History of Red Star
A Promising New Venture
In December 1882, three well-established German immigrants in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – Leopold Wirth, Gustav Niemeier and Henry Koch, Jr.- formed a new company, Meadow Springs Distillery. Brewing and distilling was already a thriving business in Milwaukee, and the three entrepreneurs saw a promising opportunity in this growing trade. Wirth also intended to use spent grain from distilling as feed for his cattle business.
The three founders of the company actually knew very little about distillery operations. To make up for their lack of know-how and experience, they hired an expert manager, William Bergenthal, who owned his distillery and wholesale liquor business. The company’s first product- a barrel of whiskey sold on July 5, 1883- was distilled at Bergenthal’s distillery.
William Bergenthal not only knew the distilling business, he also specialized in yeast production. Before he joined the company, his own business produced about half a ton of compressed yeast each day, which was sold in Milwaukee, Chicago, and St. Louis. It made perfect sense for Meadow Springs to enter the yeast business as well- a decision that helped save the company 35 years later with the advent of Prohibition. In 1885, the company produced 163,420 pounds of yeast. The following year, it produced more than 203,000 pounds.
In 1886, Meadow Springs Distillery paid its first dividend to private stockholders. To reflect the growing ambitions and geographic reach of the business, the company’s leaders voted in 1887 to adopt a new name, National Distilling Company.
National Distilling Invests in Yeast Operations
August Grau, an astute businessman and experienced distiller, became president in 1887 and set about improving and modernizing the yeast operations of the company. He invested in a filtering press for squeezing yeast, and later enhanced the drying process with new machinery. In 1890, the company opened a laboratory to improve the quality control of yeast production.
In the first years of production, yeast was marketed under a variety of names, including Battle Axe, Blue Star, Lion and White Star. Eventually the name Red Star Yeast became the most popular, and the company expanded under this brand name. By the end of 1893, the company had yeast distribution branches in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Paul and a handful of other cities throughout the Midwest.
Red Star Yeast – Expanding the Business
The company had become diversified well beyond liquor distilling. Its businesses now also included the production and sales of yeast, vinegar, industrial alcohol, and dried animal feed. In 1919, the company’s Board of Directors voted to adopt a new name, making its best-known brand the official corporate name. For the next 43 years, the company operated under the name of Red Star Yeast and Products Company.
In the 1920, the company’s yeast business grew rapidly. The company invested in research to improve the manufacturing process and performance of what was called aerated yeast. In addition to upgrading its own laboratory and pilot plant, the company sponsored fellowships and an experimental plant at the university of Wisconsin in Madison. Sales were also spurred by growing attention to the nutritional value of yeast. One company scientist focused exclusively on vitamin research. The company’s signage included slogans such as, “Eat It For Health,” “2 Cakes Daily” and “Red Star Yeast Aids Digestion.” In the late 1940s and 1950s, the company added new yeast products and provided technical services to foreign yeast companies.
World War II – The Introduction of Active Dry Yeast
The company’s scientific expertise played an important role in keeping soldiers fed and fighting during World War II. Until the end of the war, compressed yeast required a moisture level of 70 percent. Moisture added bulk and weight to yeast, and reduced its shelf life. Moisture added bulk and weight to yeast, and reduced its shelf life. Shortly before the U.S. entered the war, the company began to develop active dry yeast with a moisture level of just 8 percent. Over the next four years, the company produced more than 5 million pounds of this new form of yeast to use in mobile Army kitchens overseas.
Universal Foods – A New Direction
In the 1960s, the company expanded beyond yeast, adding seasonings and institutional food products, thus adopting a new name, Universal Foods, in 1962. During the 1980s and 1990s Universal foods continued to its expansion into other food businesses while Red Star Yeast was no longer a fit with its long-term strategy.
Lesaffre Acquires Red Star Yeast
In 2001, Lesaffre Group, the world leader in the science of yeast, acquired Red Star Yeast from Sensient Technologies (formerly Universal Foods.) Lesaffre entered into a joint venture with ADM and the Red Star Yeast Company was founded. A state of the art yeast plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa opened in 2006.