Answer Man: More on Belleville's brew crews

News-DemocratSeptember 21, 2013 

A recent issue of your Downtown Living publication featured an article about the old breweries of Belleville. Yet wasn't there a Star Brewery, too? Is there a reason it wasn't mentioned? What can you tell me about its history? -- Z. Zipfel, of Belleville

At first glance, it did seem strange that neither of the two big breweries that emerged from the early days of Belleville beer-making were mentioned -- Star and Western.

But those who were up on their local suds history knew that article wasn't full of hops. Fifty years before Western introduced the Stag brand there in 1907, Phillip Neu was rolling out thousands of barrels each year at his Neu Brewery on what is now West F Street. And, on Lebanon Avenue, where St. Teresa's Church sits today, a new star rose over the neighborhood -- literally.

You remember it as the Star Brewery, but starting in about 1854 it was first known as the Neuhoff Brewery -- just as it was listed in Downtown Living. Actually, its full name was the Neuhoff and Bressler Brewery, which was often shortened to the Nebraska Brewery because of the "N" and "B" of the owners' last names. That's according to historian Kevin Kious, of Collinsville, in an extensive history of Belleville brewing he wrote for the American Breweriana Journal in 1997.

For more than a decade, the brewery struggled to find its footing, undergoing several ownership changes. But when Hannover, Germany, native Hubert Hartmann took over in 1868, the good times began to flow. In the 1870s, it introduced its flagship Stern Brau -- German for Star Beer -- which quickly became so popular that that the company started bottling it.

Production quadrupled in just a decade to 25,000 barrels in 1881. The brewery now covered four acres of the 25-acre Hartmann estate, and several employees lived on-site. Long before the Budweiser Clydesdales, 12 teams of four-horse hitches were used to transport Stern Brau to St. Louis and surrounding counties. Up to 2,000 cases left the brewery each day.

So it was inevitable that when Hubert's brother Bernard took over the company in the 1880s, he would rename it the Star Brewery. After all, residents had long been calling it that themselves because of the prominent six-pointed star on the roof of the building and the star symbol that had graced the brewery's products for more than a decade.

Even a fire that destroyed the main building in 1895 barely slowed the flow. Although 1,200 barrels of aging beer were lost, the company had so much stored throughout Southern Illinois that sales weren't affected. Within a year a new four-story plant was built and the boom continued.

It was Prohibition that nearly killed the 70-year-old company. At first, Star tried to compete against cross-town rival Western by producing Peerless near-beer to counter Western's own nonalcoholic Stag. But in 1922, Star turned off the tap.

"Federal agents were called in to legally dispose of 1,000 barrels of beer from which the alcohol had not yet been removed," Kious noted. "It took eight hours to empty the 35,000 gallons of beer into the sewer. A brewery representative said that making near-beer was unprofitable because there were too many home brewers and too much sale of illegal beer."

Things only grew worse. The Hartmann family sold out to a local group whose plans to start Red Crown Malt Products quickly died. By 1929, the company entered foreclosure, and the plant, valued at $300,000 before Prohibition, went for a fire-sale $50,000.

Not even the end of Prohibition could get Star out of its long hangover. An initial attempt to get Star Beer on the market ended in bankruptcy within a year. Finally, in 1935, the Hartmann family returned to the fold, heading another local group that brought the brewery back into the black.

Things went so well that in 1939, the company put a new $150,000 bottling machine on line to up its production rate 25 percent to 164 bottles per minute. In addition, the company introduced its premium Oltimer brand. By the 1940s, its products were reaching even into the U.S. Southwest.

But while Stag prospered through the 1950s and '60s, it was the last call for Star-Peerless. In the spring of 1957, it tried to put its best face forward, saying it was suspending operations while new machinery was installed. It never happened, and in December 1958, the brewery property was sold to St. Teresa's Parish.

In the spring of 1961, the century-old brewery was razed. Gone were the many buildings, the 175-foot smokestack -- and that six-pointed star I had stared at so often en route to my Grandma Lonsdale's house just a couple of blocks south.

Today's trivia

Who scored the first National Hockey League penalty shot, when and where?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: Two years before it hosted its first hockey game, the St. Louis Arena/Checkerdome opened in October 1929 with the 10-day National Dairy Exposition. Billed as the largest agricultural exposition in the world, participants came from 30 states and brought 1,500 head of purebred stock. But it was the last time people felt like celebrating here for a while. Two weeks later the stock market crashed and hopes for the new Arena fell along with it. In 1930, the biggest event was a turtle-race derby, according to a history at www.jacs-group.com/trueblues/homepage.html.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com

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