American Breweriana Journal March/April 2020
Beer Vaults I Have Known and Loved …and Some I’ve Only Heard About
By Rich Wagner
00 Brewers Gazette February 1879
Sometimes brewery preservation is best accomplished underground. Or so it would seem, judging from the number of beer vaults that keep making the news as they are uncovered during construction projects. My website has a list containing over 400 known standing brewery buildings. There are 31 listed as containing cellar, caves or vaults. Wisconsin boasts 10, Pennsylvania has 5 and Missouri and Iowa each have 4. There are links to print and video media about a number of recently uncovered vaults.
Talon Brewery Vaults, Quebec City
Of course, the most elegant vaults are stone cellars which can be found back to the earliest civilizations. In December 1951 American Brewer published an article which stated that in 1903 the Boswell Brewery in Quebec City dubbed the cellars beneath their old malting plant the “Talon Vaults” and used them as a reception center for visitors. Jean Talon was in charge of the French Colony and built the King’s Brewery in 1668, presumably the first in North America. Gary Gillman is a local brewery historian who more recently has done a great deal of research which shows the vaults were not part of the original brewery. They were built beneath a second “palace,” upon the ruins of which Boswell built his brewery and were constructed long after Jean Talon’s time. He further found references to archeological evidence for the existence of vaults beneath the original brewery which was only 50-meters away. It should be noted that 2 million visitors visited the vaults beneath Boswell’s brewery from the 1950s to 1970s when it closed.
01 Postcard. (Seidel Collection)
Globe Brewery Vaults, Baltimore, MD
The Globe Brewery in Baltimore had the distinction of being on the property where Leonard and Daniel Barnitz built a one-story brewery with underground vaults in 1744. The stone was imported from England and the vaults measured 120 ft. by 75 ft., rising to a height of 9 ft. The article went on to say that modern-day architects marveled at their beauty and strength of construction. Unfortunately, the 132 ft. tall malt house which was built on the ground above was threatening the integrity of the vaults with a strain never contemplated by the builders.
02 Globe brewery vaults. (One Hundred Years of Brewing)
Kevin Kious and Don Roussin did a Landmarks Tour of St. Louis Brewery sites in 2010 and there were a number of vaults and caves described. John Medkeff, Jr. recently shared an article with me entitled “Cave Beneath the Castle” about beer vaults beneath the Jacob Schmidt brewery in St. Paul. Following up online, I discovered links to “St. Paul Underground” and “Explore St. Louis” with links to even more beer vaults in those cities.
The landscape of Wisconsin is a veritable museum of glacial features, the Badger State even boasts of having an “Ice Age Trail” for the Pleistocene-inclined. The various kames, moraines and drumlins appear as piles of loam, sand, gravel and rocks which can be tunneled into but require some sort of roofing. When I visited the old Mineral Springs brewery, I was greeted by Tom Johnston, a potter who runs the place. The old vaults are part of his studio and he gave me full reign to wander around with my camera.
03 Mineral Springs beer cellars. (Wagner October 2010)
04 Potosi Brewing uses the old vaults for their “cave-aged” beers and tourists can peer inside to see a nineteenth century beer cellar. (Wagner 2008)
Beer vaults are generally associated with the rise of lager beer in America, but caves and underground cellars have been a place to store perishables or offer protection, for Millenia. Presumably it was the monks in Bavaria that experimented with extended cold fermentation and storage which led to the cultivation of bottom fermenting yeast associated with lager beer.
05 Yuengling’s “Beer Tunnel.” (Thom Carroll, Phillyvoice)
“America’s Oldest Brewery” is in Pottsville which was the de facto “capital” of Pennsylvania’s southern anthracite fields. D.G. Yuengling had no trouble finding miners to blast and drill a “tunnel” into the side of the mountain connected to his brewery. Nearly two centuries later, what once served as a cool space for “ripening beer” is now part of a tour that attracts people from around the world.
