American Breweriana Journal May/June 2020
Unaffiliated Breweries of Western Pennsylvania
By Rich Wagner
The greater Pittsburgh area has been primarily known for its iron and steel production, all made possible by an abundant supply of coal. As a result, Pittsburgh became known as the “Smoky City.” During WWII, with round-the-clock production darkening the atmosphere, the street lights actually had to be turned on day and night. All that production is thirsty work, so the region also had the nation’s largest number of breweries grouped together in what came to be known locally as the “combines,” or corporations that absorbed nearly 40 formerly independent companies. The Pittsburgh Brewing Co. (PBC), formed in 1899 with 22 branches; the Independent Brewing Co. of Pittsburgh (IBCP) started with 17 branches in 1905.
For the last ABA convention in Pittsburgh, Will Hartlep wrote about the Independent Brewing Co. of Pittsburgh and I had an article featuring the branches of the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. (ABJ 141 May/June 2006). But what of the 50 breweries that were left out, either by chance or choice? In this article we will take a look at breweries in a 50-mile radius around Pittsburgh that were unaffiliated with the two major combines.
British investment money was behind a slew of syndications throughout the nation, but not in Pennsylvania. The PBC and IBCP were the state’s largest combines, but there were three others: Pennsylvania Central B.C. based in Scranton (12 branches), Consumers in Philadelphia (6 branches), and Consumers in Erie (4 branches).
Consolidation was the natural result of all the syndications. The older and smaller plants were the first to go, sometimes closed to eliminate duplication. Closures meant real estate and capital equipment revenue for the corporation as well as a reduction in labor cost.
The PBC closed five branches within a year after incorporation; two more in 1904. Within five years after the IBCP formed they closed three branches.
PIC Liberty B.C. was only one of a handful of unaffiliated breweries in Pittsburgh. This view was featured in Otto C. Wolf’s book showing “works executed” in 1906. (Van Wieren Collection)
In the city of Pittsburgh, the combines dominated the landscape with 19 branches: PBC with 14 and IBCP with 5, leaving eight unaffiliated breweries in the city. Outside of Pittsburgh, there were cities with unaffiliated breweries competing with the combines, and in others there were multiple unaffiliated breweries. In Latrobe, the PBC and IBCP had branches across the street from one another!
Some combinations were announced but never materialized. Such was the case with attempts to merge breweries in the Lehigh Valley, the southern anthracite region and central Pennsylvania.
In February 1910 The Western Brewer reported that a holding company capitalized with $7.5M had the intention of merging all nine breweries in the county as the Fayette County B.C. In September it reported the company was in the process of merging five breweries: the Connellsville and Uniontown branches of the PBC and the unaffiliated Yough B.C., also in Connellsville, Brownsville B.C. and Johnson B.C. in New Salem. PBC even held a special meeting to ratify the sale of their two branches. What ended up happening was featured in an illustrated article the following year showing the new Fayette B.C., a 20,00-barrel plant completed for $60,000 in Uniontown.
One has to wonder if some companies were formed for the purpose of being an attractive acquisition by the syndicates rather than trying to compete with them. There were so many start-ups around this time it was like the craft brewing renaissance of today; everybody saw money to be made and wanted to get in on it.
PIC Caption 01 Crescent B.C. of Irwin had two branches. (Ball Collection)
The Crescent B.C. started in Irwin, PA in 1903. Two years later the company acquired the Union B.C., a fairly new brewery in Tarrs, about fifteen miles to the south. In 1910 a group of investors involved with Crescent B.C. purchased the five-year-old Eagle brewery in Duquesne Township. It became the Duquesne branch Crescent B.C. three years later.
PIC Caption 02 Victor B.C., Jeannette, PA. (The Western Brewer November 1907)
Jeannette was home to the National Brewing Co. in business just three years when it merged with the PBC. The Victor Brewing Co. was formed in 1908 and remained unaffiliated. After Repeal, Victor had two branches from 1936-38: the Greensburg B.C. and Hyde Park B.C., until the brewery was slammed with a $250,000 federal lawsuit for tax evasion dating back to 1921. Fort Pitt B.C. acquired Victor as part of its bankruptcy settlement and made it a branch. Two former Victor employees attempted to reopen the Greensburg brewery as Old Reliable B.C. but it closed within a year.
