Buckeye Beer: The History and Rebirth of Toledo's Second Oldest Company
Toledo Local Features | 06/10/2011 7:00 am
The smooth, chilled glass in your hand. The clink and fizz of the top. That first sip of happy hoppy amber as it washes to the back of your throat. This is Buckeye Beer.
"It's a good beer. It's a lighter beer, but it has a lot more flavor than the big light beers that are on the market," said Neal Kovacik, general manager of The Oliver House. The restaurant complex includes The Maumee Bay Brewing Company, which continues the Buckeye Beer brewing tradition. "It has so much rich history in Toledo and I think so many people relate to Buckeye Beer in Toledo, so we wanted to keep that tradition alive and make it one of the best beers we produce. I think it's kind of given the people what they want: a light beer not tasting like water, and I think Buckeye fills that gap."
Such a gap was hard to come by according to early Toledo history. The second oldest business in Toledo, The Buckeye Brewing Company began operations in 1838 near Front and Consaul Streets on the city's east side. Buckeye was founded just one year after the city of Toledo itself, and was one of the oldest breweries in American history. Very little is known of the company's humble beginnings until it came under new ownership and moved to its Michigan St. address in 1886. Despite the company's expansion and success, Buckeye wasn't the only brew in town looking to capture attention.
"The interesting thing is, before there was oil... Before it became known for glass and everything else, brewing in Toledo employed more people than any other industry in the 1800s. Brewing was very big. There were quite a few breweries and Buckeye is the one that outlasted all of them," said Kovacik, but Prohibition would soon call the brewery's staying power into question.
Immediately impacted by their inability to make and sell alcohol, Buckeye Brewing did everything they could to keep their business open and employees working. From 1919 to 1933, Buckeye switched its production to bottling soft drinks like ginger ale, root beer and cider, as well as utilizing its cold storage facilities. Prohibition hit Buckeye's competition as well, and it's not soon after alcohol is legal again that Buckeye becomes the only brewery in town in 1949. At the height of its success, the brewery could churn out 300,000 barrels of beer a year.
In 1966, Peter Hand Brewing Company of Chicago bought Buckeye and began brewing Meister Brau, in addition to Buckeye, at the Toledo facility. Meister Brau Lite was added to the brewery's line-up as well, but one of the country's largest beer producers would soon catch wind of Toledo's successful brew business. This new-found interest would also signal the beginning of the almost-end for one of Toledo's longest-standing names.
Miller Brewing Company of Milwaukee bought the Buckeye and Meister Brau Lite labels six years later, changing Meister Brau Lite to Miller Lite, and moving Buckeye beer production to Milwaukee in 1972. Toledo's Buckeye plant would close that same summer. When it seemed the Buckeye name would live on in another city, Miller put an end to production just two years later due to disappointing sales. Construction crews demolished the Buckeye Brewery buildings in 1974 and Meister Brau's assets were sold off. It seemed Toledo had lost its hometown brew.
Meanwhile, the Buckeye name went unused by Miller and home-brewers attempted to duplicate the beer's taste to no avail. But much like Toledo, a city that's seen its share of hard times and disappointments and always finds a way make it through, so too has the Buckeye brand managed to revive itself.
In the mid-1990s, Oliver House Owner Jim Appold approached Miller about the Buckeye label and purchased the rights to use it. From then on, The Maumee Bay Brewing Company went to work trying to duplicate Buckeye's taste. Appold said he tried to find the original recipe without success, instead opting for trial and error to get it right.
"I don't know how many [batches we made], but I know there were quite a few," he chuckled.
"It's a different kind of hops and we have a recipe that we use. It's not the original recipe, but so many people say that it's better because of the flavor," explained Kovacik, who attributes some of the brewery's current success with the brand to a recent trend in craft beer.
"Buckeye, even though we compete with what we call the 'macro' brews locally like Bud Light and Miller Lite, it's a craft beer. There's a lot of interest in craft beer because it has flavor, it has body, something you can relate to. So I think the whole craft beer movement has really broadened everybody's horizons about flavorful beer and unique beer."
Despite a large interest in the craft beer movement, the new caretakers of the Buckeye Beer brand think there's something more behind its staying power.
"It's kind of a perfect storm. They want the flavor, they want something local, and there's history to Buckeye and it's all coming together in a very nice tri-force," said Kovacik.
"It's a common bond for a lot of people in Toledo," said Jim's wife, Pat Appold. "It links neighbors, economic groups, generations...We're respectful of our heritage and history and town, not to mention the tradition."
