By Lee Juillerat, Herald & News Editor. Republished from the Herald & News, November, 2011
Sucker Beer bottles are now hard-to-find collector’s items. Ten years ago it was the Klamath Basin’s fastest selling beer.
It was during the 2001 Klamath Basin Water Crisis, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cutoff deliveries to Klamath Basin water users. The times were tense, but a group of farmers with an appropriately dry sense of humor found a way to make light of the situation.
Their solution was Sucker Beer, one they promoted as a genuinely extra dry, extra light and less filling beer.
"You could drink a six-pack and not even know it," John Prosser, a Newell area farmer, said of the truly unique beer. Unique because it contained no water, no barley and no beer. Until the limited edition of 500 bottles disappeared, Sucker Beer was uniquely priced — one bottle for $3, two for $5 or, the Special Sucker Special, three for $10.
"It kind of makes fun of the water issue, but it's serious, too," said Prosser, whose family brewed up the idea.
Prosser credited Jim Randolph of Cottonwood, Calif., with inspiring the idea after he suggested someone create Sucker Beer after seeing a hand-painted sign with the words, "No Water, No Barley, No Beer," following the Bureau of Reclamation’s no-water decision that spring.
Barley grown by the Prossers and other Tulelake Basin farmers is sold to various beer companies, including Budweiser and microbreweries like Anchor Steam.
"We worked on it about a month, daring each other to go one step further," Prosser said of the process that led to producing Sucker Beer.
"This is a farmer with too much time on his hands, when you can dream up things like this," admitted Prosser, who then grew potatoes and barley on 650 acres of farmlands with his brother, Frank. The brothers currently have cut back on potatoes, but grow barley, wheat, alfalfa and peppermint.
The Prossers, who depend entirely on irrigation water, had too much free time in 2001. "We really make our money on potatoes, so without the water we grew only 18 acres.
We usually grow 110 acres," Prosser said, noting they were able to siphon water for a portion of spud fields and jury-rig pipes and pumps to irrigate some barley fields. "We're luckier than some. We did get a little bit of water."
Looking back, the Sucker Beer phenomenon was a family affair, which included Frank, sisters Judy Craft and Betty Smurzynski, who still live in the Redding, Calif., area, and their father Jess, a World War II Army veteran who homesteaded 80 acres near Newell in 1946 and died in 2006.
The beer business came to a head in the summer of 2001 during the Klamath Convoy when sympathizers from Montana, Nevada and California merged for a day of protest in Klamath Falls. The Prossers were ready with 500 bottles of beer, 144 logo hats and 576 T-shirts. They sold enough in one day to cover their $3,600 investment. They drained their supplies at the 2001 Tulelake-Butte Valley Fair and gave the profits, nearly $6,000, to the Klamath Water Foundation.
“I still get people who occasionally ask about it,” Prosser said, noting the Sucker Beer campaign was a way of making light of a serious problem.
"It was a lot of fun, but it got the message out at the same time."
And, as Prosser said 10 years ago, "I hope this is the only year we have a bottling."
So far, that’s a wish that’s come true.