Are Craft Beer Fans Obsessed with Murder?

Are Craft Beer Fans Obsessed with Murder?

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

We’re into the holidays, a time of year for good feelings and camaraderie. So why not turn it on its head and talk about beer and murder. Craft beer is very much a community subject, and breweries work together with people and neighborhoods to raise the level of discourse and action.

Beer and Murder. But, it seems craft beer fans also like murder. Between true crime podcasts with beer, beers with homicidal names, murder mysteries set in breweries, and murder mystery night activities in taprooms, it looks like there is an interesting dichotomy between craft beer’s characteristics.

Let’s take a look at how true crime and fictional crime work together well with craft beer. But first let’s look at murders that actually have at least a tangential connection to beer. I found just four instances of murder that related to beer, and I suppose that’s a good thing. But boy – are these stories weird.

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Adolph Coors III. The son of the brewer that began the Coors breweries was also a CEO and Chairman of the Board for Coors Brewing. He was born in 1915 and led a good life – private school, semi-professional baseball, a good marriage, and then a great job. But it didn’t end so well.

Driving to work on morning in February of 1960, Coors III disappeared. His car was found on a bridge by a milkman, with blood inside and the radio still on. The police spied his glasses and hat, but nothing else. A call for a $500,000 ransom came in the next day, but no ransom was paid and the largest FBI investigation since the Lindbergh baby was initiated. Months later, a hiker came across a pair of slacks with a pen knife in them marked “ACIII.”

A search of that area around Pike’s Peak then turned up the remains of Coors’ body. To make a long story short, someone said they had seen a yellow 1951 Mercury with AT and 62 in the license. That car was found in a New Jersey dump, and forensics found unique dirt on the undercarriage that placed it the scene of Coors’ disappearance. The owner (Joseph Corbett, Jr.) was tracked down, arrested, tried, and convicted of the murder. He spent 19 years of a life sentence in jail, was paroled for good behavior, sent up house just 10 miles from where he killed Coors, and then committed suicide in 2009.

Otto and Emma Koehler of Pearl Brewing. Read closely, this is truly unbelievable. Two breweries combined in the early 1900s to make the San Antonio Brewing Cooperative. Otto Koehler left Lone Star Brewing to become the head of what would be Pearl Brewing (originated in Germany) in 1912. Soon thereafter, his wife Emma Koehler was injured in an auto accident, so he hired a live-in nurse, also named Emma. Otto started an affair with her, as well as with her roommate, another nurse who also happened to be named named Emma.

Emma Koehler (left) turned Pearl Brewing into a monster success after her husband Otto was murdered by one of his mistresses. She retired in 1943 and handed the brewery to her nephew, also named Otto Koehler. image credit: Hotel Emma

Otto set up the two nurse Emmas in a house near the brewery and they lived the Bohemian life when Otto wasn’t at home with the wife Emma. On one afternoon, in 1914, he left the brewery in the early afternoon to visit his girlfriends. There was an argument and the third Emma shot him dead. When the police arrived, she said, “ I’m sorry, but I had to shoot him.”

Even though she confessed to the killing, she skipped town before her trial. Emma the killer (a leggy blonde) went to Europe to nurse WWI casualties – but she returned to San Antonio after the war and was actually acquitted at trial. She immediately married one of the jurors that acquitted her and they took up residence in the very house that Otto had purchased for the two Emmas.

The wife Emma took over running Pearl Brewery after Otto was killed and she did a fantastic job of it. The brewery expanded to become the largest brewery in Texas. When she retired in 1943, she handed off duties to her nephew, also named Otto Koehler. Whew, that’s three Emmas and two Ottos – you can’t make this stuff up.

Richard Oland of Moosehead Brewery. After Richard retired as a VP of Moosehead, he continued to work at other businesses, including an investment firm. Age 69 (2011), he was found murdered in his office at the firm. It was a bloody crime, with dozens of defensive wounds, both sharp and blunt. The police suspected that he had been bludgeoned with a dry wall hammer.

There as a bestseller concerning the Moosehead Brewery murder in 2011. image credit:

Two years later his son was arrested for the murder. Surprisingly, Richard’s brother Derek Oland, the accused’s uncle and the the CEO of Moosehead, posted his bond and hired him a lawyer. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. His lawyers appealed and not only was he granted a new trial, at that trial he was acquitted. It appears that the police were mighty sloppy when investigating the scene and no evidence was useable.

Ashley Rowell of Duff Beers. Finally, the president of Duff Beers Distributing in Houston had decided to sell the business in 2013. His family already owned Noble Union Imports in Houston which imports beers from Germany, Belgium, and the UK (not unlike Shelton Brothers), but he didn’t sell Duff Beer Distribution to them. He also didn’t sell it to one of his local distributing competitors. He sold it to a much larger, regional distributor called Favorite Brands, and that created bad feelings.

In February of 2013, while his wife was home and his kids’ friends were at their house for a sleepover, there was a knock at the door. When Ash answered it, he was gunned down in his front hallway. The authorities believe it wasn’t a random act because the house wasn’t ransacked and nothing was taken.

There was an outpouring of feelings and help from the Houston craft beer community because this was a very well-liked man in the industry, but clues were hard to come by. To this date, the murder hasn’t been solved, even though there is an abundance of suspects both in and out of the family.

True Crime and Craft Beer. There is a real connection here between craft beer and true crime podcasts. I guess a beer goes well with pizza or BBQ, but it also goes well with the tale of a macabre murder or two. It’s a nationwide phenomenon, with podcasts and true crime nights all over the nation’s thousands of taprooms, and much has been done locally too. Last New Year’s Eve there was a party at a local brewery thrown by Crime Junkie podcast, an Indianapolis effort headed by Ashley Flowers.

