Omaha’s Metz beer is back.
After a half-century hiatus, the second-oldest name in Omaha beer history has returned to taps and soon will appear on store shelves with nearly the same distinctive red labels bearing a familiar German name.
Bill Baburek, an Omaha brewer, bar owner, beer enthusiast and local beer historian, has resurrected a brand long buried by time. He will make a formal announcement this week and will hold a launch party next month.
But today you can learn the backstory involving a weird twist of fate that pushed Metz beer to flow once more from Omaha taps.
The story rightfully begins at a brewery, one of two Baburek owns in Omaha. He grabs a table overlooking Maple Street at Infusion Brewing Co. in Benson and then brings us a pair of Metz lagers, the honey-colored liquid making the red “Metz” label on the beer glasses really pop. The first sip goes down easy. This would not have been my grandfather’s Metz beer. It’s smooth, but the glass stands full because there’s hardly any time to drink while the story spills out of Baburek.
First, the history lesson. Omaha’s first brewer was Fred Krug in 1859. Its second brewers were a pair of brothers: Frederick and Philip Metz. The Metz brothers were among Omaha’s “Big Four” brewers. The others were Krug, Willow Springs and Storz, another old name that was revived in recent years.
A World-Herald clip says the Metz name was “synonymous with a distinctive beer which enjoyed wide acceptance throughout the Midwest,” and newspaper clippings breathlessly describe a new brewery built at the turn of the century at Seventh and Leavenworth Streets.
Then came Prohibition in 1920, and Metz, unlike Storz, couldn’t survive the federal ban on alcohol. So the Metz family padlocked its brewery doors and pretty much, according to Baburek, “walked away.”
After Prohibition’s end in 1933, a group of investors headed by Chicago banker Robert Drum bought the old Willow Springs brewery near Second and Hickory Streets and renamed it Fontenelle. Fontenelle Brewing Co. made a beer called Robin Hood — signs bearing that name hang at Infusion in Benson and at Baburek’s Bellevue home.
But without name recognition, Robin Hood missed the mark. Drum got the rights to use the Metz name from founder Frederick Metz’s son, Charles Metz, and the beer became popular again. Drum eventually ditched Robin Hood and changed Fontenelle Brewing Co. to Metz.
Metz beer had a good run until the 1950s, when home televisions became widespread, national brewers advertised heavily on TV and the nation developed a taste for lighter beer, which was cheaper to make. National brands like Anheuser-Busch, Schlitz and Pabst, along with local breweries Storz and Falstaff, ate away at Metz’s business.
Metz’s market share sunk from 9.5 percent in 1952 to 4.5 percent by 1958. In 1961, when Baburek was a toddler, stockholders voted to close the Omaha brewery and sell the Metz name to a Pueblo, Colorado, company that brewed Metz until 1972.
The Metz beer name faded into obscurity, kept alive only in the memories of Metz beer drinkers like Baburek’s mother and in collectors like Baburek himself.
At age 16, he started collecting beer cans and other memorabilia from Omaha breweries, displaying names like Storz, Falstaff and Metz in his family’s South Omaha basement just blocks from the old Rosenblatt Stadium.
At age 22, Baburek’s interest broadened from stuff to stories. What were these places? Who worked there? How did they rise and then fall? In 1982, when he was president of the Cornhusker chapter of the Beer Can Collectors of America, he stumbled upon a totally unfamiliar name: Fontenelle Brewing Co. He asked his folks about it. His father wisely suggested he take his question to The World-Herald, which then had a Siri on staff — an action editor who could take questions and ferret out answers or turn the query to the public.
When Bill Baburek’s question — What’s Fontenelle Brewing Co.? — hit the newspaper in 1982, an old man showed up on his folks’ doorstep with a box and an answer.
The man’s name was Frank Curran. He was the former advertising manager at Fontenelle and then at Metz. He was 73 and showed young Baburek photographs. Baburek soaked it up, thanked him profusely and never saw Curran again.
But their paths would cross again.
Fast-forward to 2013. Baburek was enjoying a career he’d built from his beer passion. He’d opened a handful of beer-related joints, most notably Crescent Moon at 36th and Farnam. He’d just opened Infusion and was brewing his own batches. He was giving Omaha beer tours and taking groups to Germany, the holy land for beer.
He got a text out of the blue from one of his brewers who said he knew a guy who was cleaning out a relative’s house. The relative was a beer enthusiast, too. Would Baburek be interested in seeing what the house held?
Baburek went to the stranger’s house and the inside was packed with stuff. Baburek, who’d combed through dumps as a kid looking for beer can treasures, was on the hunt and, bingo. Here were Metz beer steins. Here were Metz beer pencils. Here was a box of business cards of a Metz beer employee: Frank Curran.
“This is his house?” a befuddled Baburek asked.
“That’s my great-grandpa,” said Rob Mangen.
Mangen explained: He’d grown up in this home on Castelar Street near 21st Avenue with his great-grandparents and grandmother. He would sit on his great-grandfather’s knee and draw with him. He was an artist who had hand-painted Metz billboards around town and was also a self-taught man who could pretty much do anything, including becoming a surveyor for Douglas County when Metz closed. Curran died in 1988 at age 79. Mangen was then 7.
Over the years, Mangen’s grandmother had trouble keeping up the house and the City of Omaha got involved, enumerating code violations. Mangen, who had been overseas, returned home to help his grandma satisfy the city — and to renovate the house. He had no idea what to do with his great-grandfather’s boxes of Metz stuff and was relieved when Baburek stopped over.
“I bought the stuff that day,” Baburek, now 58, says.
But there was so much that it took Baburek four years to go through it. Every few weeks, he would go to that house and find some new treasure: a Metz beer pocketknife. A file with Metz beer labels. Drawings of Metz beer ad concepts.
Four years of sorting resulted in a friendship between Baburek and Mangen, and an idea: Bring back Metz. Baburek had Mangen design Metz labels and other products. Mangen, who has a day job in computers but does graphic design work on the side, was thrilled to get this chance to try his hand at his great-grandfather’s work.
And as if on cue, Mary Berigan, the regional sales manager for Epsen Hillmer Graphics Co., appeared during our interview.
She showed Baburek what the new Metz labels will look like and how close a match they are to one of the old Metz bottle labels, which Epsen Hillmer, a 110-year-old Omaha company, had printed in the old days. A local business helping another local business, then and now.
The chief difference between labels is that in the old days they used real gold in the label ink, which is banned today.
The recipe also is different now than it was in 1864 or 1935 or 1962.
But the name is the same. Metz. It is stamped on the beer glass underneath the words “old reliable.”