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Future of LaCrosse brewery is dubious.

Associated Press - Industry experts see a shaky future, at best, for the former G. Heileman Brewing Co. in western Wisconsin now that its owner, Stroh Brewing Co., has decided to end 149 years of beer-making.

"If I was an employee there, I would be nervous," said David Edgar, director of the Institute for Brewing Studies, a division of the Association of Brewers in Boulder, Colo.

Mike Urseth, managing editor of Beer Notes, a bimonthly journal for beer enthusiasts published in Wisconsin, agreed.

"The odds are better than even that you will see that brewery close up," he said. "I don't know who would want it. That is the problem, because of its size."

The La Crosse brewery, which dates to 1858, has 80 salaried employees and 495 hourly employees. A Stroh fact sheet lists the La Crosse brewery's production capacity as 4.5 million barrels of beer a year.

The mood at the brewery Tuesday was "very somber," but workers remained hopeful the plant could be sold, perhaps to an industry leader such as Anheuser-Busch Inc. or a foreign brewer, said Ron Buschman, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Brewery Workers Local 1081.

"The buyout was kind of expected. The label buyout and not the brewery buyout was kind of unexpected," he said. "It is going to be hard to sell the breweries right now without labels."

Among the beer brands brewed in La Crosse are Special Export, Old Style, Stroh's, Colt .45 and Mickey's Malt Liquor.

Workers, many with at least 20 years invested in the brewery, remain hopeful for a reason, Buschman said. "We have been through two bankruptcies, two buyouts, you name it and they have seen it in the last 10 to 15 years."

Under deals announced last week, Miller Brewing Co., the nation's second-largest brewer behind Anheuser-Busch Inc., agreed to buy No. 4 Stroh's Henry Weinhard's and Mickeys brands. Fifth-ranked Pabst Brewing Co. agreed to buy the rest of Stroh's brands - including Stroh's, Old Milwaukee and Schlitz - and its brewery in Lehigh Valley, Pa.

Stroh, of Detroit, will continue operating its five other breweries until production can be shifted to a Pabst or a Miller brewery. The transition is expected to last about nine months. Afterward, Stroh Will seek buyers for the breweries.

Besides the brewery it is selling in Pennsylvania and the La Crosse site, Stroh has breweries in Seattle', Portland, Ore.; Longview, Texas; and Winston-Salem, N.C. "It is a safe bet that some of them will close before the end of 1999," Edgar said.

Miller had no plans to buy the La Crosse brewery, which Stroh purchased in 1996, Miller spokesman Michael Brophy said.

La Crosse Mayor John Medinger said his community's fist priority will be to see if any company is interested in buying the brewery, which covers six or seven city blocks, perhaps as a site for brewing specialty beers for other companies.

The mayor said he put the city planner in charge of such efforts.

But observers weren't optimistic.

Urseth said the number of buyers is limited. "There are so few regional breweries left. They all got bought up by the big guys" and the industry leaders don't need another place to make beer, he said.

Asked to list a company that might be interested in buying the La Crosse brewery, Edgar mentioned Boston Beer Co. It has ties to Stroh, because half of its 1997 production came from Stroh-operated breweries in Portland, Oregon and Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Brophy declined to comment on whether Miller would be operating any of its breweries at near-capacity levels once the deal with Pabst and Stroh is completed. Brophy, however, did confirm that Miller plans to buy Pabst's Tumwater, Wash., brewery.

A union official said it was likely Miller will operate its Milwaukee brewery at full capacity and might eventually hire new workers.

"It's definitely going to be a positive for people in Milwaukee, as far as job security and additional production at the plant," said Robert Bialk, vice president of Brewery Workers Local number nine.
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Title Annotation:G. Heileman Brewing Co. of LaCrosse, Wisconsin
Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Date:Feb 22, 1999
Previous Article:Issue also in doubt for huge ex-Heileman brewery in LaCrosse, WI.
Next Article:Frederick Brewing reports sales increase, but may seek buyer.

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