American Breweriana Journal July/August 2016
Brewing in Northampton, PA
By Rich Wagner
Pennsylvania’s brewing heritage is inextricably entwined with the industries that brought beer drinking immigrants in droves to labor in factories, steel mills and coal mines. Northampton is located in the limestone-rich Lehigh Valley which became the center of the nation’s emerging Portland Cement industry around the turn of the last century, the same time that the Northampton Brewing Company was founded. It was incorporated with $25,000 capital early in 1898 by Henry Kirsch, former brewmaster at Kostenbader’s in Catasauqua, William Luckenbnch, Peter and E. H. Laubach and Wilhelm Seisser, brewmaster.
Locally the Atlas Cement Company supplied cement to build the Hoover Dam, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, and Holland Tunnel. Cement workers in the Lehigh Valley needed beer and the Northampton brewery supplied it. Atlas also supplied 8,000,000 barrels (as in 376-lb. wooden barrels) of cement for the Panama Canal. The local brewery, Cerveceria Nacional, even introduced a brand called Atlas.
The brewery was located in what was known as Laubachsville on a property bounded to the north by the railroad and the south by the Lehigh Canal. Philadelphia brewery architect and engineer Otto C. Wolf executed the $55,000 project. Coppersmith Emil Schaefer supplied a 40-barrel kettle for the brew house. Northampton’s Vallhalla Beer was on the market early in 1898. By October the company added to its stock house to bring capacity up to 5,000 barrels.
In 1901 the company added ale brewing to its business. In addition to his responsibilities in Northampton, Henry Kirsch became a managing partner in the newly formed Catasauqua Brewing Co. On Christmas day floodwaters swept 500 mostly full kegs down the Delaware River.
The brewery burned down the following year and was rebuilt. Additions were made over the next several years including boiler and malt and houses as well as a $60,000, five-story stock house by Philadelphia brewery architect Emil Hartman.
In December 1911 The Western Brewer reported that stockholders of Pottstown Brewing Co. purchased the brewery and hotel properties in Northampton, Lehigh and Carbon counties for $600,000. Alfred and J.M. Adams, both of Atlantic City, New Jersey were elected president and treasurer respectively. George Stocker was appointed brewmaster. Sales during this period were just under 20,000 barrels a year. Peter and E.H. Laubach represented the brewery and were officers in the Lehigh Valley Brewers Association.
With prohibition looming, Northampton announced plans to manufacture cereal beverages. During prohibition the brewery was sold to Zeke Parker of Allentown and Connie Dorian, a Philadelphia prize fighter. One worker, Frank “Rocky” Rockas said that the day after prohibition started, federal agents entered the brewery with drawn machine guns and told the workers to sit down and “Don’t move!”
New York Connections
The Chanin family were builders and real estate developers in New York City. Prior to repeal they purchased the Northampton brewery for $110,000. They incorporated as the Northampton Brewery Corp. with officers: I.S. Chanin, president; S.W. Chanin, vice president; B. Crowley, secretary; A. Chanin, treasurer and John Dibb, manager.
Irwin S. Chanin was responsible for a number of projects in Manhattan including the fifty-six-story tall Chanin Building, the city’s first art deco structure, as well as the Roxy Theater. The Chanin Building was surpassed in height by, and is across the street from, the Chrysler Building. Irwin and brother Henry formed the Chanin Construction Company, so their interest in Northampton may very well have some connection with the cement industry.
Success After Repeal
The Northampton Brewery Corp. was capitalized with $1.800,000 in capital stock, spent $100,000 upgrading the plant and had Tru-Blu on the market May 5, 1933.
In 1934 they introduced the slogan: “Made at Home by Home Folks for Home Folks” and emphasized their “local sourcing” of people and materials. In an effort to improve their product the brewery spent $50,000 on a recipe from a brewing school but only used it a short time as the customers preferred the old Tru-Blu, which enjoyed wide distribution up and down the eastern seaboard. A newspaper ad from the Oakland, CA Tribune features Tru-Blu White Seal Beer in a flat top can, suggesting distribution from coast to coast.
