Ask McGehee

What is Mobile’s beer brewing history?

As seen in the 1930s, the abandoned, once-thriving brewery located at the corner of N. Water and Adams streets never recovered from national prohibition. photo Courtesy S. Blake McNeely Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

The earliest listing of a brewery in Mobile is from 1865 when Charles W. Gelbke was operating one on a large lot on the north side of Springhill Avenue, just west of Broad Street. The property held his residence as well as a saloon.

The brewery, by necessity, had to be near the saloon since refrigeration was limited to ice imported from northern ponds. Manufactured ice would not arrive for decades.

By 1869, Gelbke had moved his lager beer saloon to Royal Street where it was operated in the former Odd Fellows Hall. His last address was at the northwest corner of Government and Royal streets where he was in business until 1880, dispensing beer as well as wines and liquors. 

The Mobile Brewing Company: Liquid Amber

In 1891, modern brewing came to Mobile when a group of businessmen formed the Mobile Brewing Company and bought the corner of North Water and Adams streets. Chicago architect August Maritzen, who was the recognized leader in the design of breweries (he ultimately helped create 80), was hired, and in September of 1892, the Mobile Register described “this fine establishment” in great detail.

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The main building was of brick and stood five stories high with an eight-story elevator tower. It would be a decade before any building in downtown Mobile matched that height, so it was an immediate landmark and was dubbed “the building with the very tall tower.”

Adjoining this was a boiler house, a barrel factory and a bottling works. Unlike Gelbke’s establishment, the Mobile Brewery’s product was kept chilled by “an ammonia refrigerating machine.” The Register stated “the beer is of a light amber color, of medium strength, and has become a favorite beverage with the beer drinking public.”

The new methods of refrigeration also allowed the beer to be shipped by both train and ship, rather than just being sent next door as it had a generation earlier. The news account reported that Mobile was shipping the beer “throughout the Southern states.”

The Bienville Brewery

Noting the success of the brewery, a group founded a second one in 1901. The city was preparing to celebrate its 200th anniversary, and the new business was named the Bienville Brewery, Inc., and located on what is today Telegraph Road.

Interestingly, the two breweries worked well together. At one point, German-born brothers Joseph and Carl Friedhoff served as the brewmasters of the Bienville and Mobile breweries. 

The Bienville Brewery had a short life span. Its building was badly damaged during the 1906 hurricane and records indicate it suffered financial losses well into 1907.

Then, on November 19, 1907, the state legislature pushed through a statewide prohibition effective at the end of 1908. The Bienville Brewery called it quits, finally selling their equipment to a Georgia firm.

Prohibition Repealed — Briefly

The statewide ban on alcohol was put to a county vote in 1911, leading to its repeal in Mobile. The Mobile Brewery went back to brewing, advertising three labels: “Purity,” “Extra Pale” and “Export Beer.”

The firm had survived largely on the sale of ice, but its charter had also called for the “manufacture, bottling and sale of soda, mineral waters, ginger ale, and other beverages, and the manufacturing and sale of ice and furnishing cold storage.”

Prohibition efforts continued upstate and successfully pushed through statewide prohibition again in 1915. By that time, the Mobile Brewery had lost its brewmaster to a bullet during a dispute with his daughter’s boyfriend. His brother Joseph took his place until prohibition returned.

The firm survived both statewide and national prohibition, reincorporating as the Mobile Brewery, Ice and Coal Company in 1924. The firm sold out in 1937, and period photos indicate the once-proud building was nearly derelict by that time.

Local beers have returned to Mobile and Baldwin counties during the last decade. Sadly, there is no trace left of any of the three breweries from the last two centuries.

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