- Eli Dansky
Coors, Adolph (1847–05 June 1929), brewing magnate, was born Adolph Herman Joseph Coors in rural Barmen, Prussia (now Wuppertal, Germany), the eldest child of Joseph Coors, a flour miller, and Helene Coors. When Adolph was a young child, the Coorses moved to the city of Dortmund so that his father could find work. On finishing grammar school at age fourteen, Adolph, with his father's assistance, took an apprenticeship in the business office of the Wenker Brewery, just across the street from the Coorses' home. The next year, in 1862, both parents died of tuberculosis—his mother in April and his father eight months later. Adolph's two siblings, William and Helene, were put into a Catholic orphanage, but Adolph continued his work as bookkeeper and apprentice at the brewery.
Soon Adolph, dazzled by the allure of mechanization and the dawning industrial age, sought a more hands-on position at the brewery. “Young Adolph watched the Wenker Brewery bolt its first steam engines into position and with a clang roar multiply its output. Adolph was entranced… . In a career move that would shape everything to come, Adolph abandoned the business of selling beer for the challenge of brewing it” (Baum, p. 5).
In 1868, facing the prospect of being drawn into combat by Bismarck's campaign to forge a unified Germany, Adolph Coors joined the wave of those fleeing the conflict. At age twenty-one he sneaked aboard a transatlantic ship headed for Baltimore. This episode, in singular conflict with his rigid ideal of dutiful self-discipline, was to be a lifelong source of private shame for Coors, but it put him on the threshold of an extraordinary career as an entrepreneur.
After settling in America, Coors was put off by the insular nature of immigrant German communities in Baltimore and New York. Meanwhile, he found factory working conditions repugnant, and the intense pressure to join the fledgling unions offended him. He came to the fateful decision to continue west. He made his way to Chicago, where he took various skilled jobs until he finally acquired his first brewery job in America. However, Coors soon thirsted for greater autonomy and decided to continue further west. He rode the new transcontinental railroad into territorial Colorado, arriving in the young city of Denver in 1872. There he used his savings to buy into a bottling company in the burgeoning town. Within the year, Coors maneuvered himself into sole ownership of the company. However, his interest continued to lie in brewing.
Coors began searching for the perfect site—and the source—of what would become his lasting achievement, Coors Brewing Company. He believed that clean, high-quality water was the fundamental ingredient in creating good beer. This was the main reason he chose to locate on the bank of Clear Creek in the town of Golden. Site located, Coors sold his bottling company and for additional financing took on Denver Candy Shop owner Jacob Schueler as a majority, silent partner. Coors bought brewing equipment, the Clear Creek land, and the run-down tannery on the site he'd staked out. By late 1873, Adolph Coors, at the age of twenty-six, had become part owner of Golden Brewery.
Coors's signature obsession with product quality drove the early success in Golden. A local newspaper reported, “Messrs. Schuler [sic] and Coors have leaped to the front rank of brewers in a remarkably short time, and their beer is regularly sold in Denver and the mountain and valley towns” (quoted in Brewed in America, p. 250). By mid-1874 Golden Brewery was pumping out 800,000 gallons of beer per day.
In 1879 Coors married Louisa Weber, also a German immigrant. By 1880 he was a father for the first time; four more children were eventually born to the couple. Buying out Schueler's interest that same year, Coors became sole owner of the brewery, immediately renaming it the Adolph Coors Company. He had been frugal enough with his resources to build a malt house, a steam mill, and an ice house to supplement the brewery.
Once repelled by the too-tight-knit German communities of the American East, Coors was comfortable with the ease of communication and the feeling of community of his all-German workforce. He also overcame his disdain for labor unions and allowed workers to unionize. A $16-per-week salary and free beer on the job kept morale high. The motto he wrote for the company was true to form: “The more we do ourselves, the higher quality we have.” Coors's commitment to quality would be recognized on a broad stage at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. His lager was the only beer brewed west of the Mississippi to receive a medal at that international exposition.
The company, for all its success, would face threats. The seeds of public relations problems that would sprout over the following century were sown with Coors's friendship with a prominent supporter of the local Ku Klux Klan. The prohibition movement was gaining force as women's groups became organized and vocal. In response, Coors began investing company capital into diverse industrial areas: cement, real estate, and a pottery house. The most immediate threat to the enterprise came in 1894. On Memorial Day, a flood raged through Clear Creek, threatening to tear apart all that Adolph Coors had accomplished. The strong-willed German's quick action saved the day, however, as, within a matter of minutes, he bought up the houses of families living on the opposite bank of the creek and had his workers dig feverishly, literally bending the river away from the Coors compound. The river still runs that way today. (See Baum, Citizen Coors, p. 9.)
Prohibition finally did come to Colorado in 1916, sparking a distrust of government that remained through generations of Coorses. Adolph, painfully, had to order the disposal of three months' beer production. To survive, he oversaw the transition of the company apparatus into making products such as malted milk and a near-beer, called “Mannah,” that thoroughly disgusted him.
At seventy, Coors was a millionaire twice over. When the company incorporated in 1913, he named his sons as president, vice president, and general manager. He had laid the foundation for a company that would outlast prohibition and go back into brewing. He himself would not do so. In June 1929 the great entrepreneur visited the Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to recover from the flu. Instead, he jumped from the sixth story of the hotel, ending his life on the very coast that had greeted him sixty-one years before.
For a thorough account of the entire history of the Coors family business, see Dan Baum, Citizen Coors: A Grand Family Saga of Business, Politics, and Beer (2001). For further information on later generations of Coorses, see Russ Bellant, Coors Connection: How Coors Family Philanthropy Undermines Democratic Pluralism (1990). For more on the life of Adolph Coors, see the Coors Company–commissioned book by William Kostka, The Pre-Prohibition History of Adolph Coors Company 1873–1933 (1973); also see Russ Banham, Coors: A Rocky Mountain Legend (1998). For background and context on the brewery business, including the Coors Company, see Stanley Baron, Brewed in America (1962), and William L. Downard, Dictionary of the History of the American Brewing and Distilling Industries (1980). An obituary is in the Virginian-Pilot, 6 June 1929.