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The Golden Age: George Weber



kc Kratt

By mid-afternoon, dozens of old photos are spread across the living room rug. Some are black-and-white, and many aren’t marked, and so we keep asking who this was or who that was, or where this was taken and what was the occasion.

Months earlier, George Weber had agreed to talk to me about his experiences in running the old Meyer (then Schaefer) malthouse on Niagara Street, where he worked for nearly thirty-five years before retiring in 1983. But when I called Weber to set up the interview, he told me he didn’t want his name to appear in print. I was confused. How was I supposed to write about his work if I couldn’t use his name? He told me he figured I was going to use him as some sort of consultant in a more broadly drawn story about Buffalo’s once thriving and now vanished malting industry.

I tried to convince Weber, as best I could, that he was the story. When I asked him how he felt about Spree’s photographer coming to the house and taking his picture, he told me in no uncertain terms, “Jim, this is going too far.”

I could feel the story slipping away.

Weber must have sensed my despair at the other end of the phone, though, because he bridged the silence, amending his response, assuring me in his characteristically diplomatic fashion, “We will discuss all of this when you come over.”

I confess to some reluctance before approaching him. Weber, you see, is not just anyone. He’s my girlfriend Jill’s grandfather. In fact, he isn’t “Weber” or even “George” at all. He’s “Gramps.” That’s what everyone calls him. Even me. I think I’ve addressed him as “Mr. Weber” only once in my life—at the moment of our first handshake at a family picnic.

Gramps comes from a generation that was categorically opposed to unnecessary self-promotion—you simply didn’t talk about yourself, especially if that meant talking about your job. But here I was, nudging Gramps into the uncomfortable position of providing absolute strangers with a glimpse into his former working life, and although I knew he was flattered by the idea that people would want to read about him, I began to wonder if I was taking advantage of his unbounded affection for me.

So it’s easy to imagine how relieved I was when Jill and I showed up and there was a shoebox full of pictures waiting for us.

Gramps hands me a black-and-white picture of a stern-faced man. “Jim, do you recognize this guy?”

“No. Who is it?”

“George Steinbrenner,” he says.

Nana—Gramps’s wife Doris—has been listening quietly for the most part, but the subject of Mr. Steinbrenner piques her interest. “He introduced me to my first Bloody Mary,” she says.

“We were good friends,” Gramps says. “Bill Gagner from Standard Elevator and I, neither one of us had a full load, so we’d share the boats. Bill and I were George Steinbrenner’s best customers in Buffalo. So he’d come down every couple of months and we would go out to dinner and stuff like that. He and Lou Saban were great friends, and we’d go to lunch with Saban when Steinbrenner owned the Roundtable, the restaurant downtown. He had his favorite table. And we’d sit at this table and have lunch. Steinbrenner, Lou Saban, Bill, and I.”

In spite of his invitation to “discuss” what I could print and what was off the table, Gramps just starts talking.

“I worked at General Mills in the traffic department,” he says. “And we got married and I didn’t think I was making enough money, and I couldn’t get a raise down there. And Mom at that time was working for a public accounting firm, and she said they were doing a job for Meyer Malt & Grain. And she said, ‘Why don’t you send them an application?’ So I sent them an application, and a couple weeks later I got an invitation to come out for an interview, and I got hired.”

At Meyer, Gramps started as traffic manager, handling all of the shipping. It was 1949. Back in those days, Meyer shipped to forty or fifty different breweries in eastern markets. Barley grew in the Midwest, was malted in Buffalo, and then was shipped to breweries on the east coast. All freights moved from west to east because the shipping rates were cheaper that way.

Meyer was considered the “dean” of the city’s former malt houses. Its Niagara Street facilities, situated next to New York Central’s main line, expanded on a regular basis so that by the mid-1950s the plant spanned two city blocks from north to south and two blocks from east to west. The grounds included three malt houses, an elevator, and numerous support buildings including a flourmill and a test laboratory. By the time Meyer acquired the Spencer Kellogg grain elevator in 1954, giving the company a shipping presence on Lake Erie, it had become the largest maltster east of Chicago, producing enough malt to brew over four million bushels of beer a year.

The middlemen of malt

Gramps hands me another photo. This one is in color. Gramps is standing in the foreground, facing the camera, smiling. Behind him, a golden field of grain seems to go on forever.

“This is from a barley trip, as we called it,” he says.

When Meyer was sold to Schaeffer Brewing Company in 1961, Gramps became general manager. As part of his managerial duties, Gramps and other malting company operators traveled in June to the barley fields of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and sometimes Montana, inspecting the barley crop as it was being grown.

“We would leave about 7:30 in the morning,” Gramps says. “There’d be twenty-five or thirty cars, two or three guys in a car, and we had a route. We would stop every five miles at a barley field, and get out and check it out and tell everybody how smart we were.”

In the morning, they sometimes covered two or three hundred miles just by driving around, and then they would do the same thing in the afternoon.

