Glass from the Past: Champagne Velvet

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Upland Brewing Company recently relaunched the Champagne Velvet brand // Photo via Upland Facebook page

The Terre Haute Brewing Co. was founded in 1855 and grew to be one of the largest breweries in Indiana. In 1902, Terre Haute brewmaster Walter Braun created a lager called Champagne Velvet (CV) that quickly became the flagship beer of the company. While the beer helped the brewery spread its market and fame during the next two decades, Prohibition forced the brewery to close and its assets were sold.

That could have easily been the end of CV, as it was with thousands of beer brands throughout the United States. Instead, CV was resurrected and changed several times over the next century—a long and winding road from regional favorite, to cheap malt liquor, all the way to the modern craft movement.

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Champagne Velvet, circa 1940s // Photo via beercansplus.com

Terre Haute Brewing Co. wasn’t able to reorganize in time to welcome the return of legal beer in 1933, but new investors soon acquired the plant, with plans to reintroduce CV. The new brewers were able to draw on the recollections of several living brewery employees from the pre-Prohibition period. But the technology of brewing had changed—gone were the open fermenters used when CV was first formulated, and in their place stood the now-standard closed vessels. The change turned out to be a good one: When old-time Terre Haute employees tasted it, they didn’t claim it was “just like the old version,” but that it was “better.”

CV was officially re-launched on March 17, 1934, and the city of Terre Haute celebrated with a parade during which bands played a march specially written for the occasion. By the end of its first year in production, CV was available in 19 states, and it was firmly established as an Indiana favorite.

The 1950s were a tough time for mid-sized regional breweries, as increasing competition from national brands like Schlitz and Budweiser forced many old breweries to close their doors. But even after Terre Haute Brewing Co. made its last beer in 1958, the CV label was still popular.

Because of CV’s following in Illinois, Atlantic Brewing Co., in Chicago, picked up the brand. It came back to Indiana for a few years when it was made at Drewry’s, of South Bend, but then Drewry’s was acquired by Heileman, of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Instead of immediately joining the House of Heileman, CV was brewed for a few years at the Brewing Company of Oregon, in Portland.

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Champagne Velvet’s new packaging from Upland Brewing Company // Photo courtesy of Upland

Throughout these many moves, the recipe for the beer changed, and led to CV being marketed as a malt liquor with higher alcohol content. In the early 1970s, Heileman agreed not to market it to avoid trademark suits by the makers of the malt liquor Champale. In 1975, the Pickett Brewing Co. of Dubuque, Iowa, bought the label. Pickett’s (still standing on Dubuque’s riverfront) was the setting for the movie “Take this Job and Shove It,” and, perhaps taking a cue from the film, Joseph Pickett decided to take the agreement to forgo marketing and shove it.

Pickett brought CV back—and Champale promptly sued. Pickett’s defense was that CV wasn’t a malt liquor, it was actually a “malt beverage,” and was stronger than Champale. Pickett eventually won the suit, but gained little from it. CV had acquired a reputation as a cheap beer, appearing throughout the Midwest at prices lower than other “popular price” brands such as Meister Brau, Stag, or Black Label.

In 1990, Terre Haute resident Mike Rowe found a 1902 document written by Walter Braun that contained most of the recipe for CV. Several years later, he opened a new Terre Haute Brewing Co. (in the original building) and in 2000 began to make CV again, adding a bottled version in 2003. However, he went out of business in 2006, and the recipe once again languished.

Meanwhile, in Bloomington, Indiana, Upland Brewing Co. founded its brewpub in 1998. Located about a mile from Indiana University, it quickly became a popular destination for beer lovers in the region. In 2012, Upland was looking for a special beer to make in celebration of their fifteenth anniversary, and their sights set on Champagne Velvet, says Patrick Lynch, head brewer at Upland. “We really wanted to pay tribute to Indiana brewing heritage, and Champagne Velvet was a natural for us,” he explains.

The biggest hurdle they faced was taking the vague information from the recipe purchased from Rowe and making a modern interpretation that would be true to the pre-Prohibition lager style. Through 30 test batches, the brewers kept changing the proportion of flaked corn to barley, adjusting the hops, and figuring out the proper yeast strain. The final formula uses Cluster and German Tettnang hops, Bohemian lager yeast, and results in a 5.5% ABV pre-Prohibition pilsner with 29 IBU.

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Upland Brewing also packages Champagne Velvet in 16 oz. tallboy cans // Photo courtesy of Upland

“It was exciting for us, but we weren’t sure how the market would respond,” Lynch recalls. “But we soon knew we had a hit on our hands, and so the fifteenth anniversary was a way to launch the beer properly, and the public responded in a great way.”

Since launching CV, Upland has been able to make the beer an even more fitting tribute to Indiana brewing heritage, Lynch says. “One change that has been exciting for us since the first recipe three years ago is that there is now a local malt house in Indiana [Sugar Creek Malt Co. of Boone County, Indiana] that created a pre-Prohibition malt style that we can incorporate into the recipe,” he explains. “We know that all of their barley is grown within a 200-mile radius of their malt house. And we know that the brewers originally were using local barley, and we use six-row barley to get an authentic flavor.”

The packaging of CV also is a tribute to the post-Prohibition era label instead of the cans from the 1960s and ’70s, which featured the outline of a champagne glass. The “Million Dollar Taste” slogan also comes from the 1930s, and was inspired by that fact that the brewery had a $1 million insurance policy on the recipe.

CV has quickly become one of Upland’s best-selling beers, and is distributed throughout the same range as the brewery’s other products (Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and parts of Ohio and Kentucky). “There’s a tie to the nostalgia of the beer,” Lynch says. And even if it isn’t exactly like it was 100 years ago, Champagne Velvet still tastes like “A Glass from the Past.”

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