Rhinelander "Shorty" bottles haven't been available on local for nearly three decades, but the Monroe-based Minhas Craft Brewery is bringing them back this summer, hoping to find success in the trend toward nostalgia among younger beer drinkers. The 7-ounce bottles actually had the word "Shorty" stamped on the neck.
"They were the most popular Rhinelander product," says Minhas president Gary Olson. The brand was so popular in the 1940s that one of the town's local baseball teams went by the name Rhinelander Shorties.
Minhas recently contracted with the brand's owner, Jyoti Auluck, a native of Calgary, Alberta, to help bring back Rhinelander Export in these distinctive small bottles. Auluck purchased the Rhinelander family of beers from Minhas in 2009. She has since opened a downtown Rhinelander office while working to reintroduce Rhinelander Export and Light.
"After looking at beer trends and retro brands, I thought it would be great to bring back the beer that started the entire stubby bottle," says Auluck. A few of the other well-known Wisconsin breweries that used the 7-ounce bottles in the 1940s included former breweries like Fauerbach in Madison, Fox Head in Waukesha, and Walter's in Eau Claire, which bottled "Little Wallies."
Rhinelander beer was made in its namesake city of central Wisconsin. The brewery operated from 1882 to 1967, with the exception of a major fire in the 1890s and during Prohibition. At its peak, the brewery turned out about 40,000 barrels annually.
Rhinelander Shorty was introduced by the brewery in 1940 with a provocative ad campaign that called attention to its arrival via the birth announcements in the society pages of the local newspaper. For several weeks, Rhinelander society was captivated over who might be the unnamed father of little Shorty. By the time the brewery revealed that it was the father and mother, and little Shorty was a beer, the community was buzzing (so to speak).
In the 1960s, industry competition and consolidation contributed to the brewery's closure, and the Joseph Huber Brewery of Monroe (now Minhas) acquired the brands. It kept the beer, even Shorty, in production. Olson believes the last time the smaller bottles were used for Rhinelander beer was in the late 1970s.
Despite abandoning the 7-ounce bottles, Monroe Brewery (and later Minhas) continued making Rhinelander beer until just a few years ago. As recently as 2003, the brewery was offering it in returnable 12-ounce bottles. It even made a brief appearance in 12-ounce cans in 2009.
Olson says the new Rhinelander Export, to be re-released in short stubby bottles, is based on the original 1940s beer, which he describes as a crisp, light-bodied, American lager with yellow-golden color and light hoppiness. The beer takes about three weeks to make, and its alcohol content ends up at around 5% ABV. The term "export" was traditionally applied to strong beers that were intended to be shipped, and in some countries, like Germany, use of the term designated how it was to be taxed.
Rhinelander Shorty will initially be available in 24-bottle cases. Depending on the success of this reintroduction, Minhas may then package it in even more distinctive eight-bottle cartons.
Such small bottles present more than just a small challenge for Olson. Minhas has had to install a different filler and capper and modify the labeler, all of which has slowed the brewery's release plans by several months. Finding the right bottles was also no small task. Olson approached U.S. companies as well as manufacturers as far away as Trinidad and Egypt before finding what he needed through connections in China. The original bottle shape and painted label are different from the new Rhinelander Shorty, which is affixed with an old-school paper label.
Pabst Blue Ribbon and Schlitz, with their retro-focused marketing campaigns, seem to have found a following with younger drinkers over the last decade that has allowed them to avoid beer extinction. Auluck is betting on the same excitement over her new Rhinelander Shorty. She even has a goal of building her own brewery in Rhinelander by 2014.
Rhinelander Shorty is expected on Madison shelves in June and will sell for $14-$15 per case. General Beverage of Madison will handle local distribution.