by Marlin Ingalls, University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist
During the early-1850s to the mid-1890 a number of breweries were built in Iowa, especially in the Eastern part. Those in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids were built in the 1850s. While the Cedar Rapids brewery caves were built of stone those in Iowa City are of brick. The caves were used to age beer and for its storage in casks and were under the breweries. Some cave designs are multi-level while most are on a single level. This relates to Iowa City’s breweries where most caves were built in up to three levels where those in the two Cedar Rapids breweries were of a single level.
Breweries are essentially large factories that operated on a gravity system where fluids drained from the upper to lower levels. There above ground areas included drying areas for malt and hops, large vats for making wort (the precursor to beer), and finally draining it by piping into the caves to be aged and kegged. Many breweries used large freight elevators to move the casks of beer up and down from the caves to street level. As Iowa went through several state prohibitions the breweries closed, only to reopen a few years later. National prohibition was the end of these very profitable old-time businesses.
Most brewers were German although other Iowa brewers were from England, France, and Belgium. They brought with them the voussoir-arched cave construction, reproductions of European brewing methods, equipment, and buildings, as well as a strong social sense besides the business aspects. Beer was an important beverage during times when the local water was not trustworthy. Amongst the Germans and Czechoslovakian immigrants in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, many of whom were Catholic, it was both an important social enterprise and employed large numbers. Amongst these two groups beer was consumed by the entire family and at all ages. Breweries evoked strong social and political feelings on alcohol and prohibition in the second half of the 19th century in both Iowa and across the county.
By the 1930s abandoned breweries in the larger Eastern Iowa communities were seen as derelict and dangerous. As a result most were torn down between 1940 and 1960 and the land repurposed. Today few intact brewery building surviving in Iowa but the caves were generally block up and the early history and importance of these breweries in the communities forgotten. Of the three breweries in Iowa City two were torn down and the caves lie still buried beneath parking lots and streets. In Cedar Rapids the two side-by-side breweries were razed and the caves partly filled and eventually covered by highways.
Marlin Ingalls gave a small tour of the 1855 brick caves beneath Brewery Square on Linn Street in Iowa City.
Intact brick beer caves from 1855 beneath Brewery Square on Linn Street in Iowa City.
Their recent brewery cave rediscovery in Cedar Rapids provides archaeologists with a view into a community’s past and linkage to the present. Due to their age, construction methods, and unique histories they tell us of lost 19th century industries, immigrant lifeways and populations, important people, and the ongoing social and the economic evolution of Iowa and its cities. The beer caves can be viewed as a tangible bridge between understanding the past and history’s significant connection to the future, while its educative values are just being appreciated.
OSA archaeologists conducting ground penetrating radar to investigate underground beer caves in Cedar Rapids.
The interior of the newly discovered beer cave in Cedar Rapids.
Another view of the interior of the newly discovered beer cave in Cedar Rapids.