Franz Brogniez is part of Houston’s beer brewing history.
Brogniez ‘made Houston triumphant’ with Southern Select, Grand Prize beers
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.