With so much history and the tradition of Toledoans drinking Buckeye, it's hard to find someone without a story to share. As the general manager of the Oliver House, Kovacik said visitors often stop him to recount tales of Buckeye Beer's heyday.
"There was a guy last week ...and he stopped me and he told me a story that his dad used to work there and he used to deliver Buckeye Beer. When he went there in the morning, he went back by the loading dock and there were people, about seven or eight guys who worked there, on chairs sitting around the spigot in the wall and they all had mugs. And it's like eight in the morning and they're all sitting there drinking Buckeye Beer and he thought that was really unique."
As the stories go, the brewery had several spigots throughout the plant where employees could help themselves to the beer being made. In addition to taking home their pay, employees often carried beer home as well.
Others tell stories of Buckeye's mascot, Bucky, a man just 4-feet-2-inches tall. Bucky's real name was Carl Walinski, and he worked at a local bar before being discovered by brewery representatives. From then on, he was used for promotional events and would often roller skate through town or into bars holding aloft a tray of Buckeye Beer. It's estimated he roller skated some 30,000 miles in his stint as mascot from 1936 to 1942. The spectacle grew after a billy goat was added to the act, putting "Bucky and Billy" even further into the public spotlight by having them appear in parades. The company also used a cartoon likeness of Bucky on their label, which disappeared after a label re-design. Walinski allegedly asked for a raise in 1942, but was instead let go, effectively putting an end to the face of Buckeye Beer. He was 91-years-old when he died in 2002, but Bucky's memory lives on with Maumee Bay's revival of the brand and classic logo.
Memories aren't the only things shared with Oliver House staff. Collectors of breweriana (beer company memorabilia) and casual nostalgia hunters often visit to take in the building's collection of Buckeye Beer items. Some also come to offer the treasures they've found.
"It's something they have that the public can now see and enjoy, and I think that's a big part of Toledo is sharing of that experience," said Pat.
Every spring, the Oliver House hosts the Buckeye Beer Collectors Society meeting, in which breweriana collectors from all over converge to buy, sell and reminisce about the brand. Given the brand's rich history, interest among enthusiasts remains high for new merchandise, as well as rare items.
"There are interesting things that they tell me. One cone-top buckeye beer can, old with beer in it that was in excellent condition, sold for $19,000. One can. So there's a lot of interest," said Kovacik.
And the interest is spreading. Kovacik said their recent marketing efforts are "igniting a bit of a fire," drawing in attention from buyers big and small. Not only are some local restaurants putting Buckeye on tap, as well as the brand appearing in local grocery stores, but the beer is also spreading outside the city limits. Buckeye is once again a regional beer with distribution throughout Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. The Buckeye name is like gold in Columbus, Ohio, as the beer is gaining market share in the city with draft accounts at campus restaurants.
"We're trying to do our best to manufacture a good quality beer, manufacture enough so we can spread it slowly throughout the whole area," said Kovacik. "You know you can't do it in leaps and bounds. There's no magic bullet; just making people happy, keeping people interested in it."
"We'd like to see it continue to grow, and it should," said Jim.
Just as the brewery workers took their shares of beer home, Maumee Bay does big business sending cases of Buckeye home with patrons who remember the good old days and want to support a brand staying true to its roots.
"I think people are proud that there's something that old and that's been around Toledo for so long. The 'buy local' movement is big and I think people appreciate that there's a local beer made from scratch, absolutely from grain that we brewed from scratch the old fashioned way that's still available. It relates to old historic Toledo and I think they're proud of it."
To find out how you can get your hands on the historic brew, visit Maumee Bay Brewing Company's website at www.oh-maumeebaybrewingco.com.
Our good friends at Jupmode, local t-shirt company and all-around Toledo history buffs, just launched a line of brand new Buckeye Beer shirts that remind us all of the golden years of Buckeye and of good times to come. Check out their online store at www.jupmode.com to score your very own Buckeye Beer shirt.
Photos courtesy of Maumee May Brewing Company and Lucas-County Public Library.
"Workers, Buckeye Brewing Company" 1915, courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, obtained from http:///images2.toledolibrary.org/
"Buckeye Brewing Company" 1915, courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, obtained from http:///images2.toledolibrary.org/
"Demolition" 1974, courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, obtained from http:///images2.toledolibrary.org/
"Delivery Trucks" 1940, courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, obtained from http:///images2.toledolibrary.org/
Additional Info Source: Brewing Beer in the Glass City: A History of the Brewing Industry in Toledo, Ohio Volume 1: The Buckeye Story. Part of the Brewing Beer in the Buckeye State Seres by Robert A Musson, M.D.