Hess Cooperage – Once Wisconsin’s Largest

By John Warnik and Gary Hess

 

In previous newsletters, you may have read my praises of the Great Taste of the Midwest, believed to be the second longest-running craft beer festival in North America. Every August, over 100 breweries/brewpubs serve about 500 different beers in a beautiful lakeside setting with a view of the state capitol in Madison, WI.  While the fest always sells out, tickets can be found on site if you arrive early enough.

 

This year there was a brewing heritage tent featuring several brands that have been brought back to life, often by descendants of the former brewing families.  Among these were Fauerbach, Hausmann, and Esser’s Best.   There was also an interesting display of items from the Hess Cooperage, Wisconsin’s largest, which operated from 1904-1966.  Gary Hess shared with me the story of his grandfather’s business and craft.

 

Frank J. Hess Sr. was born in Bohemia on April 10, 1870.  At the age of 14, he wanted to learn the cooperage trade, so he started and completed a four year cooperage apprenticeship in Pilsen, Bohemia.  At 19, he traveled to America by ship and then by train to Chicago.  He worked as a cooper manufacturing white oak beer kegs for seven years at Westside Brewery in Chicago and later in Prairie Du Chien, WI.

 

Then in 1904, Henry Fauerbach of the Fauerbach Brewery in Madison persuaded Frank to move to Madison to start an independent cooperage business.  The Frank J. Hess and Sons Cooperage factory was on Schenk’s corners for 62 years.  They manufactured and repaired beer kegs for the Fauerbach, Hausmann, Berckheimer, Brunkow and Mueller, Potosi, Stork, Slinger, Rhinelander, Portage, Baraboo, Sauk City, Columbus, Watertown, Wausaw, Janesville, Duluth, and Monroe breweries.  Also the Star Brewery in Sioux City, Iowa, West End Brewery in Utica, New York, and Hamm’s Brewery in Baltimore, MD.  They also manufactured and repaired wine and whiskey barrels.  In 1966 the factory closed, signaling the end of the American beer barrel industry.

 

In the spring of 1966, an article about the then recent closing appeared in a magazine, Wisconsin Tales and Trails.   Author Robert T Holland offered this observation:

 

“In this age of stainless steel and aluminum, it is easy to overlook the significance of the wooden barrel in America’s past.  But those who were alive in the early years of this century will certainly remember the storied cracker barrel, the sugar barrel, and the flour barrel, as well as the salt pork, dried fish, oysters, herring, and other food stuffs that were packed, shipped and displayed in wooden barrels.  Produce of all kinds – from apples to molasses – moved to market in barrels.  It was in barrels that Wisconsin’s famed passenger pigeons and chickens were shipped to markets in Chicago and the East by the tens of thousands.  Beer, wine and other spirits were brewed or fermented and aged, as they have been for centuries, in wooden barrels, tanks or vats.  And of course, at every home there was that important and all-but forgotten rain barrel, which provided a ready supply of water in case of fire, and a source of soft water for hair washing and the weekly bath.  Even today, we can see the impact of the barrel on our culture, as so much of industry’s bulk measure is expressed in terms of hogsheads, barrels, and fractions thereof.  The wooden barrel has indeed played a large part in our history, and the cooper has been an indispensable artisan.”

 

Holland continues, explaining the factors leading to the operation’s demise:

 

During Prohibition, when many cooperages ceased to function, the Frank J. Hess and Sons Cooperage supplied barrels to the dairy industry.  But the barrels were of very light construction and brought only $1.50 each.  When the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, the few cooperages still in operation were deluged with orders from the brewing industry for barrels.  Within a short time sixty-two cooperages around the country had opened and were operating at full capacity.  Unfortunately many of them did not have enough skilled workers to produce a quality barrel.  Demand for kegs caused a critical shortage and the breweries attempted to import foreign-made barrels.  The Coopers International Union objected so strenuously that the importation of wooden barrels was stopped.  Unable to get an adequate supply of barrels, the burgeoning brewing industry was forced to look elsewhere for substitutes.  Cast iron was used first, then aluminum and stainless steel.

 

In the spring of 1966, with no new barrels being produced, the company remained in business a little longer doing barrel repair. Among the last contracts fulfilled consisted of refurbishing several hundred beer barrels the Hesses had purchased from the “now defunct” Peter Hand Brewery of Chicago.  They were sold to a brewery in Rochester, New York.

 

Despite it’s demise, the longevity the Hess Cooperage experienced suggests Frank Hess and his four sons; Joe, Tony, Foots and Eddie truly were artisans of their craft. 

 

Recently, Gary Hess and Robert Holland met for the first time.  When Holland wrote the story in 1966, Gary’s father had given him an oak barrel.  Still in excellent condition, Holland donated it this past September to The Dean House, a 19th century farmhouse operated by a Madison area historical society.

 

As I looked a the hammer and other tools Gary displayed at Taste of the Midwest, I found it ironic that all around us barrel–aged beers were the most popular and anticipated beers at dozens of breweries and brewpubs.  There were over 20 barrel-aged beers listed in the festival program alone.  I’m sure their were many more.  (I tasted them.) The most celebrated event at each brewer’s booth was usually the tapping of a bourbon-barrel aged brown, stout or porter.  If Gary’s father or grandfather were at the Taste, I bet he’d smile about this – beer in wooden barrels again!  Then, he’d enjoy a cold Fauerbach.