Three crowns from Northampton’s bottling plant in Washington D.C. the third bearing the Maryland State Seal. The fourth is from the bottling plant at East Bay and Vernon Sts. in Charleston, South Carolina. An ad in the local paper from June 1938 proclaimed: Tru-Blu White Seal Beer (silver blue and black label) and TRU-BLU Ten Star Ale (green, gold and black label) a ‘Charleston Favorite for More Than Five Years!’ (Strisofsky Collection)
The Chanin family formed the Brewery Management Corp. of New York to handle their brewing interests, and in 1943 purchased V. Loewer’s Gambrinus brewery in New York City for $100,000.
Production peaked during World War II with lots of overtime for the workers and beer being shipped to Army camps in the Carolinas and Georgia. After the war, workers were scheduled to work only every other week.
The end for Northampton Brewery Corp. came when brewmaster Sam Duld died in November 1949. Pennsylvania’s “51% Law” required the majority shareholder to be a Pennsylvania resident, and with Duld’s death they no longer met that requirement. Duld’s career had spanned over forty years, starting with Nuding and Lieberman breweries in Allentown, with the majority of time being brewmaster at Northampton. The Loewer plant in New York had been closed a year before and noting industry trends Brewery Management Corp. probably thought it better to call it quits than find a straw man residing in Pennsylvania to hold the majority of shares.
Locals remained optimistic as seen in the official program of the town of Northampton’s Golden Anniversary in 1952, which stated that operations at the brewery had been “temporarily suspended.” But three years later everything was for sale at auction. The inventory provides the ultimate inside view: 250 and 75 barrel copper jacketed brew kettles, 55,000 barrels of Oak and Cypress Horizontal and vertical tanks, 13,900 barrels of steel glass lined tanks, along with packaging equipment and other sundries. A Coplay businessman purchased the property and ran a variety of business there. It changed hands and is still in use but the bottling house was torn down in 2000 for a church parking lot.
Discovering the Brewery
My foray into breweries of the Lehigh Valley began in July of 1981, a year after my first “brewery tour” visiting six of the nine breweries in Pennsylvania. The girlfriend that accompanied me on that tour was now my wife. Anna enjoyed field trips so we spent a day tracking down breweries in Allentown, Catasauqua and Northampton based on information provided by “beer can collectors” Larry Handy and Alan Williams III.
When we located the old Northampton brewery we were engaged in conversation by an old timer on his porch across the street. His name was John Herman and he had worked at “Tru-Blu” until they closed. He then logged another twenty odd years in Allentown at the Horlacher brewery. As it turns out my conversation with the former brewery worker was one of my earliest efforts to record oral history. I took notes as he spoke and even drew a diagram of the building and labeled its parts.
John told us that the original brewery burned down and was rebuilt shortly after the turn of the last century. During prohibition his father was responsible for starting up the machinery and firing the boilers once a month just to keep everything in working order. At some point they got caught selling “real beer.” He described how the bottling house across from the brewery was laid out, remembering that in the old days bottles were capped using a machine with a foot pedal before the machinery was powered by steam and that there was an ice making machine before installation of a modern ammonia refrigerating system. John talked about the fermenting cellars and storage house, the racking room, keg wash house, engine room and boiler house, essentially giving us a virtual tour. He went into detail about how a circular fiber filter removed yeast from the finished beer, which was sold in “cakes” to farmers. He remembered that a brewery strike in New York City in 1949 opened up markets for Northampton in North Carolina and Georgia. “But they went out of business in 1950, producing around 40,000 barrels,” he said adding that the post war years were the heyday when production peaked around 150,000 barrels.
The Lehigh Valley Brewery Tour
In 1992 Lehigh County Historical Society hosted “A Taste of History” program of events that included a spectacular exhibit of breweriana by local collectors. I gave a slide show and created a tour of defunct breweries throughout the region which involved me putting together a guidebook and creating a “Chronology of Brewing in the Lehigh Valley” for the historical society.
I had met Charlie Lieberman a decade earlier while attending a meeting of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas. His family owned a brewery in Allentown prior to prohibition and Charlie cut his teeth working in some of the local breweries that came back after repeal. He became the de facto tour guide and regaled participants with firsthand accounts of the long vacant breweries we visited.