Brew Crome is just one of several true crime podcasts that combine murder and craft beer. image credit:

In addition, Central State Brewing did a tribute beer called Stay out of the Forest for when the podcast My Favorite Murder came to Indianapolis for a show in March of this year (2019). My Favorite Murder is run by Karen Kilgariff a Georgia Hardstark. It was recently ranked as #20 on the 100 most popular podcasts in the US, even though it was started in just 2016. It may be because they combine murder with comedy.

There are also True Crime podcasts called True Crime Brewery and Brew Crime. The True Crime Brewery podcast is a mixture of beer reviews and true crime stories. Wife and husband hosts Jill and Dick use their medical knowledge to review true crime stories and Dick reviews beers that originate from the region of that’s episode’s story.

Brew Crime is available through the Hopped Up Network (started by locals Matthew Muncy and Dustin Wood and their Barrel Chat Podcast). Hosts Beck, Nina, and Mike combine craft beer, true crime stories and comedy to entrain on a weekly basis. Apparently the gruesome nature of the stories is ameliorated if the podcasts throw in some funny stuff. If you can’t laugh at murder, what can you laugh at? Brew Crime actually did an episode dedicated to the Otto(s) and Emma(s) murder story we talked about above.

Brewery Murder Mysteries. There are a couple of murder mystery series that feature breweries. One is called the Brewing Trouble Series and involves a newly minted brewmaster getting ready to open a brewery in Pittsburgh. The author, Joyce Tremel, was a police secretary for many years, and used that experience to start writing murder mysteries.

Leavenworth, WA is the setting for the Sloan Krause series of brewery mysteries by Ellie Alexander. image credit: Bay Area FPV

Joyce told me that her greatest experience in craft beer is with drinking, but she has local resources that she uses when writing. She called on Scott Smith of East End Brewing to give her things to read and learn about beer, and he contributes many ideas about how to kill someone in a brewery. She also is a member of the Pittsburgh Beer Ladies, and this too gives her insights into beer, breweries, and brewing. She used these to start the first brewery murder series in 2015.

The slighter newer series is the Sloan Krause books by author Ellie Alexander. Sloan was a brewmaster at famed Der Keller Brewery in Leavenworth, WA, a German inspired small town in the Cascade Mountains. She breaks away from the family brewery to work at the new style brewery in town, and promptly gets drawn into a murder of someone with the “secret recipe” for the hot new IPA. With book names like Beyond a Reasonable Stout, The Pint of No Return, and Death on Tap, it seems this is a brewery centric series.

Ellie Alexander (pen name of Kate Dyer-Seeley) wrote the Bakeshop Mysteries before starting the Sloan Krause series. I talked to her recently about her interest in craft beer and how it found it’s way into a mystery series. Ellie grew up in Vancouver, WA, just across the river from Portland, OR, a mecca of craft beer. She’s been a craft beer fan since the mid 90s, and her husband is a homebrewer. The two of them held their baby shower at Portland Brewing, so her writing about breweries comes naturally. Ellie set her series in Leavenworth, WA since it is known as Beervaria and is near the hop growing area of Yakima Valley. Leavenworth is 100 miles east of Seattle, so that’s another reason to visit Seattle to drink beer.

Murder Mystery Nights. I found several breweries that have held murder mystery nights at the taproom. It’s like a real life game of Clue, as someone is “murdered” and patrons divide into investigative teams to find clues and bring the murderer to justice. And all while they have a beer or two.

Indiana City released Murder by Pumpkin in October this year. It comes out every year and contains 190 lb.s of pumpkin. image credit: Indiana City Brewing

Rockwell Brewery in Frederick, MD, Rusty Rail Brewing in Mifflinburg, PA, Taft’s Ale House in Cincinnati, Peekskill Brewery in Peekskill, NY, and Lone Girl Brewing in Waunakee, WI have all done murder mystery nights. Several have also been done in Indiana; Mad Anthony’s Lake City Taphouse in Warsaw had a murder dinner in February. Trubble Brewing in Fort Wayne had a Brews Clues Murder Mystery Night just a couple of weeks ago, and Blackhawk Winery hosted a couple of murder mystery nights in December.

Beer Names. There is a plethora of beer names that involve the word murder, and I’d venture that we’ve all had at least one beer with murder in the name. Untappd has over 8000 beers with “murder” in the name, and I’ve had at least six just from Indiana.

There is the Murder of Crows series by Black Acre Brewing, and Murder by Pumpkin from Indiana City Brewing in Indy. The local home brew club, Circle City Zymurgy, did a beer called Murder Juice, and Books and Brews did one called The Banana Cream Murder. Up north, Crooked Ewe in South Bend made a beer called Murder by Death, and The Devil’s Trumpet in Merrillville did Nacho Murder.

All told, Walter and I have had a dozen and a half beers with “murder” in the name, some not so far away, like Murder on the Pineapple Express just across the border at Beer Church in New Buffalo, MI, or Murderous from Pipeworks in Chicago. Others have been farther away, like Murderhorn from Backpocket Brewing in Iowa or Turtle Murder from Buffalo Bayou in Houston.

Conclusion. Now that you’ve had your holiday season cheer tempered just a bit, you can gently return to that bottle share with the local friends group and try to get back in the holiday mood. Or, you can start to look up when you can book an evening for a murder mystery at a taproom or where you can find a cozy, brewery-centric book about killing someone. Me, I’m going to crack open a Murder in the Rye from Deschutes and further contemplate the fixation that craft beer drinkers have with homicide.

banner image credit: catawiki UK

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