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From the Archives: The Bosch Brewing Company
By Erik Nordberg, University Archivist Michigan Tech Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections
I don't know if it's the nature of my work at the archives, but certain phrases seem to creep into rotation from year to year. Lately it's been "back in the day" and "people of a certain age." As in, "Bosch beer was the greatest thing, back in the day," and "people of a certain age will remember touring the Bosch plant out on the Houghton Canal Road-so you should write about it."
The Bosch Brewing Company was the last of two dozen historic, beer-making enterprises in the Upper Peninsula. Founder Joseph Bosch erected a small wooden building in Lake Linden in 1874 and began brewing operations as the Torch Lake Brewery of Joseph Bosch and Company. Eventually reorganized in 1894 as the Bosch Brewing Company, the enterprise continued in operation for nearly a century, closing the last of its facilities in 1973.
In the early years of brewing in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, little if any beer was sold in bottles. Bosch saw the potential of this packaging, however, and, by the early 1880s, the company was producing four thousand barrels of beer annually, one quarter of which was bottled.
In 1899, the company bought the holdings of the Union Brewery, including the former Scheuermann brewing plant on Portage Lake just west of Houghton. Joseph Bosch liked the natural artesian springs at the Houghton site, and the company often promoted the "restorative" qualities of its porter and stout for "convalescents and nursing mothers."
By the turn of the century, the Bosch Brewing Company had brewing facilities in Lake Linden and Houghton, as well as branches and storehouses in Calumet/Laurium, Hancock, Eagle Harbor, and Ishpeming. Although closed during the dry years of prohibition, Bosch restarted its brewing facility in Houghton in 1933, one of the few local breweries to survive the Volstead Act.
Following the death of founder Joseph Bosch in 1937, the company saw continuing growth and increasing sales under the leadership of daughter Katherine Bosch and grandsons James and Philip Ruppe. (Philip would later serve the UP as US Congressman.) During the 1950s, annual output topped one hundred thousand barrels, with brands such as Bosch Premium, Gilt Edge, Old Fashioned Dark, and Bosch Bock available throughout the Midwest.
Stressing the relationship of its product to the community, the Bosch Brewing Company featured many local themes in its advertising. Promotional phrases such as "Refreshing as the Sportsman's Paradise" and "That's a Fact" kept the small brewery close to the hearts of Copper Country natives as well as visitors from farther afield.
Decreasing revenues—and an increased state beer tax—pushed the company into the red, and the Bosch descendants sold the brewery to a group of local investors in 1965. Brothers Charles and Friedrich Finger ("Charlie" and "Fritz") led the company in this new venture, pushing new technologies and new products, but never ignoring the small-market craft component of their beer.
"Size of plant and magnitude of sales, abundance of scientific personnel and of high-speed equipment . will never compensate for a brewery's lack of appreciation for the art of brewing," noted Charles Finger in January 1966. "In fact, these so-called advantages actually render it impossible for the large breweries to respond to the uniqueness of local taste."
The company always welcomed the public at their Houghton plant. Tours were a major part of the company's public relations program, and the brewery included a small but highly attractive hospitality "bierstube" where visitors could sample the freshest beer. Rumor had it that college students would canoe the Portage and purchase cases of "steinnys" directly from stockmen on the Bosch docks.
Charlie Finger died in July 1966, and the company found itself challenged locally by larger breweries from Milwaukee and St. Louis and the homogenized flavors of their lager beers. Bosch attempted direct competition with its own light Sauna Beer in 1968, but the experiment proved less than satisfactory in both taste and revenue.
Following much public outcry, the last keg of Bosch beer was ceremoniously loaded onto a wagon for delivery to the Schmidt's Corner Bar, on the same Houghton Canal Road, on September 28, 1973. Schmidt's offered nickel beers and for more than four hours "there were so many people, the patrons were crawling over one another" to reach the bar.
The Bosch name continued to be produced in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, for a few years under new owner Jacob Leinenkugel. (Leinie even retained the services of Bosch master brewer Vincent Charney to ensure the brewing formula.) The brewing equipment from the Houghton plant was removed and sold to several different breweries around the country.
A June 1974 fire added insult to injury by destroying much of the former brewery in Houghton. Regardless, a large festival was held in South Range in September of that year to celebrate the Bosch centennial. The event also saw the donation of the last historic Bosch horse-drawn wagon to the Houghton County Historical Society, in Lake Linden, where it still resides today.
Yet, the centennial would prove an ironic swan song to one of the region's best-known names. Within a few short years, profits from the Bosch brand waned and Leinenkugel suspended production.
Although the Bosch name has dropped from the taste buds of beer enthusiasts, it hasn't yet faded from many people's memories. Some readers may recall a cool refreshing draft at the brewery's bierstube. Others may still hoard a couple of steinnys in the back of their closet. And I'll bet someone out there has a funny story about dumping a case of Gilt Edge from his canoe.
Of course, he'd need to be a person of a certain age, who lived back in the day.
© 2006, Michigan Tech Magazine
Michigan Tech Magazine | Fall 2006 | http://www.mtu.edu/