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Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009 06:10 pm

National ‘CanVention’ revisits Springfield’s brewing past

The Reisch family brewery supplied Springfield with beer for 117 years, surviving Prohibition, the Great Depression, and World War II before it closed in 1966.
Before the miracle of refrigeration, the only way to get an unspoiled beer was to get it nearly straight from the brewery. And if you were a thirsty Springfieldian in the early 1900s, the odds were that you’d drink a beer from Reisch Brewery. There would be other competition, with Springfield Brewery starting production after repeal in 1933. But the Reisch Brewery, started by German immigrant Franz Sales Reisch in 1849, was for decades the town’s source of suds.

Franz Reisch, young and eager to brew, left Germany for New Orleans in 1832, but found no work as a cooper and was disappointed with a lack of suitable water. He moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, but found the situation no better, and came to Springfield in 1833. He considered starting a brewery in Chicago, but was told the Great Lakes were bodies of salt water, and thus unsuitable for brewing. He gave up that idea and began a brewery on land where the SIU School of Medicine now stands.

By 1875, when Franz fell to his death constructing an addition to the brewery, it was producing 8,000 barrels annually. By 1890, that number increased to 50,000 barrels. At its peak in 1913, the brewery hit 100,000 barrels annually.

George F. Reisch, of Wildwood, Mo., is among the family’s fifth generation. He notes the family’s philanthropic efforts, which included buying parklands for the city, contributing to St. John’s Hospital and helping immigrants become established in the States. They also became one of Springfield’s biggest land owners.

The brewery survived prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II, but couldn’t compete against the advertising might and dominating presence of national brands like Anheuser-Busch and Pabst. Reisch stopped brewing in 1966.

More than 40 years later, a national association of more than 4,000 beer can collectors is focusing on the Reisch brewery with a convention in Springfield. September 8-12, the Beer Can Collectors of America will buy, sell and trade beer-related memorabilia in the Prairie Capital Convention Center.

Saturday, Sept. 5, the convention will open to the public from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tony White, a Reisch descendant writing a book on the brewery’s history, will speak at 11 a.m.

George Reisch, who is a brewmaster for Anheuser-Busch’s St. Louis operation and former World Beer Cup tasting judge, will teach a “sensory class,” walking the public through the art of brewing with live samples at 1 p.m.

The Reisch Brew Crew, a local BCCA chapter of about 50 members, spearheaded the effort to bring the association’s “CanVention 39” to Springfield. The event could be one of the best-attended in BCCA history, says Roy Mayfield, a Brew Crew member and an integral part of Springfield’s bid. With the Hilton and the Abraham Lincoln hotels filled, nearly 1,300 hotel-days are booked for the convention.

Chet Bartlett, another Brew Crew member, has been collecting since 2003, and conservatively estimates he owns 1,500 items of memorabilia, mostly signage and advertising. He and other members will be spending most of their time helping the public and the BCCA, rather than indulging in the festivities.

“We want the public to latch onto the CanVention,” Bartlett says. “Hopefully people will bring stuff out that nobody’s seen, and one of us crazy guys will buy it from them for a stupid amount of money.”

Matthew Schroyer is a freelance writer based in Springfield, where he grew up. He enjoys blogging in his free time, and can be reached at mschroyer@gmail.com.
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