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Jim McKee: Omaha has had its share of beer
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MEMORIES & MOMENTS

Jim McKee: Omaha has had its share of beer

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This artist’s drawing shows the Metz Brothers Brewing complex in Omaha as it looked about 1910 on its half block “campus” on South Third Street.

Through the decades Omaha, with its commanding site on the Missouri River, central location in the U.S. and connections to every corner of the country via the railroad’s network, has been the home of every sort of manufacturing.

Alcohol, in one form or another, was one major product. Willow Springs, the first distillery in Nebraska, became the third largest in the states. Omaha was also a major brewer, once, before craft brewing became popular, home to 19 beer makers. The four largest started with Krug in Benson in 1859 followed by Metz and Willow Springs, whose brewery was in South Omaha, and Storz. Certainly one of the best known for decades was Metz.

Frederick Metz was born in Germany in 1832, immigrated to the U.S. in 1851, entered Nebraska by way of Bellevue in 1857 but relocated to Colorado in 1862 for two years before settling permanently in Omaha in 1864.

Krug Brewery was Omaha’s and Nebraska’s first commercial brewer, established in 1859 on the south side of Farnam at about 10th Street. Several others entered the market quite quickly, however, including McCombe’s at about Sixth and Leavenworth, which was bought out by brothers Frederick and Phillip Metz in 1864 for $6,500.

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It is possible, though, that McCombe had in fact sold to partners Joseph Bauman and John Green in 1861, who retained the McCombe name. It is also sometimes noted that the third Metz brother, Charles, also entered the firm at that time. It is fairly certain that the brewery, which originally had a daily capacity of 22 barrels, moved to Third and Hickory, where they doubled their capacity to 50 a day.

Frederick entered politics in 1871 when he was elected to the Nebraska Senate, where one of his early votes was in favor of impeaching Republican Gov. David Butler. Frederick was again elected to the Nebraska legislature’s upper house in 1885 but was not elected to any other office subsequently.

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Like other breweries worldwide, the Metz brothers built their own saloons. In the 1870s Metz Brothers Beer Hall opened at 510-12 South 10th Street. This double building was a frame structure which read as being three stories. The larger section on the right side, was actually only two stories, the upper floor being the high-ceilinged “hall” for meetings, parties, etc. In 1904 an extant, brick, two-story saloon was built in downtown Fort Calhoun north of Omaha.

In the 1880s Metz, then located on a half block tract at 1717 S. Third St., employed 20 men with an annual payroll of $14,400, had sales of $96,000 and was turning out 12,400 barrels of beer. The property, valued at $125,000, contained horse barns, ice houses, a bottling building, 4,000 bushel malt house, engine house, three cooling vaults, mash tub and brewing kettles with 700 barrel capacities, all of which sat in or around the three-story main building which had an observation deck on top.

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Although the brewery’s main product continued to be called Metz beer, ownership/management began to change frequently in 1896 when Joseph Guggenmos was listed for two years, simply becoming the Nebraska Brewing Co. in 1897 for two years, then Spring Place Weiss Brewing, again for just two years.

The entire operation became part of Willow Springs, in addition to their own brewery, in 1900. With national prohibition in 1900, the real estate was sold to Corn Derivations Co. with the corporate name changed to Willow Springs Beverage Co.

With the repeal of the 18th amendment in 1933, alcohol again emerged, and the name became the Fontenelle Brewing Co., still marketing as Metz beer and by 1938 reported a capacity of 150,000 barrels.

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During World War II interesting ads featuring Metz beer appeared, saying “Play Dumb … Keep Mum/loose talk can cost lives” and in 1945 urged “Keep the War Bonds you have, buying more.” When the war was more of a memory, ads carried the guarantee three times your money back if Metz isn’t as good or better than any other, and in 1953 all sorts of premiums were offered, mostly small appliances, in exchange for beer bottle labels.

In 1961 Metz beer, then owned by My Beer Co., closed, only to reemerge in 2018 when Bill Babunek announced he would offer a new Metz beer.

Two of the Metz brother’s mansions still stand on Dewey Street. Arthur’s 1914 house has been converted to apartments and Charles’ 1915, 37-room, three-floor, $175,000 home, and carriage house is owned by the Nebraska Medical Center.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com

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