Answer Man

August 11, 2014

Stag, Belleville's pride and joy, has complicated past

Answer Man

Got questions? You've come to the right place

While recently making one last visit to the Belleville bicentennial exhibition at the Schmidt Art Center, I had forgotten to wear my Groucho mask, so a couple of people came up to ask questions about Belleville history.

After writing about streetcars Sunday, I hope you enjoy this brief history of the Stag beer label. If you haven't already, I also hope you see the exhibition on the Southwestern Illinois College campus during its last days from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today through Thursday. Don't forget to pick up a copy of the beautiful exhibit catalog as a keepsake of this momentous year. It's all free.

There's a big billboard now for Stag beer on Illinois 15, yet it is no longer brewed here. Who is brewing Stag these days? -- B.G., of Belleville

In tracing the rather torturous road taken by Stag beer after its heyday in Belleville, you may find yourself needing as big a glass of the suds as you see on that retro billboard.

Stag, of course, was born in Belleville in 1907 at the Western Brewery on West E Street. The popular lager originally was named Kaiser to honor Deutschland Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German emperor.

But as "Villy" fell out of international favor, the Belleville brewery decided to rename its best-selling brew. On June 8, 1907, Western ran an ad in the News-Democrat announcing that George E. Wuller, of Belleville, had won $25 in gold for his winning suggestion of Stag.

For the next 80 years, an ocean of golden suds flowed out of the Belleville brewery even as it changed hands three times. On Aug. 12, 1912, a group of investors headed by Henry Griesedieck bought Western, promising to keep the Stag brand while introducing a premium quaff it called Continental, according to a detailed history of the brewery by Kevin Kious, of Collinsville, and Donald Roussin.

Then in 1954, Carling bought Griesedieck-Western. It was a major coup, because the Belleville brewery quietly had become the nation's 11th largest brewery as it sold Stag in 22 states, while Carling was No. 18, according to a history of the Carling-National Brewery Co.

But as brewing giants like Busch and Miller continued to build market share, Carling started crying in its beer. It wound up selling out to the G. Heileman Brewing Company, brewers of Old Style, which closed the Belleville plant in the spring of 1979, two months after the purchase. Then, in a change of heart, Heileman reopened in August and resumed production.

But it was only a temporary reprieve. In what may have been an ominous sign, the top 45 feet of the familiar Stag smokestack was renovated in 1986. It was deemed impossible to replace the "Stag" lettering which had been on the section, so only the word "Beer" remained after the restoration, Kious said.

Two years later, Heileman again announced that it would close the Belleville plant. At 1 p.m. Sept. 1, 1988, Terry Galati pushed the final case of beer off the line. As Kious noted, it was a case of Kingsbury -- in, ironically, non-returnable bottles. It ended 160 years of brewing history in Belleville that had started when F. Fleischbein started a tiny brewery on the southwest corner of the Public Square in 1829.

After that, Stroh's acquired Heileman in 1994, and continued to brew Stag at Heileman's old plant in LaCrosse, Wis. Then, on Feb. 8, 1999, Stroh's announced it was ending its 149-year brewing tradition by selling its labels to Pabst and MillerCoors.

As a result, the Stag name is now part of the Pabst family of brands. But Pabst tells me that it actually brews Stag at the MillerCoors' Milwaukee plant under contract. Still, the complicated arrangement earned Stag a gold medal for best American-style lager at the 2005 Great American Beer Festival.

Today's trivia

How did the word "dope" come to be a synonym for illegal drugs?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: While there is some evidence that "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played before a baseball game as early as May 15, 1862, most historians seem to trace the custom to the first game of the 1918 World Series between the Red Sox and Cubs. At the height of the 1918 season, baseball was ruled a nonessential occupation and that it had to end all play by mid-September. So on Sept. 6, before the Cubs came to bat in the bottom of the seventh, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played to honor troops serving in World War I. Three days later, the song was played at Fenway Park before the start of the fourth game, and the New York Times referred to it as "The National Anthem." (It didn't become the official national anthem until March 3, 1931.) Chicago lost the series 4-2 but a sporting tradition had begun to take root. And speaking of exhibitions, find more interesting sport facts like this one at "Hometown Teams" on display through Sept. 7 at the Monroe County History Museum in Waterloo.

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 or call 618-239-2465.

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