The History of the Rhinelander Brewing Co.

Feb 20, 2019

We've all heard of the Rhinelander Shorty, but how much do you really know about the origins of the Rhinelander Brewing Company?

Gary Entz has the story for this week's A Northwoods Moment in History.

The Rhinelander Brewing Company with its signature “Shorty” bottle was once one of America’s leading brewers of beer.  But that was in the days when almost all beer was regional.  When a few of the largest breweries started to go national, the Rhinelander brand fell behind and ultimately disappeared from the market.  The brand is currently in the midst of a comeback, which makes a look back on the brewery’s past a subject of interest.

919 Arbutus St. was built for Otto and Augusta Hilgermann in 1897.
Credit WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY, IMAGE ID: HI21312, WISCONSINHISTORY.ORG

According to company statements, Otto Hilgerman founded the Rhinelander Brewing Company in 1890.  However, one of the earliest published references to the company comes from 1894 when Hilgerman fought and won a court battle for the right to sell his beer retail on the factory premises in addition to the normal wholesale marketing to distributors.  Rhinelander beer was popular throughout the Northwoods and made Hilgerman a wealthy man.  Hilgerman’s son, George, worked for the Hamm’s Brewing Company in Minnesota in order to learn the trade, but Otto Hilgerman sold the business just two years before national prohibition became the law of the land.  When prohibition took effect in 1920, the Rhinelander Brewing Company closed its doors.  The unsold beer was dumped and the equipment shipped south to Mexico.

When the 21st Amendment to the Constitution officially repealed prohibition late in 1933 George Hilgerman was ready.  After reacquiring the company name and building, Hilgerman invested thousands of dollars to enlarge and modernize the facility.  Hilgerman was a true enthusiast and wanted a high quality product that could compete with the best beers available on the local market.  It was Hilgerman’s marketing team that dreamed up and patented the famous “Shorty” bottle.  The Rhinelander Shorty became so popular in the local area that more than one Northwoods sports team used the moniker as its nickname.

Despite the quality of Rhinelander Beer, the company missed out on the mergers that ultimately allowed some brewing companies to go national.  As large brewers acquired smaller brewing companies throughout the nation and increased their market share, Rhinelander fell behind and saw its market share fall.  By the 1960s the company was struggling with financial debt, and in 1967 the company closed its doors for the second time.  The Joseph Huber Brewing Company acquired the rights to the Rhinelander label and continued to market the brand from Monroe, Wisconsin.

Today the Rhinelander Brewing Company is back in business as a craft brewery, and in 2018 a ribbon cutting ceremony was held to celebrate the opening of the new Rhinelander Brewery and Tap Room on Brown Street in downtown Rhinelander.  The Shorty has returned home.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio and the web by Mackenzie Martin. Music for this commentary came from Podington Bear and Dazie MaeOne of the photos used above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here. The other photo used above can be found online here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.