In a city as steeped in brewery history as La Crosse, it’s difficult to believe that alcohol was once banned.
The late 1800s and the early 1900s were the prime years for early breweries. Companies such as G. Heileman Brewing Co., the Gund Brewing Co. and the C&J Michel Brewing Co. opened in La Crosse in 1858, 1880 and 1857 respectively. They were three of the nearly 2,000 U.S. breweries prior to 1920. At the end of Prohibition 13 years later, only 750 breweries remained, which included Heileman and Michel Brothers.
The Volstead Act was the brainchild of Minnesota Rep. Andrew Volstead and the Temperance Movement, and was the culmination of decades of anti-alcohol legislation. Signed into law in early 1920, the act outlawed the consumption, transportation, sale and manufacturing of beverages with more than 0.5 percent alcohol. Once beer was effectively outlawed, breweries had to adapt to survive.
The G. Heileman Brewing Co. — opened in 1858 by Gottlieb Heileman and incorporated in 1890 by his widow, Johanna — was one of the largest breweries in La Crosse by 1910. Famous for Old Style beer, Heileman was quick to conform to the Volstead Act with the production of New Style, a near-beer. Heileman also produced soda and tonic beverages. However, by the late 1920s, people were learning how to produce their own beers, and Heileman decided to capitalize on this effort.
Heileman’s Old Style Malt Syrup was produced in large quantities in 2½-pound tin cans. “For malted milk ... [and] bread and fancy baking,” the advertisement for the malt syrup steered as far away from an association with the illegal home-brewing efforts as possible, while still advertising the product as a necessity for the illegal efforts. However, the malt syrup packaging featured the trademark Heileman grenadier and the Old Style label, making it easy to discern its intentions were to profit off home-brewing.
The sale of malt syrup kept Heileman afloat until the end of Prohibition in 1933. While other breweries crumbled under the pressures of a beer-less America, Heileman used its ingenuity to survive.