Monroe City Brewery

The Monroe City Brewery was short lived but it had one unique thing that the other Monroe breweries didn’t have. The owner/brewery wasn’t German. He was born in Ireland. Brewers in early America were from English speaking nations and brewed Ales. Whiskey was popular in both America and Ireland in the early 1800s and many Irish immigrants made whiskey. Toward the middle of the 19th century German immigration  changed the face of brewing and drink in America and turned America into a lager drinking nation. One might wonder though why weren’t more Irish brewers popping up in the United States? After all, Irish immigration was high. We’ve all heard the stories of Irish peasants leaving Ireland due to the Potato Famine. Maybe that is one of the main reasons right there. Perhaps Irish immigrants were too financially strapped to open their own business upon settling in America. On the other hand, most Germans Monroe City BreweryMonroe City Brewery Adimmigrated to the United States for political and religious reasons. The latter was true especially for German Catholics. Another factor that could have contributed to German brewers  outnumbering their Irish counterparts was the sheer number of German immigrants. German immigration doubled to around 950 thousand between 1851-1860 surpassing Irish immigration. While Irish immigration leveled off, German immigration peaked between 1871-1880 reaching almost 1.5 million people.

All of the Monroe breweries I could find were owned by people of German descent. One exception to this was Michael Phelan, owner of the Monroe City Brewery. I couldn’t find out much about Michael other than the fact that his brewery stood on the north-side of Front Street and east of the lower bridge.  I believe it would’ve been somewhere near the intersection of Wadsworth and Front. Phelan ran his brewery during  the onset of a German brewery boom.  

Sometime between 1863 and 1870 Phelan got out of the brewing business and by 1870 he was working as a surveyor/engineer.

He brewed a Stock Ale, Brown Stout, Porter and “Present Use Ales”. He also brewed lagers. I attached an ad from 1863 which shows that, yes, back then beers were brewed for family use. Porters and brown stouts were styles that an Irish immigrant would have brewed. The interesting one there is the “Present Use Ales”. This beer is an ale version of a lager and today is considered  a Cream Ale which is a Light Hybrid Beer. In the 19th century this was an ale brewer’s answer to the lager and was basically an American Lager with a top fermenting(ale) yeast strain. Phelan must have been hedging his bets because the ad claims he brewed both “Present Use Ales” and Lagers.

Phelan died in 1909 in Chicago. I believe after Michael left brewing that the brewery itself became Van Miller Brewing. I’m still working on some definitive information on that one. One thing that is for sure –  that along OBrien Street with Wahl Brewing Co. and Laplaisance’s Roeder Brewery, Front and Wadsworth was another location that had a brewery.

Monroe had many other breweries in the mid 19th century and I still plan on digging for more stories. Here are a couple of teasers for you: A Monroe born brewer who opens his own brewery in another town?and of course (dum dum dum!) another brewery fire!

2 thoughts on “Monroe City Brewery

  1. I currently own the Wahl family home and am very familiar with the stories. I am restoring the home to the 1860’s era but it will take a while. The ice-house and some of the out buildings were on my property. Any time I dig in my yard, and down by the river, I pull up tons of artifacts, etc. So much so that I don’t even bother with shards of glass, plates, etc. as they are everywhere. By the river you can still see limestone foundations, tons of metal, (iron) re-enforcing rod that can be seen in one of the 1905 photos of the destruction, and much more. Several years ago, the Monroe Archeology Society did a test dig and we found the foundation of the ice house/office and more. Apparently, the majority of the ruins were buried (what was not hauled out or re-used – supposedly the house to the west of mine was built from the bricks of the main brewery building). Cutting the grass is a challenge due to sink holes and pockets of collapse from piles of debris, etc. On December 5th every year, I look out the window that John Wahls’ nephew supposedly did when he noticed flickering orange lights on his ceiling. Keep fire extinguisher on hand just in case. FYI – from what I understand and I believe was in his obit, John Wahl came from Canada/upper state New York and was a mason by trade. Apparently he built St. Michael’s Church and then bought the brewery in 1862 or 63 from Herman Mathis. I have a photo copy of a Monroe directory in 1859 that has “Herman’s Brewery – O’Brien Street – A large stock of lager and beer always on hand” – or something close to that. Additionally, I believe there was a fire in the complex in the 1870’s but it was repaired and the massive brick structure was built.

  2. Pingback: Monroe Man Opened First Brewery in Ypsilanti | Michigan Beer Buzz

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