Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Fall of the Palmetto Brewery . . . and the Rise of Germania

The original Charleston Brewery, circa 1888. Image courtesy
 Mark R. Jones & The Charleston County Public Library
In Charleston Beer: A High-Gravity History of Lowcountry Brewing, Timmons Pettigrew does a nice job laying out the history of brewing in Charleston, including the rise, fall, and rebirth of the Palmetto Brewery, which operated from just before the Civil War until the early 20th century.  The Palmetto Brewery rose again in 1993, when Ed Falkenstein opened the first post-Prohibition brewery in South Carolina and christened it in honor of the old Charleston brewery, and it’s still going strong today.

One area Pettigrew was unable to flesh out was the transition that occurred during the last two decades of the original brewery’s tenure, when it changed its name and ownership. “At some point between 1895 and September 1896,” Pettigrew writes, “Palmetto Brewing Company became Germania Brewing Company . . . The circumstances are unclear as to why it was sold and why the name was changed.” The folks at the current Palmetto Brewery don’t have much more information, either, noting on the history section of their web site, “We infer this was due to the increasing dominance of German breweries at the turn of the century, as well as lending an air of quality to the beers being made here in Charleston.”

While researching Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, I was able to uncover some additional information that sheds light on this transitional period, though it didn’t make it into the final book.
It took place back during the days of the South Carolina Dispensary,
an early and unique experiment in state-controlled sales of alcoholic beverages that made the state government the only entity that could sell beer, wine, or liquor in the state. (You can read all about the Dispensary in this excerpt in the Columbia Free Times).

The Dispensary authorities struggled for several years to figure out what to do with the Palmetto Brewery, which was one of the largest breweries in the South. Initially, they decided to let the firm continue operating under close government supervision, but it had to sell all of its output to the state Dispensary. The brewery ended up operating as an actual branch of the state dispensary, where Charleston residents could order beer by the crate and have it delivered on ice directly to their doors. (In 1895, the state reached an arrangement with Charleston merchant F. W. Jessen, an agent of Anheuser Busch, to sell the massive St. Louis brewery’s beer under similar terms. )

As 1896 opened, the Palmetto Brewery fell into “family trouble” among its stockholders. Several investors charged that president J. H. Doscher routinely violated the firm’s contract with the state board of control by secretly shipping beer out of the brewery without the dispenser’s knowledge. He was even said to have a secret key to the dispenser’s stamp box, so he could access and use stamps as he pleased, and had accrued a shortage of at least $3,000 in the bottling account. They filed suit in a state court demanding that Doscher be removed from the presidency and the firm be put into receivership.

At the same time, a group of creditors, including the De La Vergne Machine Company, filed a Federal suit in the U. S. Circuit Court, arguing that the factional dissension among the shareholders put the mortgage they held against the brewery at risk. The court agreed, and they removed Doscher as president and appointed A. F. C. Cramer, who had run the brewery back in the late 1880s, as temporary receiver. Less than a week later, the state court judge hearing the stockholders' case appointed his own receiver, a man with the mellifluous name August Bequest. A series of trials and appeals followed, occupying the entire spring. 

None of the legal wrangling seemed to affect the flow of beer. In April, the Evening Post reported that the company was “doing a rushing retail business” and was selling “kegs of beer kept fresh on tap right at the brewery from every morn to dewy eve.” The bar men would pour the beer into tin buckets, mugs, and glasses to thirsty men and women alike, though the customers had to step out to the sidewalk before drinking it, since consumption wasn’t allowed on the brewery premises.

Finally, in July of 1886, U. S. Circuit Court Judge Charles H. Simonton ruled in favor of the brewery's creditors and ordered that the firm be put up for auction to satisfy their demands. At that auction on September 1896, the sole bidder was J. H. Doscher—yes, the former president who had been forced out by the courts. He purchased the entire brewery at the minimum bid price of $85,000—a screaming bargain—and promptly announced he was renaming it the Germania Brewery of Charleston.

Doscher led the Germania Brewery for the next two decades, but, as Pettigrew recounts in Charleston Beer, as the crusade to implement statewide Prohibition approached the firm started taking on increasing debts. In September 1915, South Carolina’s residents voted their state dry in a referendum. The measure took effect on the January 1, 1916. J. H. Doscher, in the midst of efforts to convert the brewery over to ice production, died suddenly on May 4, 1916, leaving his family with unsustainable debts. The firm declared bankruptcy in July, and it would be almost 80 years before beer was commercially brewed in South Carolina again. 

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