A BUBBLY Legacy

Last week, we featured an article about breweries moving into Jacksonville’s urban core. Placing a brewery Downtown is not a new idea; in fact, Jacksonville’s first brewery was built near the intersection of Myrtle Street and West 16th Street in what’s now known as Durkeeville. Today, the building that was once a beehive of buzzing beer-brewing activity is slowly deteriorating. But in its heyday, Jacksonville Brewing Company was one of the most successful breweries in the Southeast.

The story began in 1913 when German-born brewer William Ostner moved to Jacksonville from St. Louis, where he’d worked for Anheuser-Busch, and opened a brewery. Ostner built his brewery into one of Jacksonville’s most successful businesses with more than 6,000 employees.

See, locals believed beer brewed in close proximity to their city tasted fresher and cost less than brands from the big brewers in St. Louis and Wisconsin. Further, having a brewery in your hometown became a status symbol and drinking a locally produced beer was considered proper.

The brewery’s successful run came to an abrupt halt when the commander of nearby Camp Joseph E. Johnston, an Army training facility (now Naval Air Station Jacksonville), petitioned city leaders to prohibit alcohol sales. The request came on the heels of citizen complaints of drunken soldiers roaming the streets on weekends, causing discipline problems on base and unease with civilians. In May 1918, two years before national Prohibition began, the city council voted to turn Jacksonville into a ”dry” city, forcing Ostner to stop brewing. The company changed its name to Jax Ice & Cold Storage and rode out Prohibition supplying ice to the Durkeeville neighborhood and selling “near beer.” 

When, at long last, Prohibition ended in 1933, Ostner quickly changed the name of the company back to Jacksonville Brewing Company. (He changed it again, to Jax Brewing Company, in 1940.) Within a week, Jax Beer, a German-style pilsner, was being served in local bars and taverns for 10 cents a glass. Within two weeks, the brewery had bottled beer in local markets.

During this time, Ostner invented the six-pack — or, more precisely, the six-sack, when, in an effort to stand out against other brands, he ordered 100,000 sacks labeled Jax Beer. He put six bottles of beer in the sacks and sold them as a unit. Other accounts attribute the invention of the six-pack to Pabst or Ballentine, but Ostner maintained his innovation was first.

At its busiest, JBC had distributors in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina transporting beer to areas far north of Duval County, increasing the brand’s status. During these halcyon years, Ostner built up his brewery until its annual production reached 200,000 barrels.

JBC continued to operate until the 1950s, when the national brands began using aluminum cans and the cost of changing packaging lines to cans proved too expensive for JBC. No longer able to compete with the big boys, Ostner sold the company’s name and recipes to Jackson Brewing Company in New Orleans. But old-timers still remember when Ostner’s brewery was one of Jacksonville’s top employers and its beer was shipped throughout the American Southeast.

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