Some may say the best beer in the United States comes from the Northeast, but no one can deny that the Midwest — particularly Wisconsin — is our country’s regional macro beer mecca. Hey, there’s a reason so many Wisconsin beer brands call themselves old: There’s Old Milwaukee, Schoen’s Old Lager, and, of course, Old Style.
In all its red, white, and blue canned glory, G. Heileman Brewing Company’s Old Style has captured the hearts of Midwesterners since its inception. And though its popularity has waxed and waned over the decades, it’s managed to stand the test of time, unlike some other brews under the Heileman umbrella. A testament to its quality? Perhaps. A testament to how profoundly inoffensive its flavor is? Also possible.
Here, we chronicle its rise to macro stardom.
Old Style was originally brewed with old-school fermentation techniques.
When Old Style first debuted in 1900, G. Heileman Brewing Company proudly advertised the beer’s fermentation process, called kräusening. Rather than employing forced carbonation (a method that forces carbon dioxide into a beer after its first round of fermentation), kräusening is a double-fermentation process that adds fermenting wort, or kräusen, to a new batch of beer to kick start fermentation. Since the kräusen contains active yeast, it is met with little resistance in its new environment and assists with a clean, speedy ferment. G. Heileman Brewing originally claimed that kräusening gave its lager “extra carbonation and complex richness.”
It wasn’t always called Old Style…
G. Heileman Brewing Company has origins dating back to 1858, but it didn’t start brewing what’s now known as Old Style until the turn of the 20th century. In 1899, the brewery bought the trademark for Golden Leaf, a light lager from a Milwaukee brewery, and decided to make a heavier counterpart for the newly acquired brew. A year later, Old Times Lager was born. But soon after, another brewery filed a lawsuit against G. Heileman that claimed the new brew’s name was too similar to one of its own. In 1902, G. Heileman resolved the matter and officially changed the name to Old Style Lager. Later on, in the ‘50s, the name was shortened to Old Style.
…and then, there was New Style.
By the 1910s, Old Style had distribution in over 30 states. Business was good until Prohibition took effect, and the brewery was forced to temporarily discontinue its flagship beer. As many other breweries did at the time, G. Heileman started producing “near beer,” which had to be less than 0.5 percent ABV by law. Like all Prohibition-era brews, the aptly named New Style wasn’t all that popular, but it kept the brewery afloat through the remainder of the dry spell.
When Old Style was invented, the first female CEO of a brewery in the U.S. was in charge.
Gottlieb Heileman, founder of G. Heileman Brewing Company, died in 1878 — just 20 years after the brewery launched. His wife, Johanna, stepped into the role of CEO, making her the first-ever female CEO of an American brewery. She maintained the position for the next 34 years, and was at the helm when Old Style came to fruition in 1900. By the time she stepped down to join the company’s board of directors in 1912, the business had grown tenfold thanks to Johanna’s shrewd business strategies and refusal to compromise on quality.
It’s brewed in Wisconsin, but beloved in Chicago.
Similarly to Lucky Lager, Old Style is more popular outside its homeland. Old Style was adopted by Chicago in 1950 when it became the official beer sponsor of the Chicago Cubs and thus, the beer of choice at Wrigley Field for years to come. In the ‘70s, another bump for Old Style’s presence in Chicago came when brand spokespeople began giving out free Old Style signs to bars all over the city. And when the nationwide Budweiser strike hit in ‘76, Old Style was briefly without competition, allowing it to soar to new heights. Old Style did lose the Chicago Cubs sponsorship to beverage giant Anheuser-Busch in 2014, but it’s still known to many as Chicago’s beer. The current Old Style Beer website even offers a slew of Windy City-themed merchandise.
Old Style is finally back in La Crosse, but with a new recipe.
In the mid-1990s, G. Heileman Brewing Company and all of its brands were purchased by Detroit’s Stroh Brewery Company, which then fell into the hands of the Pabst Brewing Company in 1999. Pabst moved Old Style production to Milwaukee and changed its signature carbonation process. In August 2023, though, Pabst announced that the brand had struck a deal with City Brewing Company (which occupies the former site of G. Heileman Brewing Company) to move the beer’s production back to its native town of La Crosse. Much to the disappointment of die-hard Old Style fans, Pabst has publicly stated that the kräusening method will not be making a comeback at the facility.
The “world’s largest six-pack” contains Old Style.
If you’ve ever passed by the G. Heileman Brewing Company (now City Brewing Company), you probably noticed the six 54-foot-tall silos painted to look like massive beer cans on the property. For that spectacle, you can thank designer Roy Wilson, who collaborated with the brewery in 1969 to create the so-called “World’s Largest Six Pack.” While the original vessels weren’t actual cans, the metal containers — all painted to look like Old Style brews — held a combined total of 22,220 barrels of beer. When City Brewing took over the space in 1999, the giant 6-pack was painted over and wrapped in vinyl La Crosse Lager coverups. But when Old Style brewing came back to La Crosse in 2023, the World’s Largest Six Pack got another makeover, and now sports the Old Style logo once again.
Old Style’s brewery also invented LaCroix.
That’s right: G. Heileman Brewing Company launched LaCroix Sparkling Water in 1980. Perrier had long been the reigning champ of the sparkling water industry, but the folks at Heileman wanted to create a more humble, less fancy alternative to the glass-bottled industry standard. As it turned out, that’s exactly what the people wanted. In just 12 years after its initial debut, LaCroix was valued at roughly $25 million, and Heileman Brewing Company sold it to National Beverage Company the same year. These days, LaCroix can be found in almost every grocery store across the U.S.
A few years back, Old Style introduced an Oktoberfest Märzen.
Since G. Heileman Brewing Company played an integral role in establishing La Crosse as the site of Oktoberfest USA in 1961, it’s only fitting that Old Style eventually got the Märzen treatment. The new brew may have taken over 50 years to come to fruition, but in 2016, the brand finally launched its limited-edition Oktoberfest Märzen through City Brewing. The seasonal brew was housed in quintessential Oktoberfest blue-and-white packaging with a cartoon in lederhosen under the Old Style logo. The Oktoberfest Märzen hasn’t been brewed since 2017, but in light of City Brewing’s recent takeover of Old Style production, we’re crossing our fingers that it’ll come back in 2024.