Most people who live in and around Jacksonville are aware that Anheuser- Busch operates a brewery on the city’s northside. A smaller, but nonetheless important group knows that Jacksonville is home to several truly remarkable craft breweries such as Intuition Ale Works, Bold City Brewery, and Green Room Brewing. But, few know that Jacksonville’s history tells of another legendary brewery that once operated within the city limits.
In 1913 a brewer, German-born William Ostner, from St. Louis moved to Jacksonville to start his own brewery. He chose a spot on West 16th Street near Myrtle Street and built his brewery with the assistance of his father-in-law, the patriarch of a brewing family in New Orleans. The name of the brewery has bounced around from Jacksonville to New Orleans and finally to Texas, but in the beginning the name paid homage to its hometown. Ostner named the brewery and the beer it produced Jax.
A year after the brewery began producing beer for the thirsty citizens of Jacksonville; the Great Depression ravaged the nation. But, like the current financial climate, the downturn in the economy did not affect the brewery and it became wildly successful. Locals believed that beer brewed in close proximity to their city tasted fresher and cost less than brands brought in from the big brewers in St. Louis and Wisconsin. A brewery in your hometown became a status symbol and drinking a locally produced beer became the height of proper beer-drinking etiquette.
But, just a year later, a more local event took a toll on the burgeoning brewery and brought beer production to a screeching halt. The commander of a nearby military base petitioned the city of Jacksonville to prohibit alcohol sales. His request came on the heels of reports of drunken soldiers roaming Jacksonville’s streets over the weekends causing discipline problems on the base and unease with the civilian population. In May of 1918 the city council voted to turn Jacksonville into a ”dry” city forcing Ostner and his Jax Brewing Company to cease brewing operations. The company changed its name to Jax Ice & Cold Storage and rode out Prohibition supplying ice to the Durkeeville neighborhood and selling near beer to the citizens of Jacksonville.
When, at long last, Prohibition ended in 1933, Ostner quickly changed the name of the company back to Jax Brewing Company and hastily prepared beer for the masses of Jacksonville citizens who wanted something a little stronger and more flavorful than near beer. Within a week, Jax was being served in local bars and taverns for 10 cents a glass. Within two weeks the brewery had bottled beer back in the local markets.
By the late 1930s, Ostner led his company to becoming one of the largest industrial employers in Jacksonville. Jax Beer, a crisp Pilsner-style lager, became one of the most popular drinks in the southeast. Distributors in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina transported the beer to areas north of Jacksonville, which further increased the brand’s status. In response to public demand the brewery began producing two new varieties of beer: stout and ale. During these heady glory years, Jax Brewing increased production to approximately 200,000 barrels annually.
But, in the 1940s another obstacle fell into the path of the bustling brewery. National brands like Busch, Pabst, and Schlitz began using big budget advertising campaigns to squash the smaller breweries that survived prohibition and began eroding the local beer mentality of the public. Jax responded with slogans and advertising of its own. Ads featuring large images of Jax beer proclaimed, ”Here’s an Old-Timer You’ll Always Remember,” others implored, “Try Jax Beer.” Finally, the beer settled on the slogan, “The Drink of Friendship.”
Marketers for the brewery began describing the beer as “tangy” and “zestful,” but in order to cover all the bases, they also called the brew “mellow” and “smooth.” These seemingly contradictory exclamations were soon joined by “fine,” “full-bodied,” and ”refreshing.”
But, pressure from the big boys continued and in the 1950′s when the industry began moving to aluminum cans; the Jax Brewing Company simply could not keep up. The cost of converting the factoring to the newer equipment proved prohibitive and a difficult decision had to made.
In 1956, Jax Brewing Company sold their copyright to the Jackson Brewing Company, a long-established firm in New Orleans, LA. The company, named for the nearby Jackson Square, had previously produced a beer called Jax and proceeded to expand with its newly-obtained rights. But, in the mid-1970s Jackson ceased operations and the Jax name changed hands again. The old brewing and bottling house are now shops and restaurants with a museum dedicated to brewing on its third floor.
The new owners of the Jax name was none other than the Pearl Brewing Company of San Antonio, TX. Understanding that the brew was a much-loved southern fixture, Pearl continued to produce the beer using the original formula from the Jacksonville and New Orleans operations. They even kept the label design to garner good-will among the beer’s many admirers.
Later, Pearl purchased the Pabst Brewing Company and retained the Pabst name. Unfortunately, this resulted in the end of the Jax Beer era since Pabst made the decision to discontinue production.
To this day the original Jax Brewing Company building stands on West 16th Street. Parts of it are overgrown with weeds and other parts are home to various small businesses. The march of time often erases the memories of our past. In the case of Jax beer, you can still catch glimpses of its presence in our city. Every now and then you will come across a piece of brewery merchandise emblazoned with the bright red “Jax” emblem at a flea market or garage sale. These little discoveries prove that Jacksonville, as it returns to a vibrant beer-centric city, is merely following in the footsteps of predecessors who knew that beer truly is “The Drink of Friendship.”