“Frankly it was kind of a party time,” Gramps says, because even though the malting operators could use what they saw on the trip to prepare for the upcoming malting season, they really couldn’t do anything to affect how the crop turned out. One of the ironies of the malting business was that a bumper crop, consisting of beautiful grain at a high yield, typically cost less money because there was more of it. A poor crop cost more because there was less to go around.

Malting operators were the middlemen in the supply chain running from farmer to brewer. Dealing with the farmers was a straightforward enterprise, but handling the artistic sensibilities of dozens of brewmasters was another story.

“The brewmasters always said how good they were,” Gramps says. “But they complained about the good barley, they complained about the bad barley. But whatever was grown, that’s what they used. Talent is not the big thing there. Just a lot of B.S.”

In the end, Gramps had to produce a consistently good product, and he had to make money while doing so (he bought all the barley and sold all the by-products), all the while negotiating numerous variables beyond his control. Weather affected the barley crop, which affected the cost of the grain, which affected the labor costs of the malt house. But perhaps the most challenging facet of Gramps’s job was maintaining normal operating conditions within the malthouse itself.

Before the advent of major air conditioning units, malt could be made only in cool weather; optimum condition for the manufacture of malt is a temperature of 54 degrees and 90 percent humidity. (It’s worth noting that any grain can be malted, but in the case of beer making, barley is best. Once malted, barley kernels contain the enzymes needed to convert the kernels’ starches into simple sugars during brewing, and, at the end of the brewing process, these sugars can then be metabolized by yeast into alcohol and carbon dioxide—two of beer’s essential components.)

Malting has three basic steps: steeping, growing, and drying. At Meyer, the barley was steeped in water for two days in huge, room-sized tanks. The barley kernels were then conveyed to the “boxes”—literally, bins—where they would sprout and grow, or germinate, for four days. Several times a day, powerful spinning machines would run through the whole bed of malt to turn it over. From the boxes, the malt was moved to the kilns, where it would dry under hot air for two more days.

If a batch of malt slowed down for any reason, the entire operation would grind to a halt.

“If someone wasn’t there, we were in trouble,” Gramps says. “That’s why we had all these old German employees who were very good, but when they started dying off, and we got these younger guys in—‘ah, the hell with it, I’m not going to come in and get sick’—that didn’t work. So when I hired a guy, I asked him two questions: Do you have an alarm clock? Can you be here when you have to be here?

The malthouses typically employed no more than thirty-five men, but someone was working almost all the time because malting, as a batch operation, is a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week job.

The Meyer plant proved especially uncooperative at times because it was so old—the original concrete structures went up in 1909. “A lot of problems with a place like that,” Gramps says. “This failed and that failed.” One night, the blade of a giant fan broke loose, flew out of the top of the building, and disappeared into thin air. No one knows what happened to it—maybe it landed in the river—but the mishap shut down malting operations completely in one of the houses until a new fan could be fabricated and reinstalled.

Other problems were more routine. In such cool, high-humidity, oxidation-promoting conditions, rust built up everywhere. The walls were tiled, and the owners installed as much stainless steel as they could afford, but in an old, four-story, concrete workhouse like that, metal covered much of the plant’s interior. During the summertime, when it was too hot to malt, Gramps hired laborers to strip away the rust and the dirt, and to refinish and repaint the worn surfaces.

“I used to hear these guys swearing in three languages,” Gramps says, “Polish, Italian, and English. Scraping all this stuff off.”

Gramps offered the summer jobs to his friends’ kids, but the working conditions were so inhospitable—what with the lung-filling chemicals, the cramped spaces, and the stifling heat—that most quit before summer was over. One kid quit after one day.

A family affair

I thumb through some more black-and-whites. There’s a photo of a swanky ballroom: a dinner in midtown Manhattan honoring Rudolph Schaefer, owner of Schaefer Brewing. In the photo, which must have been taken from a corner balcony, a hundred people or so are seated around a big, U-shaped table. The men are in black ties, the women in ball gowns. Gramps and Nana are separated, seated at opposite ends of the “U.” “To have people get to know one another, I guess,” Nana says.

I’m mesmerized by the photo—by the collegiality of the participants, mostly—and I’m reminded of something Gramps said at the start of our conversation: “All the malting companies were family operations starting way back when. There was a great deal of intermarriage between brewers and malters. Well, that’s just something that happened.”

The Meyer family actually tried to re-enter the malting business in 1987, buying back the original facilities from Stroh Brewing Company (who bought out Schaefer in 1981), but to no avail. The Meyers never malted again, and the site was demolished in 2006 by the City of Buffalo, leaving only an empty lot, as well as the stories and the shoeboxes of pictures and the sentiments of men like George Weber, who found a livelihood and an identity and a legacy in the time before the megabrewers.

 

 

Jim Walkowiak is a regular contributor to Spree. He hopes he hasn’t embarrassed Gramps too much.

 
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