Marketing Nostalgia and Local Pride, Brewers Revive Heritage Brands

News by | May 2016 | Issue #112
A label from 1933 inspired the can design for Heurich’s Lager. | Photo courtesy of DC Brau Brewing

At the Heurich House Museum in Washington DC in March, guests celebrated the release of Heurich’s Lager. The occasion marked the beer’s first time in cans since Chr. Heurich Brewing Co., once the largest private employer in the city, ceased production in 1956 (the beer was previously released on draft in 2013).

Enterprising homebrewer historians Mike Stein, Josh Hubner, and Pete Jones recreated the lager based on records at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. After sharing their homebrew with the Heurich House Museum, they worked with DC Brau Brewing’s Jeff Hancock to scale up the recipe for a summer 2013 premiere.

“In the initial weekend, we sold through our entire six-pack allotment we had at the brewery,” says Hancock of the 30-barrel batch that was packaged in cans and kegs. “In this day of over-hopped beers I didn’t expect it to move as fast as it did.”

“This beer gives people the opportunity to physically hold the past in their hands and use it in their daily lives,” adds museum director Kimberly Bender. “Also, did we say that it’s delicious?”

In Nashville, Yazoo Brewing Co. has brewed Gerst Amber Ale for five years. It was originally a product of the Gerst Brewery, which made 250,000 barrels a year in its heyday before shuttering in 1954. The beer’s popularity also extends outside Nashville. “I think that the retro label helps get people’s attention and gets them to try it, and the fact that it is a very sessionable and clean beer keeps them coming back,” says Yazoo owner and brewmaster Linus Hall.

Big, long-running breweries see the value of heritage brands, too. Pabst Brewing Co. has revived its own historic recipes, like Ballantine IPA in 2014 and Old Tankard Ale earlier this year. And because it acquired many regional breweries that started before Prohibition, the Pabst portfolio includes brands like Washington’s Rainier, New York’s Schaefer and Baltimore’s National Bohemian.

Another such brand was Piels Bros., first brewed in Brooklyn in the 1880s. After reacquiring rights to the brand from Pabst, Shannon Hawkes Degnan, grandson of the former Piels president, has begun a family journey to revive the nostalgic beer, known for its 1950s television ads featuring cartoon characters Bert and Harry. “Everyone we talk to has their own story about Piels or a family member who drank Piels,” says Degnan. The lager will be contract brewed in New York and available later this year.

Correction: August 10, 2016

An earlier version of this story didn’t name the homebrewers who recreated Heurich’s Lager. They are Mike Stein, Josh Hubner, and Pete Jones.