BY DOUG HOVERSON
Welcome to this series of posts featuring brewery artifacts that serve as a complement to my book, The Drink that Made Wisconsin Famous. Pieces of content featured in here were left out due to space limitations in the already 700+-page-book.
This inaugural post also celebrates National Beer Can Appreciation Day—the 85th anniversary of the first day beer was available to American consumers in cans. (Krueger Brewing Co. of Newark, New Jersey introduced the can in their Richmond, Virginia territory so there would be minimal bad publicity if the product was not a success.) Two Wisconsin breweries, Pabst and Schlitz, were quick to capitalize on the positive reception to the new package and canned beer became an instant hit with customers.
For the first several decades, beer cans were just another (successful) consumer package. Shortages of metal during World War II meant that canned beer was only available for military use during the war years, but the cans reappeared on shelves as soon as wartime restrictions were eased. But by the 1970s, the attractive designs and regional variety combined to inspire one of the most spectacular (and sometimes bewildering) crazes in recent history—beer can collecting. Imagine an era in which junior high schools across the nation had beer can collecting clubs! The early Beer Can Collectors Association clubs allowed only trading of cans—no buying or selling. They established a basic scale in which broad categories of cans (“current cans,” “cone tops,” “obsolete foreign cans”) were assigned a point value. However, as the hobby developed, collectors realized that some cans were much rarer than others, valuations became more specific, and buying and selling became accepted. Today, beer cans are treated much like any other antique (and clubs encouraging possession of alcohol containers are no longer welcome in schools).
In this post, we celebrate one of the “tough cans” of Wisconsin—Wausau Brewing Company’s Rib Mountain Lager. Rib Mountain, just west of Wausau, is the highest point in Wisconsin relative to the surrounding terrain. Legend claims that the “ribs” mark the site as the burial place of Paul Bunyan. Rib Mountain featured one of the earliest downhill ski areas in the country, and the peak is the site of several broadcasting transmitters. Rib Mountain Lager was introduced by Wausau Brewing Co. around 1938 as the lower-priced entry in their lineup of bottled beers. It did not appear in cans until 1959—and because the brewery closed less than two years later few cans were produced. The can design is typical of the late 1950s and 1960s with a relatively simple design without much illustration. (The earlier bottled beer labels did feature a sketch of the mountain.)
Wausau Brewing Co. was one of several breweries founded in the decade before Prohibition in central Wisconsin. Unlike most of its predecessors, Wausau and its contemporaries were founded as larger corporations—rather than growing organically from a small family business. During Prohibition, the company was suspected of links with Chicago crime syndicates and was closed down in 1926. James Fernock reopened the brewery as West End Malt Co., but quickly changed the name back to Wausau Brewing Co. In addition to Rib Mountain Lager, the brewery also produced Schoen’s Old Lager and Adel Brau. The company suffered a steady decline in production in the years after World War II, and in 1961 the brewery closed for good. The labels were sold to Rhinelander Brewing Co., where they were produced for a few more years.
Thus ends our first installment of The Things That Made the Drink Famous. Check back here on Fridays for more!
Doug Hoverson is author of The Drink That Made Wisconsin Famous: Beer and Brewing in the Badger State (Minnesota, 2019) and Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota (Minnesota, 2007). He has written about beer and brewing history for publications ranging from American Breweriana Journal to The Growler to The Onion. He has been a consultant on documentaries about beer or related businesses and is a popular speaker on the history of beer.