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Article Archive: Bay City’s Phoenix Brewery

11 Apr 2020 2:09 PM | Danny Bora (Administrator)

From the Fall 2006 Breweriana Collector - by Bob Pawlak

Phoe-nix (fee-niks). A mythical bird of great beauty fabled to live 500 to 600 years in the Arabian wilderness, burned itself on a funeral pyre, only to rise alive from the ashes to live through another cycle of years: often an emblem of immortality or of reborn idealism or hope. (Hans Behrens, (L) Phoenix owner & Master Brewer  and with local dignitaries (R)

The Phoenix Brewery of Bay City, MI did just that, rising from a destructive fire in 1896 and emerging as a brand new brewery in 1898 with added capacity. The former West Bay City Brewing Company adopted a name change and featured the mythic bird, rising from a flame, as its new logo.

Phoenix Brewery Workers,  ictory! Phoenix Brewery baseball team: note horse-drawn car as their “Victory Wagon.”

Phoenix Brewery Workers; Victory! Phoenix Brewery baseball team: note horse-drawn car as their “Victory Wagon.”

“The Gay Philosopher” spokes-personality, 1947The Brewery was established in 1865 when John Rosa cleared a site on the banks of the Saginaw River, facing Arbor Street, in what was then West Bay City. The original name is unrecorded, but in 1868 it was known as the West Bay City Brewing Company, with John Rosa and Andrew Fink listed as partners. Initial annual production is listed as 5,000 barrels per year. Mr. John Kohler and Jacob Knobloch were later listed as partners in the brewery. Prior to th1896 fire, there were a number of ownership changes.

Upon rebuilding, the new facility’s capacity was increased to 20,000 barrels per year. Frank Mohr was listed as president, Julius Kaiser, vice-president, and Louis Hine secretary/treasurer and general manager. Under their leadership, Phoenix was “known far and wide as makers of the famous HIGH GRADE, the brand that is always the same.”

Rising Phoenix” chalkware statues;Bay City, at that time, had two other breweries—the Kolb Brewing Co. and the Bay City Brewing Co., with which the Phoenix Brewery was in direct competition. Phoenix was distinguished from the others through its amber-colored bottles and a picture of a large eagle on the front label. The eagle became synonymous with Phoenix and at least two chalkware versions of the rising eagle are extremely rare and much sought after among Phoenix breweriana collectors and statue collectors alike.

Rare Phoenix bottle labels  Phoenix Conetop  Pre-Prohibition letterhead

Rare Phoenix bottle labels; cone-top can in excellent condition; two versions of hard-to-find
Phoenix” chalkware statues; Pre-Prohibition letterhead; “The Gay Philosopher” spokes-personality, 1947.

Phoenix during Prohibition (note name change);Like other breweries at the time, the Phoenix suffered with the onset of Prohibition and the partnership of Mohr/Kaiser/ Hine was dissolved in 1917. The brewery had to shift focus to viable alternatives to stay afloat, and turned to producing and selling malt extract. The malt extract was sold around the country as well as to the local population for the production of ‘home brew,’ which was allowed under Prohibition. Malt extract was sold in five-gallon cans, under the name H.H. Behren’s Malt Extract Co., until 1933, when Prohibition ended.

Inspecting stainless barrels;Hans Behrens was the brew master for the Phoenix Brewery from 1910 until 1918, succeeding the late Julius Kaiser. Mr. Behrens left Bay City and worked for the Home Brewing Company and the Woolner Brewing Company in Toledo, Ohio until 1921. Upon his return to Bay City, Mr. Behrens was employed by the Kolb Brewing Co., supervising the production of ‘near beer.’ In 1925, he purchased the Phoenix Brewery and continued to sell malt extract until the end of Prohibition. When Prohibition ended, Behrens re-formed the Phoenix Brewing Company with Mr. Fred Vollbrecht. When that partnership dissolved, he formed a partnership with his sons, Erwin and Jack, and son-in-law Emmons Riegel.

Early workersIn 1943, the storage capacity of the Phoenix plant was increased to 40,000, with annual production of 30,000 barrels produced under the PHOENIX BEER trade name. The rise of the nationally-advertised competitors spelled the demise of the Phoenix, unable to keep up. Both of the other two other Bay City breweries had already closed their doors (Kolb in 1939 and Bay City Brewery in 1943). The Phoenix was able to keep its doors open until 1952.

Brewers Certificate, Hans Behrens;The buildings that were used to pump out thousands of gallons of beer remained and had a variety of occupants until the early sixties when a cleaning supply business purchased the property. The huge brewery vats are still used for the production of cleaning detergents by the current owners. A 24-foot smokestack from the brewery was deemed a safety hazard and was toppled and removed in 1999. Scavengers are reported to have discovered the fragments of hundreds of broken Phoenix beer bottles among the debris. Just prior to Christmas, 2004, a wrecking ball sent red brick and wood fragments flying as the south end of the plant was crushed. This section had been condemned by city officials.

“We Won It” victory car w/case of beer on top.

Above Photos: Phoenix during Prohibition (note name change); Inspecting stainless barrels;  Early workers;
Brewers Certificate, Hans Behrens; “We Won It” victory car w/case of beer on top.
(All photos from the collection of Rick Schmidt)

All that remains of the Phoenix Brewery today is the section that was once the bottling house of the plant. The age of the building and its proximity to the Saginaw River make the site desirable for potential development and its demise is just a matter of time, according to its current owner. There are still a small handful of Bay City residents that are former employees of the Phoenix, but their recollections and stories are slowly going the way of the brewery itself, crumbling and fading away.

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