Uncovering old Munichburg’s beer cellar.
As Germans immigrated to Jefferson City in the early 1800s, the art of beer making traveled with them. The social nature of German culture helped establish the beverage’s prominence immediately, although it was somewhat lacking in quality. But to these immigrants, any beer was better than none.
Many people brewed whatever they could at home. Hops were hard to find, and the fermentation process was hard to control when substituted with grains. The need for higher quality ingredients led local farmers to plant and grow hops, establishing the presence of brewing in the city for years to come.
In the 1840s, breweries began to flourish and accommodated families, serving by glass or barrel. According to the Jefferson Inquirer, in January 1845, Charles Gesser announced the establishment of his Jefferson City Brewery on the corner of Main and Washington. Joe Kessler, another German immigrant, also had a small-scale brewery from 1845 to 1847 in the same area. But John C. Gundlefinger, a Bavarian immigrant, is credited with opening the first large-scale brewery in the city in 1847. It was located in the 100 block of West Dunklin in the heart of Münchberg (now known as Old Munichburg). A plotted area on the southside of town was undeveloped at the time, and Germans chose this area to create their own community and culture. Named after a village in Bavaria, Münchberg (or Monk’s Hill), it was the perfect place to call home. Dunklin and Jefferson Streets became the foundation for this self-supporting German community.
The land and characteristics of the area felt like their German homeland. As the area grew and businesses developed, saloons and restaurants found the need for a cool space to keep their cheese, butter, and root vegetables. The only viable way of refrigeration at that time was using Missouri River ice insulated by thick straw. Cellars were common in Germany, and this area provided limestone rock that could be utilized to their advantage.
The hill to the south of where ECCO Lounge now stands, in the 700 block of Jefferson Street, was the ideal location to create a cellar in the cool bedrock. It extended into the back of the hill under an alley, now known as Tanner Way. Community members hand-dug the 14- to 18-foot wide cellar. The cellar even featured a 10-foot wide archway fitted with hand-laid dimension limestone blocks. It was wide enough that a delivery vehicle could pass through to transport materials in and out. Many people believe the cellar was most likely used by the Farmer’s Home saloon on the corner, Gundelfinger’s brewery, and for the early stages of beer making around the 1860s.
At that time, Germans preferred to drink their beer at room temperature. It was best enjoyed fresh, just after the brewing process was complete. As times changed and more beer was produced, the cellar became an asset to these businesses and breweries to keep their large quantity of beer and food fresh for longer periods of time.
But this wasn’t the only cellar in the county. Paulus Wagner, who emigrated from Bavaria in 1842, started a brewery in 1845 that served Taos, Schubert, and Osage City families. It is widely acknowledged and documented as the first brewery in Cole County. Also carved into a limestone hill, Wagner’s cellars had three rooms, all 30 feet high. The middle room had rock shelves that kept beer below 60 degrees year-round.
When Don and Sally Powell and Mark and Anna Ewers became proprietors of ECCO Lounge in 2010, they had been doing some construction on the side of their building in the parking lot when the contractor accidentally hit the hill, creating an opening. To their surprise, the old beer cellar below was still intact. However, it was a long way down, and there wasn’t an accessible way to enter the cellar. They covered the opening and left the cellars as a hidden, helpful gem of Jefferson City’s German past.
So much of German culture has been brought to Jefferson City. Aside from the beer and cuisine, the immigrants’ social culture made Jefferson City the town it is today. According to Walter Schroeder’s book “Breweries & Saloons in Jefferson City, Missouri,” it united the town with a feeling called gemütlichkeit — the idea of a state of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer. These are the same feelings that can be found from a glass of beer in a social setting with friends. Germans from all cities, religions, and backgrounds came together with warmth and good cheer, a cultural practice that is still in existence in Jefferson City.
You can find Walter Schroeder’s book at ECCO Lounge.