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Our Rich History: George Wiedemann, Northern Kentucky’s Beer Baron and his brewery

Part 19 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020”

By Don Heinrich Tolzmann
Special to NKyTribune

George Wiedemann (1833-1890) came to America from Germany in 1854, and after several years in the New World founded a brewery in Newport, Kentucky that became the largest south of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River, as well as a brewing family dynasty that lasted for four generations.

Wiedemann was born in Eisenach in Saxony-Weimar, a province of the Kingdom of Prussia. It also was the birthplace of Martin Luther. The Wartburg, where Luther translated the Bible into German, overlooks the town. It was also not far from Mühlhausen, the hometown of John A. Roebling, who like many others, immigrated due to discontent with the socio-political conditions in the German states.

In 1854 at age 21, Wiedemann, who had learned the brewing trade by means of the apprenticeship system, joined the waves of German immigration that surged after the failure of the 1848 Revolution. After arrival in New York, he quickly found work in one of New York’s forty breweries, but then moved on to Louisville, which had a growing German population.

George Weidemann

At the time, many native-born Americans feared the arrival of the Forty-Eighters, the refugees of the 1848 Revolution, as well as the large number of Catholics. This nativist antipathy gave rise to hostilities across the country, and to a riot known as Bloody Sunday in Louisville in August 1855. Not surprisingly, Wiedemann headed for Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine district.

He found a job at the brewery of Franz Eichenlaub, and worked his way up to Braumeister. Eichenlaub’s son-in-law, John Kauffman, took over the brewery, which was located on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine, and it became known as the Kauffman Brewery. Wiedemann remained there for fifteen years, gaining much valuable experience in operating a brewery.

By 1870 Over-the-Rhine had a sizable number of breweries, so starting a brewery there would have been a challenge. Fortunately, Wiedemann had a friend, Johannes Butscher, across the Ohio River in Newport who was from his hometown. So in 1870, he partnered with him to form the Butscher & Wiedemann Brewing Co., with Wiedemann working as Braumeister. In 1878, he bought out his partner, taking full control of the brewery. In 1888, he rebuilt the entire brewery complex, with all the latest refinements and inventions in brewing. Pictures show that it was a wonderful example of German-American brewing architecture, built in the style known as German Romanesque Revival.

The Wiedemann Brewery also featured a Bavarian-style Gasthaus with a Bierstube for visitors. The reception area was adorned with murals on the ceiling, and the office was state of the art with telephones and typewriters. And Wiedemann’s office was truly fitting for a beer baron. The well-known architect Samuel Hannaford designed the brewery stable that housed 150 horses, all of which were needed for the horse-drawn beer wagons.

The Wiedemann Brewery was well known for its Bavarian Lager and its Bohemian Pilsner. The latter became popular after the 1873 Vienna International Exposition, and many brewers from the U.S., including Wiedemann, introduced the brew here. This was more yellow in color than a golden Lager, more light-bodied and had a foamy head with smooth creamy flavor.

Wiedemann’s oldest son, Charles, studied brewing in Munich, and worked at a brewery in Milwaukee before coming home to Newport to become superintendent of the family brewery. His younger brother, George, also studied brewing in Munich, and then became foreman of the Wiedemann Brewery.

Wiedemann Brewery, 6th and Columbia Sts., Newport, KY., circa 1910.

When Wiedemann died in 1890, Charles became president, and George vice-president of the brewery. When Prohibition arrived, the Wiedemann Brewery didn’t stop brewing. It kept on thanks to its alliance with George Remus, the so-called “king of the bootleggers.” Partnership with Remus provided a Star Wars-like shield of protection, but it didn’t last long. In 1927, it got busted by federal agents, causing the brewery to shut down.

Carl, the son of Charles, took the rap for his father, and did time (eight months) at the federal prison in Atlanta. Generally known as a “party boy,” Carl was not the family choice to run the brewery after Prohibition came to an end. Instead, it chose H. Tracy Balcom, a grandson of the founding father of the brewery, George Wiedemann. Thanks to him the brewery got back on its feet. In 1964, Richard Wagner, the son of a daughter of Charles Wiedemann, became president of the brewery, having served as secretary-treasurer since 1934.

By the 1960s, larger breweries were conducting aggressive advertising campaigns and price wars that made it increasingly difficult for smaller breweries. Given these conditions, the Wiedemann Brewing Company was sold in 1967 to the G. Heileman Brewing Company. By 1978, the number of breweries had plummeted to eighty-nine plants, but Heileman was still among the top ten, and still maintained the Wiedemann Division for its production of Wiedemann brews.

To strengthen its position, Heileman consolidated its holdings, which led to the closing of the brewery in Newport in 1983. Wiedemann brews were transferred to Heileman’s brewery in Evansville, Indiana, but the company, facing stiff competition, filed for bankruptcy in 1991. The closing of the brewery in Newport dealt a harsh economic blow, since it employed eight hundred workers at the time of its closing.
The rights to Wiedemann beer were sold to an investment group, and these were acquired by the Pittsburgh Brewing Company, which continued brewing until it filed for bankruptcy in 2006. Jon Newberry of Cincinnati then acquired these rights, and has subsequently opened the new Wiedemann Brewery in St. Bernard in Cincinnati.

Although the original Wiedemann Brewery is now gone, there still are several Wiedemann homes worth seeing in Newport. The Wiedemann Hill Mansion is located on a hillside overlooking the city and the Ohio River at 1102 Park Avenue. The home and carriage house were designed by Samuel Hannaford, and is no doubt one of the major architectural landmarks in the Greater Cincinnati area. It was completed in 1895, and Wiedemann’s widow, Agnes, lived there. After her death in 1899, it became the home of son Charles and his family. The original home of the Charles Wiedemann family is at 709 Overton Street, and the home of his brother George’s family is at 401 Park Avenue. The Wiedemann family gravesite is at the Evergreen Cemetery in Newport, and features a beautiful monument.

George Wiedemann is a good example of the immigrant success story. He came to America with little but the skills he had acquired as an apprenticed brewer in Germany. By means of hard work, thrift, and persistence, he founded one of the major breweries of the Greater Cincinnati area. Sadly, his castle-like brewery suffered the fate of many breweries, and is now gone. Fortunately, there are Wiedemann family homes that recall the “Golden Age of Brewing” in our area, and the role Wiedemann played in it.

For further information, see: Don Heinrich Tolzmann, George Wiedemann, Northern Kentucky’s Beer Baron: The Man and His Brewery (Milford, Ohio: Little Miami Publishing Co., 2015). Tolzmann is a noted historian of German-American History, and a regular contributor to this column.

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  1. Brenda Payne says:

    A wonderful article. I remember the old complex. It seems strange that it isn’t there any longer.

  2. Jon Newberry says:

    Thanks for the great article Don!
    Wiedemann’s beer has survived for 150 years through two world wars, the Spanish Flu pandemic, Prohibition, the Great Depression and the 1937 Flood. And it’s still making world-class Bohemian lager along with many other tasty craft beers.
    No lousy virus is going to stop it. We remain open for carryout and drive-thru service in downtown St. Bernard. Stop in and try some great beers today!
    And watch for Wiedemann’s triumphant return to Northern Kentucky soon!

  3. Daf says:

    Was checking to see where this beer opener came from. At the George wiedeman Brewing Company Newport Kentucky and on the other side it says Bohemian Royal Amber. Very interesting

  4. Jason Taylor says:

    When was the Newport Brewery complex demolished? It at least survived until the mid 1980s based on photos available online.

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