Franz Brog­niez is part of Hous­ton’s beer brewing his­tory.

Brog­niez ‘made Hous­ton tri­umphant’ with South­ern Se­lect, Grand Prize beers

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Ron­nie Crocker ron­nie.crocker@chron.com twit­ter.com/rcrocker

The story of beer brewing in Hous­ton is peo­pled with big per­son­al­i­ties, in­clud­ing a cou­ple of global renown.

There was the force­ful Adol­phus Busch, who took over his fa­ther-in-law’s Mis­souri beer busi­ness and willed it into a world­wide em­pire. He opened a large brew­ery on Buf­falo Bayou in the 1890s. His lo­cal busi­ness in­ter­ests in­cluded an­other brew­ery on Galveston Is­land, where his vis­its were cov­ered in ador­ing de­tail by jour­nal­ists of the day.

And the first Hous­to­nian to get a brew­ery up and run­ning after Pro­hi­bi­tion was none other than Howard Hughes Jr., al­ready a fig­ure in Hol­ly­wood and on his way to be­com­ing the world’s rich­est per­son. His Gulf Brewing Co. made Grand Prize beer on the city’s east side for 30 years.

Less well known, how­ever, is per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing man from the early days of Hous­ton brewing, Frantz Hector Brog­niez. The story of his round­about jour­ney here from his na­tive Bel­gium is re­counted in “Hous­ton Beer: A Heady His­tory of Brewing in the Bayou City,” from which this ar­ti­cle is adapted.

So is the story of a lager he brewed in 1913 that put Hous­ton on the world stage.

Brog­niez, was born into a well-to-do Bel­gian fam­ily in 1860 at an es­tate near the French bor­der. His priv­i­leged sta­tion gave him the op­por­tu­nity to study mu­sic with some of the era’s most ac­com­plished teach­ers. His in­ter­est in play­ing the vi­o­lin and com­pos­ing or­ches­tral works was life­long.

Yet it was no sur­prise that, upon his 1882 grad­u­a­tion, he would go to work in a small brew­ery in Lichter­velde, Bel­gium. His fam­ily had been mak­ing beer since 1752.

By 1895, this mu­si­cally in­clined sci­en­tist, flu­ent in sev­eral lan­guages, was run­ning his own brew­ery in Brus­sels. His des­tiny, how­ever, was not to be a Euro­pean gen­tle­man. Just a year later, he was on a ship bound for New York’s Ellis Is­land.

Ac­com­pa­ny­ing Brog­niez aboard the steamship Adri­atic was Al­ida Gry­mon­prez, a woman he’d met and fallen in love with in Lichter­velde. The cou­ple set­tled in Detroit, where be­cause of the cir­cum­stances of their re­la­tion­ship — Brog­niez had been mar­ried in Bel­gium — they were de­nied mar­riage by the Catholic Church and forced to slip across the bor­der to take care of that de­tail in Canada.

“I’m guess­ing he left partly for the op­por­tu­ni­ties in the U.S. and partly be­cause of fam­ily trou­bles,” his grand­son Philip Brog­niez is quoted as say­ing in “Hous­ton Beer.”

Brog­niez started a Bel­gianstyle brew­ery on Detroit’s Mack Av­enue, but his trav­els were far from over. In 1903, Al­ida suc­cumbed to tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. In a mov­ing fi­nal letter to her hus­band, she asked that he marry her sis­ter, Alice, so their chil­dren would be raised by a rel­a­tive.

Brog­niez hon­ored Al­ida’s wish the fol­low­ing year after her par­ents brought Alice over from Bel­gium to start a new life as a 17-year-old step­mom to her niece and nephew. Shortly af­ter­ward, they moved to Terre Haute, Ind., where Brog­niez had been hired to run what be­came the Peo­ples Brew­ery.

It was 1905. Four years later, Brog­niez was look­ing to move again, this time be­cause Alice was ill and a doctor ad­vised the fam­ily to find a warmer cli­mate. Balmy Hous­ton proved to be a good fit.

In 1912, Hous­ton Ice & Brewing Co., a com­peti­tor to Adol­phus Busch’s Amer­i­can Brewing Co., hired Brog­niez as su­per­in­ten­dent of its Mag­no­lia Brew­ery. He and Alice moved down in March with their now three chil­dren, and they im­me­di­ately em­braced their new home­town.

