America’s Ice Box: How the frozen lakes and rivers of the North transformed the nation’s brewing industry

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Huge chunks of ice are harvested from a lake // Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

But ice was needed, so the work went on. Breweries required ice for two purposes: to maintain temperatures within the brewery and lagering caves, and to keep beer cool on the way to distant customers. To make the ice last, blocks were typically insulated with straw or sawdust. At the Hastings Brewery, Kuenzel packed his blocks in 10-inch layers of sawdust sourced from Stillwater sawmills.

The large amount of insulation and heavy ice blocks turned icehouses into danger zones. The sawdust and straw made fires a common threat. Icehouses occasionally collapsed from the immense weight of the blocks. Moving the ice proved to be dangerous, and sometimes deadly. In 1888, an elevator at Hamm’s Brewing Co. fell while taking ice down to the cellar, killing two men and injuring another.

Breweries that shipped their beer more than a day’s drive built icehouses at distant outposts in order to keep their beer—and their reputation—in good order. Minneapolis Brewing and Malting Co.’s Rochester outpost alone required 140 tons of ice. In far away locations like New Orleans, the ice was such a novelty it was even included in promotions. One such advertisement, from 1875, touted “Milwaukee Lager Beer From the Celebrated Brewery of Joseph Schlitz […] Imported in Ice, Fresh on Draught.”

As breweries grew and shipping distances increased, the quantities of ice needed to sustain such operations became staggering. In 1873, Milwaukee’s Phillip Best Brewing Co. (later Pabst) had four icehouses that held a total of 11,500 tons of ice—4,500 tons for lagering beer, 7,000 tons for keeping the beer cool as it was shipped. Nine years later, Best required 40,000 tons of stored ice.

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Pabst Brewing Ice House in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, from an 1884 Philip Best Br. Co. Souvenir Booklet // Image courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Businesses and newspapers treated ice like any other crop; the size and quality of harvests were covered in the same way as barley or corn. The winter of 1895 was proclaimed an excellent winter for ice thanks to relatively little snow and plentiful workers, the product of the economic depression gripping the nation. In southeastern Wisconsin alone, the 1895 harvest brought in five- to six-thousand tons a day for a season total of nearly 400,000 tons, worth about $350,000.

In warmer, less ideal winters, ice shortages arose due to fewer lakes and rivers freezing, and unsuitable ice full of air bubbles forming. One particularly bad winter for Minnesota ice was in 1906, when “the continued smiles of Old Sol” led to an “ice famine which threaten[ed] to send the price of congealed moisture up like a runaway balloon.”

The development of artificial refrigeration in the late 1800s marked the beginning of the end for ice as an agricultural crop. By the 1880s, most large- and mid-sized breweries were installing ice machines. Space once allocated for ice was converted to additional beer storage. Brewery architecture soon reflected the new trend, moving away from underground facilities and making room for above-ground structures.

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Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Icehouses didn’t disappear immediately, however. A number of smaller breweries continued to use natural ice due to the high cost of ice machines. A brewery in Marshfield, Wisconsin, used a mix of artificial and natural ice at least through 1906; New Prague Brewing Co. had 15 teams of horses and a crew of men “putting up” ice as late as 1915. But eventually, the benefits and convenience of artificial ice won out over natural options. In addition to improving the safety and logistical conditions at breweries, ice machines also solved the issue of water quality: water pollution was increasing, and natural ice had grown too impure to be used for anything except industrial cooling.

Today, ice is seldom harvested for anything other than historical demonstrations and ice sculptures. The once vibrant and impressive industry that solidified Minnesota and Wisconsin’s status in the national brewing scene has faded into distant memory, with only the frozen lakes and rivers as reminders of the great winter harvests.

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