How Vonnegut’s Family Made a Fortune in Beer, and Lost It When the Bubble Burst

On his mother’s side, Kurt Vonnegut’s ancestors were the Liebers of Indianapolis. The Liebers’ story in the United States was similar to the Vonneguts— German immigrants who found their feet quickly in business.

But an interesting difference was that whereas the Vonnegut side tended toward civic responsibility and improvement, the Lieber side was hell-bent on making money as fast and as profitably as possible. Wealth would elevate them quickly into the German-American aristocracy of Indianapolis, which Kurt indicated to me, and also in his writings, that he was proud to be part of when he was young.

How the Lieber side of the family eventually realized their dream of riches was by creating an ocean of beer in the Midwest.

The gargantuan Indiana Brewing Company made millionaires of Vonnegut's maternal side of the family, until the bubble burst with Prohibition in 1919.

The gargantuan Indiana Brewing Company made millionaires of Vonnegut’s maternal side of the family, until the bubble burst with Prohibition in 1919.

Peter Lieber, Kurt’s immigrant great-grandfather, purchased an Indianapolis brewery in 1865. Peter knew nothing about making beer, but Midwesterners— half of whom were German and Irish— were thirsty to drink it. Lieber found investors, hired a German who was an expert brewmaster, and arranged to have his product capped in a bottling factory owned by an in-law. To make the taste of beer from P. Lieber & Company distinctive from the hundreds of other small breweries in the region, a secret ingredient was added during the brewing process: a pinch of coffee. Lieber named his beer Dusseldorfer, and his small-time brewery grew into the giant Indianapolis Brewing Company. In 1900, Dusseldorfer beer won a gold medal at the Paris Exposition, and Peter retired to (where else?) Dusseldorf, Germany.

Now, with his father out of the way, son Albert Lieber was free to milk the company. He discovered that he shared something in common with the representative of the British syndicate owning the Indianapolis Brewery Company— both men were corrupt. The pair agreed to create a special account for off-the-books expenditures. Under item “ice,” they would put their personal expenses for leisure.

Albert used “ice” to build Vellamada on the White River outside Indianapolis, a 400-acre summer residence with hunting grounds. He used it to make under-the-table payments to his coppersmiths from the brewery to build gorgeous guesthouses at Vellamada. “Ice” paid for servants, an English butler, horses, a liveried footman, carriages and automobiles.

Booth Tarkington, 'Wet-Ass Club' Alumnus

Booth Tarkington, ‘Wet-Ass Club’ Alumnus

In town, he used “ice” to finance good times with Indianapolis’s fun boys who belonged to his league of merrymakers, the “W-A” or “Wet-Ass” club. Initiates were led blindfolded to a spot in the brewery and then had their butts blasted with beer from a spigot. Novelist Booth Tarkington (The Magnificent Ambersons), an Indianapolis native received his special gold W-A pin this way. Said a family historian, Albert “entertained his friends without thought of cost: the choicest viands, rare wines, flowers, the whitest linens and choicest porcelain chinaware. He soon acquired the reputation of a millionaire who counted the cost of nothing.”

Somehow, Albert’s profligacy hardly made a dent in the treasury of the huge Indianapolis Brewing Company. The sums he tossed around in conversation were staggering, if true. An advertisement in the Indianapolis Star in 1914 boasted that the brewery employed five hundred workers to produce thirty million bottles of beer annually, and used two hundred and ten draft horses to pull the cases to warehouses.

The party ended suddenly when Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, usheringprohibition1-1 in the era of Prohibition. Within a decade, the Indianapolis Brewery Company, and Albert Lieber, were ruined. Had Albert diversified somehow, he might have avoided disaster, but the name Lieber was writ in beer. Albert sold Vellamada in 1920.

The taste of the award-winning Dusseldorfer was enjoyed one more time more, however. In 1996, while Kurt was exhibiting some of his prints in Denver, Colorado, a local microbrewery, Wynkoop, bottled a special beer for the occasion, brewed with a pinch of coffee after the recipe used by Vonnegut’s great-grandfather, Peter. Vonnegut drew a self-portrait for the label. The name of the beer was Kurt’s Mile-High Malt.

 

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