ballantine, W8SU, for the send.

3/2/07 Walter's of Colorado will be back with a new brew pub in Pueblo. Please click here. Thanks to Daniel Walter for the tip!

11/30/09 I received this nice Walter's shell glass thanks to AJ and the nice folks at Schroeder's Department Store in Twin Rivers, WI -thanks so much!

 Some shots from the Walter's Brewery 10/2004 thanks to Gary Eisold. Sad to compare these to the pics below when the brewery was in operation.

 New Walter's breweriana shots thanks to Mike Peterson. R to L: Walter's mirror, an old ad from the Eau Claire paper, a salt shaker advertising Hamm's beer. 

 Walter's breweriana pics thanks again to Mike Peterson!

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There is a video available with a tour of the Walter's brewery, probably filmed in the early 1980s. I took some shots off the VCR, but only a couple were usable. From left to right: shipping docks / inscription on brew kettle / bottle washing line / creamy Walter's Beer from the keg line / canning line/ bottle filing line/ brew kettle / keg washing line (I got very bummed out watching this - such a pity that this fine family owned company was lost....they really cared about the beer they brewed. It is a sad comment on our times that we are more influenced by the media in our purchasing decisions than a real commitment to a quality local product...)

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These nice scans of Walter's cups and cans thanks to Brian Langenbach. To see the rest of his scans of Walter's items, click here

 

 8/24/05 some nice pics of Walter's signs -- thanks again to Brian Langenbach.

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 a pic I took of Walter's around 1979  - A postcard from around the same time -- The brewery buildings are located at 318 Elm in Eau Claire, the Walter mansion is within walking distance

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Some shots of Walters taken by Mike Guye shortly after the brewery closed - the faded sign speaks volumes...

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Cynthia Ancil, who tried to make a go of Walter's in the early 90s...

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  Walter Brewing Co. before it was torn down

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The Walter family mansion in Eau Claire, WI - the Walter family lived here until the mid 1940s

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This pic on the left is of West Bend Old Lithia and was taken by my friend Tom around '77. The other pics were taken 8/2001. You can see parts of the brewery are very old. The building is still in use, but unfortunately not for brewing Old Timer's

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A couple of really nice trays from the Trayman's site

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Here I am with daughter Suzanne in 1985 & at the ABA convention in New Orleans 2000 in front of a huge DIXIE sign made from balloons with the exact same Walter's T shirt (which is now about 20 years old)...much older than the two rug rats with me....

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Some of my Walter's stuff - a windbreaker and T-shirts I got on the tours, a full six of Hibernia (which I still have), a large metal sign I found in an antique store in Allen, MI last summer which used to be a backing for a neon, a nice tray I bought in New Orleans last year, and a glass and pitcher I bought at the brewery, obviously not filled with Walter's L

7 /01/08 Walter's stuff on sale on eBay

 

Sincere thanks to the former brewmaster John Walter and to his two sons Daniel and Gregory.  Thank you to Michael Healy for taking the time to send me a note correcting some of the information on the page. Thanks also to Shana Miller, daughter of Edward Miller,  Dorothy Walter (wife of Charles Jr.), Mike Guye, Brian Langenbach, William Sparks, Alan Dikty, and "the Beer Mogul", for their suggestions for this page. I also found "Breweries of Wisconsin" by Jerry Apps (UofW Press 1992) very useful. If you have any additional information please  email me!