Do you remember? The beer that made West Bend thirsty
In 1940, postcards were sent to neighbors around West Bend announcing, "On Wednesday, December 11, 1940, The Famous Lithia Xmas Brew will be ready for distribution. Best ever -- try it -- you will like it."
So went the '40s and '50s, good years for the Lithia brewery, which was one of the first in the state after the end of Prohibition in 1932.
"The original Lithia was a light or cut beer that had less alcohol content. When winter came there was the Christmas beer which simply had brown sugar added to it," said local historian Tony Geiger, who has written articles for the American Brewers Association.
"It was a holiday brew to try to increase sales."
Geiger said Lithia also tried an Easter brew and a special Fourth of July beer, but nothing succeeded like the Christmas beer.
Different labels were designed for the seasonal beer. One paper label featured a green wreath with holly berries and red bow. Inside the wreath was the familiar Lithia logo, underlined by the words "Christmas Beer" in thick German script. Other designs featured the words "Holiday Brew" above a profile of Santa, who was bordered by pine branches.
There was the red label special dark Christmas beer and the well known Xmas label with six bearded elves each working to stoke the fire under the vat of beer, or pour hops, stir the mix, tap a pint and test the product.
Lithia's Christmas beer was available nearly all year long.
"As long as supplies lasted there was Christmas beer," said Geiger, who knew a man who worked at the West Bend Company that liked the taste of the seasonal beer so much he would buy a 365-day supply.
The recipe for Lithia beer was a standard combination of malt, barley, hops and corn.
"When corn ferments and ages it has alcohol, so that's why Lithia and Old Timers had a ginger snap taste," recalled Geiger. "It had a pretty good ting to it. People grew very accustomed to that taste and they loved it."
The famed lithium in Lithia beer came from the well water in the brewery.
"Lithia made an attempt at one time to remove the lithium. Prior to realizing the health risks the brewer actually promoted it, thinking it was a good thing." Geiger noted one label specifically said, "The water used for this brew contains 4.266 parts LITHIUM CARBONATE."
"We used to get a couple cases of the Christmas brew at the Binkery," said bar owner Bink Steinbach, remembering he received the beer as late as the 1980s. "Back in the day with talk about the lithium in the beer people would say -- if we had only stayed with that we wouldn't need more than one squad car," Steinbach said referencing the sedative effect of lithium.
Lithia's Christmas beer was sold by the case at liquor stores and at taverns within the West Bend area. Berres Liquor Mart, Triangle Beverage Mart, The Oasis bar (by Gehl Company); Pat's Tavern (owned by Pat Pault), Kuhn's Liquor, Palashes Liquor and Jan's Liquormart in Barton were just some of the local distributors.
"You could only buy Christmas beer in bottles and you needed an opener to get the cap off. The beer didn't come in cans and it wasn't on tap," Geiger said, recalling the '40s and '50s when Lithia's production grew from 45,000 barrels to 77,000.
Lithia bottles came with paper labels that read: Brewed and bottled by West Bend Lithia Co. West Bend Wisconsin. An article posted in the July-August 2003 American Brewerian Journal John Smallshaw chronicled the final days of the Lithia brewery when the board of directors decided to dissolve the company on June 1, 1972:
"There were 24 employees at the time of the closing of West Bend," the story said. "It was devastating to the local economy. In the 25 years after Prohibition, Lithia had paid the city $200,000 in real estate taxes, bought a million and a half dollars worth of barley from local farmers, had a $3 million payroll, and paid nearly $9 million in state and federal taxes."
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