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Old Peoria Brewery Site Still Producing—Only Not Beer

Courtesy Google Maps Street View

PMP Fermentation Products is a company with some 50 employees operating on the Peoria riverfront, overlooking a public housing project and the RiverPlex Recreation Center.

Owned by Fuso Chemical Co., a Japanese firm, PMP makes “something most folks have never heard of,” said company president Jim Zinkhon. While it may not be widely known, sodium gluconate has a wide variety of uses—in agriculture and concrete mixes. It’s also used in the soap industry and as a de-icer.

Today PMP employs plenty of high-tech machinery to produce the stuff but they’re doing it in a structure built in 19th century Peoria when the city was at the height of its run as a distilling and brewing center.

PMP works out of one of the buildings used by the Leisy Brewery, one of the three companies, along with Gipps and Union, that dominated beer production in Peoria in the early 1900s.

The Leisy family came from Germany where they had been brewing beer for generations. They originally settled in Iowa but when that state passed prohibition laws in 1884, the Leisys set up breweries in both Peoria and Cleveland, two cities that prospered as a result.

By 1911, the Leisys had the largest brewery in Peoria, brewing 350,000 barrels of beer a year.

The Cleveland operation was also successful, becoming that city’s largest local beer producer right up until the 1950s.

In Peoria, the Leisy Brewery, led by Edward Leisy as president, embraced automation to make its beer.

“When Leisy had all its machinery in here, it was state-of-the-art, the most sanitary manufacturing facility in the country at that time,” said Zinkhon.

“They could process up to 180 bottles per minute and the beer never touched human hands. It was all automated,” he said.

Those efforts spelled success. “In an age of inferior and impure beers, the quality of Leisy beer was greatly appreciated by the beer drinking public,” wrote Bruce Leisy, a descendant of the Leisy brewing families, in his history of the family’s brewing efforts.

But Edward Leisy did more than brew beer in his time in Peoria. He oversaw construction of the first skyscraper in Peoria, the 12-story Jefferson Building (now the Civic Center Plaza Building). While serving as a director on several local banks, he was a backer of the Jefferson Hotel, once considered the finest hotel in the state outside Chicago.

When Peoria’s Grand Opera House burned down in 1909, Edward Leisy and his brothers helped build the 1,600-seat Orpheum Theater in 1912, providing a spacious showcase for the vaudeville programs that played in Peoria.

The Leisy Brewery turned out to be a solid citizen in other ways. PMP president Zinkhon: “We’ve had to put a few holes in the wall over the years—something in buildings built today that would take contractors maybe an hour—might take them all day here.”

Prohibition brought the curtain down on the Leisy operation in Peoria. Efforts to manufacture soft drinks at the plant after 1920 proved unsuccessful. Edward Leisy died in 1929. In 1930, the company was sold to Premier Malt Co.

“They made malt syrup here,” said Zinkhon. “They marketed it for housewives for use in the kitchen but the real use for that malt was for bathtub gin,” he said.

Premier later merged with the Pabst Brewing Co. who, after Prohibition, set up a brewery in Peoria Heights.

One thing hasn’t changed at the riverfront site in over 100 years—both Leisy and PMP made use of the railroad that runs right behind the company. “You can open up the doors on the back side of the building and literally reach out and touch a rail car. It’s right there,” said Zinkhon.

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Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.
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