“This Lemp’s for You.” If fate had played a kinder hand to the once dominant Lemp family brewing dynasty, we could indeed have been hearing that slogan instead of the famous version serenading us from our televisions today. Instead, the family suffered a tortuous series of tragedies, some of their own making, and has all but disappeared from most people’s memories. The story of their family and its rise and fall reminiscent of the most classic tragedies, is told by Stephen P. Walker in his incredibly researched book, Lemp: The Haunting History.
In 1840, German immigrant Adam Lemp opened his Western Brewery in St. Louis based on the popularity of the beer he had been brewing on a smaller scale in his grocery. In those days, brewers were much like neighborhood bakers, with local patrons picking beer up on their rounds of errands. Lemp’s decision to open a brewery was forward thinking, and took the operation to levels not commonly seen in those days. The brewery flourished, then more so once Lemp’s son, William, took control of the company. Under his leadership, the brewery grew with astounding speed, and he quickly moved to a larger facility to increase production. He chose a parcel of land directly above a series of caves his father had used to store beer. By the turn of the century, the now named William J. Lemp Brewing Co. covered 11 city blocks and produced 500,000 barrels of beer a year with distribution throughout all of North America and reaching Australia and Europe. The brewery produced six beers, the most known today being Falstaff. At this point the Lemp’s were larger and more influential than the Anheuser- Busch Brewery, who began business nearly two decades after they did.
Tragedy entered the family when Frederick Lemp, William’s heir apparent, died suddenly at age 28. Disconsolate, William fell into a deep depression and took his own life in 1904. The family soldiered on, but the tide had turned and time began to pass them by. Then the advent of Prohibition devastated the family business and they were forced to sell off assets at alarmingly low returns. William Lemp Jr., who had stepped into the leadership role after the deaths of his father and brother, became a high roller in St. Louis society and his divorce in 1920 provided scandalous gossip for the entire city. However, it was the disaster of Prohibition that defeated him. He, also, took his own life in 1922, as his sister Elsa had also done in 1920.
Despite the efforts of William Lemp III to re-introduce the brewery after Prohibition, the attempt failed. He died tragically in 1943 at age 42 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Another brother, Charles, also committed suicide in 1949. The famous label of Falstaff Beer was purchased and continued to be sold for a while under different owners until ultimately fading away.
All of this is told in detailed and fascinating accounts, often through written first-hand entries, by Walker. Letters of the Lemps themselves are quoted and newspaper articles of the time are reprinted. Walker also includes many examples of the famous Lemp advertising art and intricate descriptions of the lavish lifestyle and homes of the family. It’s a fascinating look at a chapter of American history, as well as brewing history, that is often overlooked.
Walker concludes with some accounts of ghostly goings on at the Lemp Mansion, which is now open as a bed and breakfast (www.lempmansion.com). Considering the history of the family, it’s almost to be expected that they would continue to haunt the scene of their greatest triumphs and failures. We’ll be visiting here with our cameras, no doubt.
A great read and highly recommended:
4 and a half pints out of 5!
Unfortunately, the book is out of print, but readily available atwww.beerbooks.com . A great resource for anyone interested in any aspect of the brewing industry.