Beer history from the Milwaukee archives: Miller High Life circa 1951

Miller High Life circa 1951

When our archivist retires this month, we’ll toast him with the Champagne of Beers.

Miller High Life has rich history, and Dave Herrewig loves history (and High Life).

It’s the oldest brand made in the Milwaukee brewery, where Dave has run the archives for a dozen years. And the oldest intact beer in the company happens to be a few bottles of High Life from the early 1950s.

Dave Herrewig

Dave Herrewig

“Notice how clear the liquid is after more than 60 years,” Dave says. “But beer is meant to be enjoyed fresh, so often the solids precipitate out and it loses the characteristics of beer.

“We opened some once. One bottle did resemble beer by aroma, though, no, I didn’t taste it!”

Dave spent time at Miller Brewing Co. (now part of MillerCoors) while working on his master’s degree in history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He was helping a friend research a book on the Miller family when he met Tice Nichols, who set up the company archives.

“The idea occurred to me, ‘Maybe I could work there!’ ” Dave says. “I kept in touch with Tice and would send him information I found regarding Miller Brewing history. That’s what led to a job interview.”

Before that, Dave worked in publishing, and as a state probation and parole agent. But if you met Dave, you’d have trouble picturing him doing anything other than sleuthing and preserving.

Case in point: His plans for retirement include organizing his own papers and memorabilia. He also plans to do some traveling with his wife, Kathy.

But before he goes, we asked him for a peek into the archives and to share some of his favorite pieces of MillerCoors history. Cheers, Dave!

What’s the most unusual thing in the MillerCoors archives?

Dave Herrewig: Unquestionably, the artifact that has attracted the most attention is a part of the airplane that crashed in 1954, killing Miller President Frederick C. Miller, his older son and the two pilots. It has a large painting of the Girl in the Moon on the fuselage.

On a less serious note, I like a 1940s or so hand-painted Miller High Life logo from the side of a tavern. They sawed out the entire artwork with siding boards and all. The whole thing is in the archives just the way they cut it out.

What’s the oldest?

Ancestral papers from Riedlingen, Germany, where founder Frederick Miller was born. These papers go back to the 1700s — sometime in the 1950s they were obtained by the Miller family.

What period in MillerCoors history do you find most fascinating?

Probably my favorite is the era before Prohibition took effect in 1919.  Beer sales were very different then, as brewers could legally own the saloons. People, mostly men, drank from fragile little glasses called shell glasses. Miller Brewing was being run by the widow and adult children of the founder, and I wish I could have met them.

What do you wish we knew more about?

There’s a lot we still don’t know about Frederick Miller’s early brewery and about how Miller operated before Prohibition. I still wonder if something from this era will come up for sale online.

What will you miss most about the MillerCoors archives?

The people who’ve helped me so much over the years. Because of them, it’s been a great run! I’ll also miss the questions, as I’ve learned most of what I know about Miller history and beer history because people have asked good questions that forced me to find answers.