Brad Byrd In-Depth: The Big Beer Doc preview


On Tuesday, October 23, a new documentary will feature the City of Evansville’s history in brewing beer. There were once several large breweries across the city before Prohibition. Evansville now has a several microbreweries spread out across the city.

The Big Beer Doc premieres at the Old National Bank Theatre at WNIN with two screenings at 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. There will also be a local craft beer tasting from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Brad Byrd talks with the Big Beer Doc film producer, Joe Atkinson, about what went into the documentary and Evansville’s history of brewing beer.

Transcript of interview:

Brad Byrd: “Welcome to In-Depth. Evansville is known for many things… the huge role the city’s workforce played in World War II, for example. The Fall Festival. Our high school football tradition and, yes, our stoplights. Well, our guest tonight is going to share a documentary with quite a story to tell. Joe Atkinson is a former newspaper reporter, he’s a teacher, and his love now is storytelling in some very well received documentaries. The latest, “The Big Beer Doc,” a memoir of the history of brewing right here in the River City. Joe, I tell you, when I first came to Evansville in 1975, I had never seen or experienced a bierstube. Basically a makeshift chain-link fence with a lot of people packed inside with a keg. And I realized they love their beer here. That was more than forty years ago, but this particular story that you are sharing, tell me about the history of brewing beer here in the city. I was surprised at the scope of it.

Joe Atkinson: “Actually, right now I’m disappointed that I didn’t do one about stoplights. This feels like a missed opportunity. You handed me the next one.” 

Brad Byrd: “Right. There you go.” 

Joe Atkinson: “No, the history of brewing beer in Evansville actually goes back into the 1830’s. 1837 is the official first date that is listed for the what became known as the Old Brewery. And that brewery eventually turned into many, many breweries in town, but the two big ones, FW Koch and Sterling Brewery both had roots in that Old Brewery in uh 1837 over on Fulton Avenue.” 

Brad Byrd: “Now this required a lot of research I imagine on your part, because most of the documentaries you’ve done you’ve… it has taken time just to get the content onto the … onto the editor. So tell me about that.”

Joe Atkinson: “Well, the nice… the thing that sort of kind of was the, the trickiest hurdle at the beginning was figuring out who knows this story. Because when you’re doing Evansville war, yes, a lot of people who lived through that are older, but they’re still here. When you’re doing, you know, “From the Ashes,” about the UE plane crash, a lot of those people are still here to tell the story. The people who started, you know, Fredrick Kronert and Jacob Rice, who started the Old Brewery in 1837 aren’t around to be interviewed. So, reaching out and finding who those individuals were, going over to Willard Library and, you know, working with Pat Sides and the archives to get some information and talking to Jennifer Green out at USI, who had some wonderful old photos, old advertisements and that sort of thing. Um and just trying to find what that story is and luckily there was some people like John Karl, Joe Angler, a man named Tom Peterson who knew the story and were willing to kind of help me along and finding what it is that we can say about this.”

Brad Byrd: “And we’ll see here in a moment or so. These breweries were big. These were big buildings that were on the skyline of a very old Evansville. We just saw one pop up there. With that being said, you’re telling this story again in third person, and you love doing that. Why?” 

Joe Atkinson: “I honestly feel like the people who are experts on this or who lived through this can tell the story better than I can. I would rather go to them, let them do as much as the speaking as possible. In some cases, “From the Ashes”, there were times I had to write a little and naration to bridge some gaps. But I also try to avoid that because I get to hear these stories through these individuals, and that’s what I find so fascinating about the process is to hear in their words what happened or what it is this history is. And I want to try to convey through the film as much as possible.” 

Brad Byrd: “And obviously through the history was Prohibition. That had to have a huge impact on brewing beer in Evansville.” 

Joe Atkinson: “It obviously had a huge impact on brewing beer everywhere, but Evansville was no exception. Nationally, I believe there were 1,200 breweries in America during Prohibition. There were 300 at the end. 12 or 13 years of not doing beer of not doing alcohol made a huge mark on that industry. What you saw was the really big companies, companies like Sterling Brewery or F.W. Koch found other things they were set to make product and bottle them. So what else can you put in a bottle? Gingerale, ketchup. F.W. Koch became a major provider for ice at the time. So they found other ways to survive. I can’t imagine that it was a booming economy for them, but my favorite part of the story is the Prohibition bit just because there are so many little quarks that came along with that whether it was the former police chief of the City of Evansville being brought in for running booze out of the basement of city hall, or the booze boat that was supposed to patrol the river being used to actually shuttle alcohol illegally from Kentucky where it was still legal to have alcohol to Indiana where it wasn’t.” 

Brad Byrd: “And one of the last survivors of the old piece of history here was the Sterling Brewery at Fulton and Division St. at the time. It was finally … the bulk of it was brought down, but there is that cauldron they were able to salvage. I was fascinated by that building just the fact that this was just a huge … I can imagine … hold old was that building?” 

Joe Atkinson: “That building I believe dated back to the 1890s if I’m not mistaken. Somewhere in that neighborhood.” 

Brad Byrd: “And it survived for so long. And it’s ironic right now, the big America brews kind of like Budweiser and Miller Lite. But what goes around comes around in Evansville. We’ve got a lot of microbreweries now.” 

Joe Atkinson: “Microbrewery movement nationwide has exploded. We’ve got some great breweries here in Evansville, and we had time to film in some of them and talk to some of the people who started these microbreweries from Turoni’s where microbrewering started in Evansville back in the late 1990s to Maidens Brewery that opened earlier this year. Carson’s Brewery, the Evansville Brewhouse, Tin Man, there’s a lot of breweries that are right here in Evansville now where you can go and try these craft beers and get something that’s a little bit unique and something that’s a little bit of Evansville.” 

Brad Byrd: “And the Big Beer Doc will premiere at the Old National Bank Theatre at WNIN. When is that coming up?” 

Joe Atkinson: “That is going to be Tuesday. There will be two screenings at 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. And I believe there’s a beer tasting along with it.” 

Brad Byrd: “Okay, that may be a sit-in in itself. It is just looking at some of the previews on this. It’s just another thing of you know you think you know a lot about Evansville, but you just keep on learning and the scope of this what the city was like long ago right down to the beer.” 

Joe Atkinson: “I moved here in 2001. Sterling building was closed. I didn’t know any of this, so it’s been an interesting learning experience for me.” 

Brad Byrd: “Well, best of luck to you, Joe. Thanks for coming out and talking about this tonight. Next Tuesday at the Old National Bank Theatre in WNIN. Thank you so much.” 

Joe Atkinson: “Thank you, Brad.” 

Brad Byrd: “Alright.”

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(This story was originally published October 17, 2018)

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