words and photographs by Charlotte Gintert
Brewing beer has a long history in Akron. It began almost as soon as the first boat arrived on the Ohio & Erie Canal in 1827. For a long time, these breweries were small affairs, run out of farmhouses or the back rooms of taverns. The town was small, and these in-house operations kept up with demand.
By the 1850s, the residents of Akron — predominantly of English descent and more partial to hard liquor — were joined by a large population of Irish and German immigrants. The new arrivals brought a preference for beer, and, in the case of the Germans, a rich brewing tradition. As the population grew, the small breweries could no longer keep up with demand. Larger-scale operations began springing up.
The longest-running Akron brewery was founded at what is now 247-275 N. Forge Street around 1848 by two German immigrants, George Hartmann and John Brodt. The location was perfect: A spring flowing from the ravine provided pure water and storage caves could be dug into the hillside. Best of all, the brewery was by the Pennsylvania & Ohio Canal and the Atlantic & Great Western Railway, making shipping and receiving easy.
The brewery changed hands several times, always operated by Germans. It was originally a wood-frame building, but after a fire destroyed the entire complex in 1873, the owner rebuilt it with brick. After a few more owners and another fire, the brewery ended up with George J. Renner in 1888.
Under Renner’s direction, the plant experienced its greatest expansion and success. Renner added a boiler house and bottling department for local beer sales across the street. He also built a three-story office building, decorated with murals showing nostalgic views of Germany.
While most breweries focused on one or two recipes, Renner began producing multiple brews early on. The most popular was Grossvater (German for “grandfather”), a traditional lager. A mural from the office building — a scene of Renner enjoying cigars and beer with friends — was on the label.
By 1917, the George J. Renner Brewing Company produced 65,000 barrels annually, and the company was able to invest in other concerns, such as property and saloon management.
While Prohibition (1919-1933) ruined many breweries in Ohio, the Renner Company survived by producing a de-alcoholized Grossvater and other malt beverages. They also diversified their business by investing in oil and gas wells and real estate. Most importantly, they did not sell their brewing equipment — so they were ready to return to brewing if and when Prohibition was repealed.
The George J. Renner Company was the first brewery in Ohio to receive a license to sell alcohol after Prohibition. No other business in Akron had a sales license at midnight on April 7, 1933 when it was officially legal to buy and sell alcohol again. A crowd of around 2,000 people lined up outside the brewery that night. They sold more than 10,000 cases over the next 12 hours, and it took days to fill all the back orders.
In subsequent years, the brewery expanded its capacity to 200,000 barrels and increased distribution to a 200-mile radius around Akron.
The family continued brewing until 1952. After more than 100 years, brewing officially ceased at the North Forge plant. By then, smaller breweries like Renner’s could not compete against national brewers like Anheuser-Busch.
The last Akron brewery, a plant operated by the Burger Brewing Company (formerly the Burkhardt Brewing Company), closed in 1964.
The brewery buildings remained with the Renner company for several years until they were sold and subdivided into spaces for small manufacturing operations. The complex is now home to the Russell Products Co., which makes industrial coatings.
Most of the buildings remain intact, even the original 1873 brew house. According to Ohio brewery expert Dr. Robert A. Musson, the Munich-style office also survives, complete with murals, but the bottling plant across the road has been left in a state of disrepair for many decades. During December 2019, it was revisited by the old brewery’s nemesis: fire. While the exterior remains more or less intact, the extent of the damage to the interior is unknown.
Brewing returned to Akron in 1994 with the opening of the Liberty Brewing Company, which is now closed, in Merriman Valley. Today, Akron is home to at least 11 breweries, by our most recent count.
Charlotte Gintert is an archaeologist by day and a photographer by sunrise and sunset. You can check out her photos at www.capturedglimpses.com and follow her on Instagram at @capturedglimpses.
Beer label photo: Grossvater Beer was the most popular brew of the George J. Brewing Company. A mural in the brewery office was featured on the label. (Photo: ebay.com)
Grayscale photo: George J. Renner (front, third from left) and the staff of the George J. Renner Brewing Company. No date. (Photo: Robert A. Musson, Akron Beer: A History of Brewing Beer in the Rubber City)