06 Extant cellar of Yuengling’s James River Steam Brewery in Richmond, VA. (Historical Marker Database)
07 In Richmond, Virginia, remnants of vaults from Yuengling’s James River Steam Brewery just got a historic marker and there are plans for making them part of a public park. A historic marker is something that can galvanize public support for this type of preservation project, leading to action in obtaining grants for development. (Historical Marker Database)
Rettig was another brewery was in Pottsville and had a similar vault carved into the base of a cliff. The brewery never came back after repeal. It was torn down and replaced with a gas station. Jay Herbein is a native of Pottsville who got the “caving bug” while a student at Penn State in the late 1950s. A decade later, he was studying surveying and decided to combine two skill sets and investigate the old Rettig tunnel. He tells me he talked to the guys at the gas station about his plan and conveniently someone removed a single cinder block from the walled-up entrance. He had to remove his coveralls to wriggle through the opening and got scraped up in the process. Once inside, Jay ignited the carbide light on his helmet and with tape measure in hand proceeded with his survey. He discovered a “bootleg mine” that followed a coal seam up from where it intersected the vault’s ceiling. The tunnel was U-shaped, about 150 feet long, with two entrances cut into the rock.
08 Jay’s map of Rettig brewery’s “beer tunnel” re-drawn from memory in 1999. He gave the original to Richard Yuengling, Sr. the father of the current owner. Jay says he’s explored “a couple hundred” wild caves.
In 1859 lager beer had just surpassed the sale of ale in Philadelphia and Edwin Freedly described the vaults of the Engel & Wolf brewery at Fountain Green on the Schuylkill River:
“The beer made in the winter is lighter, and may be drawn five or six weeks after brewing, but the real Lager is made in cold weather, has a greater body- that is, more malt and hops are used- and is first drawn about the first of May. It is much improved by age and by keeping in a cool place. When first drawn it is five months old: and as it is usually made in December, it is ten months old when the last is drawn.
"Messrs. Engel & Wolf …have seven vaults, in five of which 50,350 cubic feet were cut out of solid rock. The bottom of the vaults is about forty-five feet below ground. …The vaults …contain solid stone exterior walls. These are subdivided by brick partitions into cellars or vaults of about twenty by forty feet, and connected with each other by a door large enough to admit a puncheon (large cask). There is a smaller door or aperture, about two feet square, barely sufficient to allow the passage of a keg.
"After the brewing has commenced, say in December, …the most remote cellar or vault is filled- the ground tier, consisting of large casks, usually three rows far enough apart to permit a man to walk between. On these two rows of casks are placed; and above these, if the vault is high enough, one row of smaller casks or kegs are stowed. …(when full) the door is closed, and straw, tan [spent bark from the tannery] and other non-conductors are placed to keep out the external heated air of summer. The vaults are ventilated, and the temperature kept as low as possible. Should it exceed 50 Fahrenheit, the beer spoils...”
09-10 Casks stacked in vault. (One Hundred Years of Brewing)
Bergdoll Brewery Vaults, Philadelphia
In the 1980s there were tax breaks for developing vacant industrial buildings. The Bergdoll brewery complex was nearly completely intact except for the malt house and grain elevator. Today all of the buildings have been beautifully converted into housing.
11 On my first Philadelphia Brewery Tour (May 1987), we arrived at Bergdoll to witness excavation of vaults in progress, being destroyed to make way for new foundations.
Morris Brewery Vaults, Philadelphia
The Morris family is one of the oldest in Philadelphia. They had three or four breweries in what is now known as Old City. One was on Bread Street and operated from the mid-1700s to the end of the century. It burned down and was replaced by a foundry.
Around the same time as the Bergdoll Condominiums were being launched, a developer created the Castings Condominiums out of the foundry. Part of the approval for the project stipulated that the vaults be made available to scholars. The local chapter of the Society for Industrial Archeology was granted access and later the vaults became a stop on my Philadelphia Brewery Tour.
12 Plan of the vaults done as part of the archeological survey which revealed four inaccessible secondary vaults. The main vault is 27 feet by 63 ft. Before all the construction debris was added the vault would have risen to about 20 ft. at the crown of the arched ceiling.
13 Screenshot of video taken in the Morris brewery vaults. There were three hand-forged rods strapped across the width, presumably for support. Construction debris had filled up much of the vault which was arched and made of vitrified brick, the cellars also contained what appeared to be chutes at regular intervals which could have served as both ventilation and a way to get ice or goods down to the cellar. (Wagner 1996)
In the Lehigh Valley there are a number of extant vaults and at least three were located in towns that began as Moravian settlements in the region. The vaults of the Kuebler brewery are along the Delaware River just south of Easton and someone created a YouTube video of their foray inside.