The fol­low­ing year, Brog­niez helped Ima Hogg es­tab­lish the Hous­ton Sym­phony, sug­gest­ing that the city’s elites had em­braced him as well. He moved eas­ily in their cir­cles, an in­tel­lec­tual from the Old World, the son of a prom­i­nent and po­lit­i­cally ac­tive fa­ther who had been a long­time mem­ber of Bel­gium’s Sen­ate and an ad­viser to Kings Leopold II and Al­bert.

On Sept. 3 of that year, Brog­niez was thrust into the public lime­light as the man who brewed “the beer that has made Hous­ton tri­umphant.”

South­ern Se­lect — from, Brog­niez re­counted years later, a fam­ily recipe that had been passed down from fa­ther to son since the 18th cen­tury — had earned the Grand Prix of the Ex­po­si­tion medal at an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion in Ghent, Bel­gium.

The beer, brewed and bot­tled at the 4-block-wide Mag­no­lia Brew­ery in Hous­ton’s in­dus­trial heart, had out­ranked more than 4,000 other beers judged by “the great­est Euro­pean sci­en­tists, chemists and brew­ery ex­perts.”

The lo­cal press jumped on the band­wagon, pro­claim­ing in a news story that the beer “put Mil­wau­kee out of the run­ning and leaves St. Louis nowhere.”

Alas, the good times didn’t last. Brog­niez’s adopted land was lurch­ing to­ward Pro­hi­bi­tion. The peri­patetic brew­mas­ter was not quite 60 when al­co­hol was out­lawed in 1920.

His liveli­hood was gone and it would be more than a decade be­fore it would come back, so Brog­niez found him­self at the Juarez Brew­ery, just over the bor­der from his new home in El Paso. His beers in­cluded a lager that was based on his South­ern Se­lect recipe and a darker brew called Riche­lieu.

“As long as he was brewing beer and had access to the mu­sic he liked,” his grand­son said, “he was a happy camper.”

By the time Brog­niez re­turned to Hous­ton in Oc­to­ber 1932, with plans to get Hous­ton Ice & Brewing ready for re­peal, the Mag­no­lia Brew­ery com­plex was near col­lapse. The com­pany wound up merg­ing with its is­land com­peti­tor as Galveston-Hous­ton Brew­eries.

The bet­ter-funded men rep­re­sent­ing Hughes’ busi­ness in­ter­ests saw cash in beer, how­ever, and they wanted Brog­niez badly. If they couldn’t get the rights to the name South­ern Se­lect, they’d get the man who made it fa­mous and find a way to profit from the grand prize he’d won back in 1913.

While in Mex­ico, the ag­ing Brog­niez had sketched out de­signs and dreamed of build­ing the ideal mod­ern brew­ery, one that would take ad­van­tage of the lat­est sci­en­tific ad­vances. Howard Hughes’ com­pany made that dream come true.

“Then, lo and be­hold,” as a Hous­ton news­pa­per put it, “the money be­came avail­able and he was told to ‘go to it.’ ”

Con­struc­tion be­gan on June 12, 1933, and Brog­niez worked tire­lessly to take the plant from pa­per to pro­duc­tion in less than four months. The bot­tles that even­tu­ally rolled off the line were la­beled “Grand Prize,” a “full strength lager beer.”

But the stress and long hours had taken a toll on Brog­niez’s health. So had the cig­a­rettes he’d smoked for many years. He died on Oct. 9, 1935, just 16 days shy of his 75th birth­day.

Col­lec­tion of Philip Brog­niez

Frantz Brog­niez de­signed the Grand Prize brew­ery for Gulf Brewing Co. and lived long enough to over­see the first run of the bot­tling line.

HPL-HMRC, MSS0157-0196

In 1912, Hous­ton Ice & Brewing Co. hired Frantz Brog­niez to be the su­per­in­ten­dent at its Mag­no­lia Brew­ery.

Col­lec­tion of Philip Brog­niez

South­ern Se­lect was brewed at the Mag­no­lia Brew­ery un­til Pro­hi­bi­tion when it went to the Galveston-Hous­ton Brew­eries.

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