By Marc Wisdom | Contributor
In recent years Jacksonville has enjoyed explosive growth in the beer brewing industry. Beer lovers have several choices for locally-crafted, well-made adult beverages. However, just seven years ago there was no option other than to purchase craft beer imported from other parts of the country. It wasn’t until 2008 with the opening of Bold City Brewery that the art of local brewing once again came to Jacksonville.
Unbeknownst to many, the root of brewing beer in Northeast Florida goes back much further than the past decade. In fact, Jacksonville was home to one of the most popular regional breweries in the South. Named the Jacksonville Brewing Company, it was opened in 1913 by William Ostner, a German immigrant who moved from St. Louis to Florida. Sadly, the buildings on the Northside that once held the commercial brewery are now slowly deteriorating. And even though the name and recipe of the brewery moved around from Jacksonville to New Orleans and finally Texas, the brewery’s name and recipe continued to pay homage to its Florida hometown.
Ostner’s Jacksonville Brewing Company flourished from the start and the citizens of Jacksonville enjoyed fresh, locally-brewed beer for the first time. The brewery’s successful run came to an abrupt halt when the commander of a nearby military base petitioned the city of Jacksonville to prohibit alcohol sales. His request came on the heels of reports of drunken soldiers roaming the city streets over the weekends, causing discipline problems on the base, and general unease within the civilian population.
In May of 1918, just five years after the brewery opened, the City Council voted to turn Jacksonville into a “dry” city. This was only two years before national prohibition took hold of the United States. The decision forced Ostner and his Jacksonville Brewing Company to cease brewing operations immediately and scramble to find a new business model. The company changed its name to Jax Ice & Cold Storage and began supplying ice to the Durkeeville neighborhood.
Oddly enough, it was the Great Depression that offered Ostner and his brewery another chance. Florida in particular had been hit hard by the loss of employment. In the late 1920s, the Florida Times-Union estimated that reopening the Jacksonville Brewing Company would create a ripple effect resulting in nearly 6,000 jobs. To the unemployed masses, the legalization of near beer – defined as beer of no more than 3.2-percent alcohol – made perfect economic sense. In May of 1933, legislation was signed and Ostner was free to produce beer once more.
Nearing the end of the 1930s, Ostner’s company became one of the largest industrial employers in Jacksonville. Jax Beer, a crisp Pilsner-style lager, was one of the most popular drinks in the Southeast. Distributors in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina transported the beer to areas far north of Duval, only increasing the brand’s well-known status. During these glory years, the brewery built up production to around 200,000 barrels annually.
Over the next two decades, the brewery fended off multiple attacks from megalithic brewing companies that emerged after prohibition such as Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors. In the 1950s, when the industry began moving to aluminum cans, Ostner simply could not keep up. The cost of converting the factory to the newer equipment proved too expensive and a difficult decision had to be made.
In 1956, the copyright to the Jax Beer name was sold to the Jackson Brewing Company, a long-established firm in New Orleans, La. The company, named for nearby Jackson Square, had previously produced a beer called Jax and proceeded to expand with the newly-obtained rights. In the mid-1970s however, Jackson ceased operations and the Jax name changed hands once again. This time the name and recipes were sold to the Pearl Brewing Company of San Antonio, Texas.
The new owners understood that the beer was a much-loved southern fixture. Pearl continued to produce the beer using the original formula from the Jacksonville and New Orleans’ operations. They even kept the label design to garner good-will among the beer’s many admirers.
Later on, Pearl purchased the Pabst Brewing Company and retained the Pabst name. Unfortunately, this resulted in the end of Jax Beer when a decision was made to discontinue the product.
After the demise of the Jacksonville Brewing Company, Jacksonville experienced a drought in beer production. With the exception of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, established on the city’s Northside in 1969, a true brewery did not open until 2008 with the creation of Bold City Brewery.
Susan and Brian Miller, owners of the brewery, make for an unlikely team. A mother and son partnership, they went against all odds, quit their desk jobs and started Bold City Brewing Company.
In the six years since its opening, Bold City has become one of the most popular breweries in North Florida. With favorites such as Duke’s Cold Nose Brown Ale and Killer Whale Cream Ale, Jacksonville’s first craft brewery helped launch the bonanza that is now a thriving local craft beer scene.
Two years after the Millers opened their brewery, Ben Davis started Intuition Ale Works just little more than a block away. Davis is no newcomer to the adult beverage industry. He cut his teeth in the vineyard business spending time in both Napa Valley and New Zealand. Today, Intuition is credited as being the first craft brewery in Florida to can its beers. Beer-lovers can find the brewery’s popular People’s Pale Ale, I-10 IPA and Jon Boat West Coast Ale in supermarkets and liquor stores throughout the city. In addition, King Street Imperial Stout can be purchased in cans at the company’s tap room.
Around the same time that Davis opened his brewery, another brewery was emerging just east of the Intracoastal Waterway. Engine 15 Brewing Company owner Luciano Scremin discovered his love of brewing in his youth. While a freshman in college, he saw an advertisement for a brewing setup in an old Popular Mechanics magazine. Since then, Scremin has honed his craft, finally opening a brewery and restaurant. Today, Engine 15 serves beers that he and partner Sean Bielman produce along with a wide selection of guest taps. In addition, the duo recently began test brewing at their new production brewery on Myrtle in the LaVilla neighborhood north of downtown Jacksovnille.
A year later, another brewery took shape at the Beach. Green Room Brewing is headed by Eric Lumen. Lumen got his start in the brewing business cleaning out kegs and tap lines at the now defunct Southend Brewery & Taphouse. Ten years later, Lumen and business partner Mark Stillman put together their brewery with equipment purchased from Bold City. The taproom that faces 3rd Street in Jacksonville Beach is a popular after-beach hangout for surfers and beer lovers alike.
The beer scene is still expanding. Just last year in San Marco, friends Preben Olsen and Michael Payne opened Aardwolf Brewing Company in an old railroad ice house. Payne, the brewer of the duo, has developed an impressive variety of beers including their flagships Belgian Pale Ale, Non-Chalant IPA and Styrofoam Pony Stout. Home to one of Jacksonville’s most beautiful tap rooms, Aardwolf attracts an eclectic crowd of beer lovers from hipsters to business people.
These breweries are only the beginning of a promising beer future in Jacksonville. The next wave of breweries is already on the horizon with several projects in the planning stages. All owe a debt of thanks to William Ostner, a visionary German immigrant who dared to start a brewery in the heat of North Florida. While his beer has passed into history and the buildings of his brewery crumble, Ostner’s memory will live on in the annals of Jacksonville breweries.