Iowa City Breweries – The Beers That Made Milwaukee Jealous.

As we discussed in an earlier post, when many early German immigrants poured into Iowa, they brought with them their love of beer.

Records indicate that the first brewery in Iowa was built in Iowa’s oldest city – Dubuque – in 1845 – one year before Iowa statehood. Less than thirty-five years later, over 130 breweries were scattered throughout the Hawkeye State.

In the 1850’s, Iowa City was the bustling capital city of Iowa, full of immigrants with different languages, traditions, and backgrounds. With the population exploding, many industrious-minded business people were taking full advantage of that growth, making quick profits on services and/or products the public was demanding. And just like today, alcoholic beverages ranked pretty high on people’s ‘wants & needs’ lists!

On this 1854 J.H. Millar map of Iowa City we’ve notated the locations of Iowa City’s three major brewers:
1. Englert City Brewery at 311 Market (1853)
2a/b. Hotz & Geiger/Union/Graf Bros. Brewery at 213 Market and corner of Linn & Market (1857)
3. Great Western/Dostal Bros./Iowa Brewing at 332 Market (1857)

Allow me here to introduce you to each of these three Iowa City breweries…

In 1853, calling upon his Bavarian heritage, Louis Englert opened The Englert City Brewery, Iowa City’s first brewery at 311 E. Market, operating out of a 20′ x 36′ stone building he constructed next to his small frame home at 319 E. Market Street. Louis and Clara Englert moved their living space into the first floor of the new building while successfully operating their new business out of the basement. Beer production, from day one, was a whopping six to ten barrels per day, using a Brobdingnagian kettle of brass, all carefully brewed in the Englert’s modestly-equipped kitchen.

The German word Brobdingnagian simply translates as “giant kettle” or “a pot with enormous dimensions.”

You can read more about Louis & Clara Englert here and their influential role in early Iowa City here

In 1877, Louis & Clara Englert sold their business to their son, John J. Englert, and son-in-law, Frank Rittenmeyer for $6,000 – half of the business’ full value. More on John J. Englert here.

When Louis Englert opened Iowa City’s first brewery in 1856, he was joined by a German-born shoemaker named Simeon Hotz. The following year – 1857 – Hotz decided to branch out on his own, and soon joined with Anton Geiger, to form Hotz & Geiger Brewery at 213 E. Market, just one block east of Englert’s brewery.

In 1868, this new upstart became Union Brewery, moving to a much larger facility just around the corner – Linn & Market Streets.

In 1874, Simeon Hotz hired his son-in-law, Conrad Graf, to be the brewmaster for Union Brewery.

Graf took over the family business in 1883, two years after his father-in-law died. In 1903 – Conrad Graf’s sons, William & Otto Graf bought out the business, renaming it Graf Bros. Brewery. More on Conrad Graf here.

In 1857, George L. Ruppert started the Great Western Brewery, making it into one of the largest breweries in Iowa. One year before his death, he sold his successful business to John P. Dostal (1873).

Dostal left for Aurora, Illinois in 1882, partnering with Fred W. Kemmerle while leaving his two sons, George A. Dostal and John Dostal Jr., to oversee the Iowa City business, renaming it the Dostal Bros. Brewery. In 1902, Kemmerle moved from Aurora to Iowa City, partnered with Andrew J. Feeney, and renamed the business: Iowa Brewing Company.

The Dostals became one of the more influential families in Iowa City. After leaving here in 1882, the family sold their large home to the Sisters of Mercy who used it then as the first Mercy Hospital. When John Dostal died in 1912 (in Denver), the Iowa City Daily Press wrote…

“He was energetic, enterprising and genial. A large circle of oldtime friends will remember him long, and mourn him just as long as a good man and worthy citizen.”

More on John P. Dostal here.

1. Englert City Brewery (1853) – John J. Englert & Frank Rittenmeyer
2. Union Brewery (1857) – Conrad Graf
3. Great Western Brewery (1857) – John P. Dostal

By the 1880’s, these three Iowa City breweries (all located within two city blocks of each other) were doing a bang-up business in beer – until prohibition came onto the scene. Known as The German Beer Mafia, these three businesses were led by determined men who knew the beer business and how to take care of their own. Click here to read more about The German Beer Mafia – and its battles with prohibition.

Writer Mary Beth Freking, interviewing Herb Gartzke in an article for The Daily Iowan in May 1987, tells us these details…

Click here to read more about Herb & Fred Gartzke, two young boys who grew up around Iowa City’s three breweries.

Union Brewery (which became Graf Brothers in 1903) continued to operate as a brewery until prohibition (1920’s) when it attempted to produce soda. Read more about this difficult transitional era here.
(C-0293) Here’s a fun postal cover from Graf’s Bottling in 1946 – addressed to the O-So-Grape Company in Chicago!

Today, two of Iowa City’s three powerful breweries are long gone, replaced with parking lots…

Site of Englert City Brewery.
Site of Iowa Brewing Company.

The only surviving building of the three (below) – Union Brewery on Linn Street. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 10, 1986. An amazing tunnel system, carved 30 feet underground and once used for cool storage, remains. Read more here.

Click here to read more about the ultimate demise of Englert City Brewery, Union/Graf Brewery, and the Great Western/Iowa Brewing Company.

Here’s a tip of the old hat to these three German-American breweries of the 19th century. You helped make Iowa City what it is today and while you are now gone, your heritage in brewing good suds continues today with the advent of home-grown Iowa City-based breweries producing good fruit from the hops.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

German-American Brewers in Iowa City, Glenn Ehrstine,

Iowa City Breweries,

Union Brewery (Iowa), Wikipedia

The Beers That Didn’t Quite Make Iowa City Famous, Irving Weber’s Iowa City – Volume 2, Irving Weber, Iowa City Lion’s Club, 1979, pp 203-208

Old Brewery recalls memories of younger days in Iowa City, Mary Beth Freking, The Daily Iowan, May 15, 1987, p 3

Louis Englert, Find-A-Grave

John J. Englert, Find-A-Grave

Francis James “Frank” Rittenmeyer, Find-A-Grave

Simeon Hotz, Find-A-Grave

Anton Geiger, Find-A-Grave

Conrad Graf, Find-A-Grave

George L. Ruppert, Great Western Brewing, Iowa State Gazetteer, 1865, p 409

George L. Ruppert, Find-A-Grave

John P. Dostal obit, Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 15, 1912, p 4

John P. Dostal, Find-A-Grave

Fred W. Kemmerle, C. R. Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa – Volume 2, 1913, p 233

Frederick William Kemmerle, Find-A-Grave

Andrew J. Feeney, Find-A-Grave

Click here to go on to the next section…

Click here for a complete INDEX of Our Iowa Heritage stories…