Moravian Colony at Christian Springs, PA
14 Photograph of the vaults at Christian Springs. (Roll Out the Barrel Exhibit, Historic Bethlehem 2009)
Dr. Dave Small contacted me in 2009. As Lehigh University’s only archeology professor, he had seen a “Possible Projects” link on my website suggesting that remnants of the eighteenth-century brewery/distillery of the Moravian colony might be worthy of a dig.
There were photographs of the old brewery in One Hundred Years of Brewing and, based on them I thought the old cellar was visible from the road. He and his students took the challenge and during the fall semester dutifully reported every Sunday to conduct the dig. We ended up determining that the brewery must have been elsewhere and of course, that resulted in even more unanswered questions and subsequent investigations.
15 Dr. Dave Small, Archeology Professor, Lehigh University with students doing a dig in a vault on the site of the Moravian colony. (Wagner 2009)
Rennig’s Brewery, Lower Saucon Twp., PA.
Dave’s office is in Rennig’s brewery saloon. When the property was absorbed by the school it became a dormitory. Next door is the entrance to Rennig’s brewery vault beyond which, the old brewery stable presently in use by the landscaping crew.
Dave invited me for a tour and I asked life-long Bethlehem resident and local breweriana collector Ernie Illich to join us. Dave’s grad assistant took care of lighting our way. Rennig’s vault is lined in brick rather than stone. There were at least two vaults laid out in series with a vent in one going to the top of the mound. Then, there were two more intersecting laterally to either side of the main vault. Each of these appeared to be a two-vault series. The main vault had a trough along one side that ended in a reservoir near the entrance.
The vaults are currently closed and there are no plans to develop them, but if Dave Small’s wishes come true that will change and they could literally be a learning lab for archeology, history, architectural and engineering students at Lehigh University!
16 Cornerstone. (Wagner 2009)
17 Inside Rennig’s vault Dr. Dave Small illuminates the entrance to a side vault. (Wagner 2009)
Widman Vaults, Bethlehem, PA
Bethlehem was also a Moravian settlement. Historic Bethlehem maintains the Goundie House which is located on the main street of town which is located high above the floodplain where the original industrial section of town which has been preserved. Directly below Goundie’s house are beer vaults that were later used by the Widman brewery. On my Lehigh Valley Brewery tour (July 1992), retired brewmaster Charlie Lieberman became our de facto tour guide as he had worked in half the old breweries we visited.
18 Mike Wampole films the interior of Goundie/Widman vault as part of the Lehigh Valley Brewery Tour. (Wagner July, 1992)
Eagle Brewery, Emmaus, PA
Emmaus is another town in the Lehigh Valley that began as a Moravian colony. In 1868 Egner & Smith started a brewery on the mountainside overlooking the town where they carved beer vaults. The brewery changed hands over the years and went out of business in 1884.
The area around the beer vaults in Emmaus were a popular picnic-grounds. A modern-day homebrewer from Bavaria told me that it is still common for there to be beer gardens adjacent to vaults and people enjoy “keller bier” (unfiltered) right from the vault. It is likely that was the case in Emmaus and even after the brewery closed it was a popular picnic spot with a nice cool place to keep provisions cold.
19 Today vault entrance serves as a backstop for the Unami Gun Club firing range. (Wagner 1992)
Bubes Brewery and Hotel, Mount Joy, PA
In 1982 Rich Dochter and myself explored the south-central part of Pennsylvania. After being disappointed by the lack of extant brewery complexes in Lancaster and Harrisburg we poked around looking for some of the pre-industrial sites from mid-nineteenth century. Somewhere along the way a local asked, “Have you been to Bube’s (pronounced BOO Bees) in Mount Joy?”
We were dumbfounded at what we found. The complex included a railroad hotel that had been connected with the brewery. Sam Allen, a young entrepreneur took a rundown property and developed a thriving business with three restaurants, a regular entertainment schedule and a popular tourist attraction in Lancaster County’s “Pennsylvania Dutch Country.”
Special dinners are held downstairs in the “catacombs” where large wooden casks bear witness to the cellar’s purpose. At the turn of this century Sam Allen realized his dream of having beer brewed at Bube’s and installed a nano-brewing system.
20 In 1985 I brewed a batch of homebrew in the kitchen and that evening attended a Halloween costume ball/dinner in the catacombs.
