Torn-Down Tuesday: Tonawanda’s Frontier Brewery, famously dumped beer in Niagara River

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The City of Tonawanda has been home to several breweries since farmers began growing hops along the Niagara Frontier around 1810.

The Tonawandas’ most famous beer factory was at 533 Niagara St. at the corner of Hinds Street.

Mugging for the cameras, Frontier Brewery brewmaster Alfred Fischer wipes away tears as he dumps 57,000 gallons of beer into the Niagara River when the Tonawanda brewery closed its doors in 1948. Patrolman Barney Stryker and sewage treatment plant supervisor Everett Sommerfeldt look on.

First opened by George Zent in 1867, the place was also known as Busch Brewing Co. – unrelated to the current discount-priced national brand. The old wooden beerworks, by then owned by Bernhard Voelcker, burned to the ground on the spot in 1913.

Buffalo’s Brewer Mayor, Frank X. Schwab

Voelcker rebuilt, and the new brewery building eventually sold to Buffalo’s brewer mayor Frank X. Schwab, who was selling a low alcohol, near-beer concoction named “Schwab’s Ambrosia” and home-brewing kits from the location at the start of the Prohibition era.

 

Given that his grandfather was a brewer at another Tonawanda brewery, Leon Peuquet paid special attention to the brewery he could see and smell from his home. He grew up a few blocks away from the brewery on Adam Street and wrote about the pre-Prohibition days in the Tonawanda News in 1977.

I can still remember the pleasant odor of cooking malt wafted on the southwest breeze early in the morning. You could always tell when they were brewing.

A Busch Brewing Company advertisement in 1895.

Then there was the early morning sounds of the horses’ hoofs and the rolling wagon wheels as a load of kegs came down over the brick pavement on Adam Street.

No fewer than nine companies made beer at the location.

The Tonawanda Brewing Corp. began operating in the building after Prohibition was lifted in 1933, and a few years later, it became Frontier Brewery, selling Malz-Brau beer in and around Tonawanda.

A 1939 ad with a list of Tonawanda taverns carrying Malz-Brau.

Malz-Brau was very popular in the years between the end of Prohibition and the start of World War II. During the war, Frontier Brewery’s domestic production stopped abruptly as they signed a government contract to ship canned beer overseas for American troops.

An ad for Malz-Brau beer from 1942.

After the war, Frontier’s Malz-Brau couldn’t regain its prewar sales, and the place went out of business not in a blaze of glory – but in a tsunami of suds.

In 1948, during the brewery’s final days, Frontier made national and international headlines with its novel approach to avoiding thousands of dollars in federal taxes on the beer they’d already brewed but had lost the state license to sell.

Tonawanda officials said the yeast would halt the bacterial action at the city sewage plant. So they couldn’t dump it in the sewer.

With the rushing waters of the Niagara only a few hundred feet away, they simply dumped 57,000 gallons of beer into the Niagara River.

Frontier Beer

The state Conservation Department granted permission and supervised the dumping. It was recognized that the carbon dioxide in that much beer could lead to killing fish and other wildlife in the water, but “since the river is so large, it was believed the concentration would not be large and therefore the fish not harmed,” said an Associated Press report that accompanied photos of the dumping in newspapers around the country.

It took two days to dump the 16 storage vats containing a total of 1,975 barrels of beer.

Shortly after the last drop of beer fell into the Niagara, Supersonic Chemical bought the building. In 1951, the building’s years as a brewery were ended with certainty as 18 two-ton steel vats were removed. Benline Manufacturing created a machine shop in the space.

The building was demolished in 1994, and a strip mall featuring a Wilson Farms was built in its place.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.