When we arrived at Northampton, John Herman couldn’t resist coming out to see what a bus load of people were doing on his street. He and Charlie remembered each other from their days at Horlacher, which prompted more stories.
Nearly a decade later, lifelong resident, retired teacher and historian Ed Pany wrote a four-part story for the Copley Whitehall Press chronicling the history of the Northampton brewery through conversations with the people who worked there and some of their relatives. Of course, he interviewed John Herman and unlocked even more of his memories.
John’s father Joseph was a carpenter from Austria who helped rebuild the brewery and subsequently became one of its first employees. As the story goes, Mr. Laubach approached his men one day and asked them if they could pronounce Tru-Blu. Most were German speakers, or were fluent in the local Pennsylvania Dutch dialect and all responded “We can say Tru-Blu up here!” and that’s how he named the beer.
Northampton began acquiring hotel properties and Joseph Herman applied his carpentry skills there. Eventually he began repairing machinery in the brewery. His skill enabled him to be the only employee during prohibition (and the depression), responsible for starting up the machinery for three days each month to keep it in good condition.
He fondly remembered the dozen or so horses that lived beneath the bottling house. They pulled wagons in summer and sleighs full of beer in winter. He got his job at the brewery two years out of high school in 1931, $14 for fifty hours a week, $17 after he was promoted to foreman. John also remembered rolling 200 pound full barrels of beer onto the three boxcars per week that left the brewery. He said on Saturdays locals would bring their little red wagons and load them up with beer for $2.00 a case.
Mr. Pany was in a unique position of knowing the history and people in his community to add depth, color, and a human dimension to its history.
Upate 12-05-16: Mark Porambo furnished some images showing what is now an interior wall with the “Stock House Northampton Brewery” sign still visible. Check the image of the paperweight. This raises the question about what the fire destroyed, and what was rebuilt. The roof line is visible in Mark's pic showing that at some point another floor was added. Absent of more maps, perhaps an account of the fire in the local newspaper of the day might offer more answers.
Cover: Northampton B.C. Lithograph. Atlas Cement Memorial Museum.
Earliest known photograph of Northampton brewery used in a paper weight. The obverse lists Pilsner and Würzburger styles claiming “None Better Brewed”. (Andrew Collection)
Postcard view of the new Northampton brewery. (Strisofsky Collection)
Painting by B. Paul, 2000.
1901 ad from a city directory. (Andrew Collection).
Beautiful detail of a bottle of Valhalla Beer featured on a litho. (Andrew Collection)
Ad from Allentown Morning Call, 1913. (Andrew Collection)
Rare pre-prohibition tray. (Strisofsky Collection)
A crew of coopers was brought in from Easton to rebuild 75 wooden tanks and vats that had fallen into disrepair during prohibition. (Strisofsky Collection)
In August 1935 Northampton Brewery Corp. signed a contract for lithographed beer containers with the National Can Co. which installed a High Speed Production Unit at Northampton. (Strisofsky Collection)
View of the bottle shop pictured in Northampton – The Town That Wants You, by Ray F. Wahl, 1941. (Easton Public Library)
Ashtray made from can stock. (Strisofsky Collection)
Cans. (Strisofsky Collection)
View of Northampton’s bottling plant at 4th & Channing NE, Washington, D.C. (1936-39)
Pennsylvania required a crown tax be paid on each closure on bottles and cans. (Strisofsky Collection)
Northampton crowns. (Strisofsky Collection)
Northampton’s “Blue Boy” and Loewer “Flower Girl” trays from the period. (Demcyzcyn Collection)
The owners of Northampton Brewery Corp. were responsible for constructing the Chanin Building in New York which was the first Art Deco building in the city. The style of brewery’s trade show exhibit and bar at the Grand Central Palace Hotel reflect the style.
Brewery-issued Art Deco lighters. (Demcyzcyn Collection)
Mike Wampole videotaped the Lehigh Valley Brewery Tour. There are YouTube videos are on my website.
Charlie Lieberman explains the inner workings of the five story stock house to Larry Handy and Rich Wagner
View from the railroad tracks taken in 1981.