Lauer Brewery Vaults, Reading, PA
21 Ad. Brewer’s Lamp (Western Brewer 1883)
22 Ad. Wrought Iron Cellar Lamp (Western Brewer 1903)
In 1874 a reporter for the Boston Journal of Commerce, described his tour of Lauer’s brewery vaults conducted by Frederick Lauer himself:
“…Facing the visitor …stand two sets of frowning doors of great proportions, strap-hinged, mammoth locked and latched. Taking a candle with its peculiarly twisted stand, Mr. Lauer swings back the slide from a man-hole in one of the doors and says with a cheerful smile - 'All right, come on.' Once in, the slide closes with its own gravity and a reverberation howls from dome to floor and from side to side. The eye opens wide to take in nothing but darkness, chill runs over the body, and it is a minute before the rush-light of the candle throws a ghostly gleam through the long-galleried vault. There are three vaults in the building exactly like the one in which we stand; they run the entire depth from the wash room, and are seventeen feet high and twenty feet wide.
"These were quarried from solid rock, and are therefore as dry and chilly as one can well imagine. In this respect as well as in others, the vaults of Mr. Lauer's brewery surpass those of any other in the country, and it is the tone which the cold, dry, natural atmosphere these granite vaults give to his beer which has gained it such a national reputation. One constantly pictures Gorgons in dark places, and these tremendous stock-casks fretting either side of the gallery wrought themselves in my fancy to the shapes of trunks of old time giants, and what were two men in the hands of so many monstrous powers?
“…Suppose a head of one of these casks should fly out, and we should be in front of it? Suppose the light should go out and I should get separated from my guide? …Why our very footfalls sounded like the tread of an army, and twice I turned around to see who they could be who were in following…”
Kauffman/Moerlein Brewery Vaults Cincinnati, OH
The “Over the Rhein” section of Cincinnati was loaded with breweries and recent efforts at preservation have included public tours of the vaults beneath what had been part of Kauffman Brewery, the property later taken over by Moerlein. These vaults are spectacular and were surveyed using laser imaging. They had been giving tours until recently, when a fire broke out in the brewery building making its future uncertain.
23 Laser survey showing the layout of the vaults. (Over the Rhein Facebook Group)
24 Laser survey showing interior of the vaults. (Over the Rhein Facebook Group)
Felix Brewery Vault Reading, PA
Recently an article in the Reading Eagle showed a photograph of the entrance to the vaults of the Felix Brewery on the side of Neversink Mountain in Reading. The city’s Public Safety Director was interviewed and said he hoped the vaults could be stabilized and preserved, but said they might not be a top priority for a city with many more pressing matters. I communicated with the author of the article and she told me that a local Vo-Tech instructor saw the article and had volunteered to stabilize the vaults as a summer project.
Perhaps some of Reading-area brewers could use the preserved vaults for aging specialty beers and give tours. There are currently “Beer Trails” that attract tourists, adding historic destinations (there is a statue of Frederick Lauer in City Park) to the brewpubs enhances their appeal. And let’s not forget the role breweriana collectors can have in creating interest in this type of project.
Irving Cliff Brewery Vaults, Honesdale, PA
That brings us to the fate of the vaults of the Irving Cliff Brewery in Honesdale. Brian Cobb, owner of the present-day Irving Cliff Brewery had been giving tours of the vaults but the city put a stop to that based on liability issues. And so, I wrote this article in the hopes that the vaults in these two Pennsylvania towns can be transformed from being seen as liabilities and turned into assets. Perhaps the examples here can even serve a wider purpose for preservation in general.
25 Rich Dochter speaking with the owner of the property containing Jacob Roop’s brewery vaults dating back to 1826 in Roopsburg, Center County, PA. Today the adjacent house is a bed and breakfast and the vaults are an attraction. (Wagner 1992)
Post Publication Notes
Obviously this is not a comprehensive survey of brewery vaults, that would be an entirely different and time-consuming project. But here are a few that escaped mention in the article:
Tour of Miller Brewery in Milwaukee includes their cellars.
Here are the sites with vaults mentioned from my list of known standing brewery buildings.
Known Standing Brewery Buildings/Structures Listed as Having Caves or Vaults
31 listings with “Cellar” “Cave” or “Vault”