Towns with Multiple Breweries
PIC Caption 03 Fayette B.C., Uniontown (The Western Brewer September 1901)
Uniontown had four breweries. Uniontown B.C. was established in 1898, and joined PBC the following year. The three unaffiliated breweries were all built in the first decade of the twentieth century. Fayette B.C. and Labor B.C. both remained in business until 1920. Highhouse B.C. was formed in 1907 and lasted only three years. After repeal, PBC operated the Uniontown branch until 1948.
PIC Caption 04 This view of the Greensburg B.C. is featured in a book showing “works executed” published by Otto C. Wolf in 1906. (Van Wieren Collection)
Greensburg is the seat of Westmoreland County and had two unaffiliated breweries. In addition to the previously mentioned Greensburg B.C., there was the Star B.C., formed in 1905. It reorganized as Club B.C. after repeal but did not survive a year.
PIC Caption 05 Roth brewery, Monongahela, PA. (“Uncle Ernie” Oest c. 1953)
Monongahela, known affectionately as “Mon City,” is the oldest town in the valley at the mouth of Pigeon Creek as the Monongahela River snakes its way 30 miles northward to the confluence. The Anton B.C. was formed in 1900 and became a branch of the IBCP. After repeal it returned as the unaffiliated Stag Brewing Co. for four years.
There were three unaffiliated breweries in Monongahela during this period. Booth’s Pigeon Creek Brewery (1884-1902) and Riverview Brewing and Distilling (1885-1910). Riverview continued as a distillery.
What came to be known as the Monongahela Brewing Co. dated back to the 1870s. Andreas Roth purchased the brewery in 1893. It remained unaffiliated and reopened after repeal as Roth B.C. for two years.
PIC Caption 06 Tube City B.C., McKeesport, PA. (The Western Brewer December 1904)
McKeesport’s growth was spurred by its proximity to coal deposits and the completion of the C & O canal. It is probably best known for the National Tube Co. which was a major employer. The McKeesport B.C. began in 1897 and became a branch of PBC two year later. Tube City B.C. was formed in 1903, remained unaffiliated, and survived prohibition. Joseph S. Pickett, of Dubuque Star fame, was master brewer for nearly a decade after repeal. When it closed in 1955, the same year as Fort Pitt’s demise, the region was left with four breweries.
Braddock had two breweries: Braddock B.C. opened in 1897 and closed six years later. Home B.C. was established in 1902, became a branch of the IBCP. It was reorganized after repeal as the unaffiliated General Braddock Brewing Corp. (1933-37).
PIC Caption 07 Standard B.C. of New Castle, PA (Ball Collection)
New Castle became a manufacturing center in the days of canals and later became a hub for the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad. The city had two unaffiliated breweries. In 1891 the English Syndicate had purchased a brewery dating back to 1865. Five years later the New Castle Brewing Co. was formed and purchased the business. They built a modern brewery which remained in business until 1911 when Lawrence County went dry (1911-16). New Castle’s other brewery dated back to 1850 and was incorporated as the Standard B.C. in 1895. Known as the Union B.C. after repeal it remained in business until 1948.
Connellsville was home to two breweries. Connellsville B.C. had been in business 8 years before joining PBC and lasted until prohibition. The Yough Brewing Co., so-named for the Youghiogheny River, was incorporated in 1899 after the brewery had been operating for just over a decade. This unaffiliated brewery survived prohibition and remained in business until 1941.
PIC Caption 08 Zelt Brewery, Washington, PA. (Simms Collection)
Washington was home to three unaffiliated breweries. The Crescent Brewing Co. (not related to the one in Irwin) was formed in 1898 and lasted until prohibition. Star Brewing Co. was incorporated in 1902 and didn’t last a decade. Zelt’s brewery dated back to 1845. At the turn of the century it was still in the family, becoming known as Zelt & Bros., Washington Brewery.
After repeal the Crescent brewery was reorganized as the Washington B.C. and remained in business until 1940.
PIC Caption 09 Fort Pitt B.C. was formed in Sharpsburg to compete with the PBC and IBCP in 1906 and was a major player in the post-prohibition landscape as well. Stock House addition 1934. (Strisofsky Collection)
In 1920, nearly a quarter of the region’s breweries closed, at least according to the legal record. All those listings in ABIII that show plants shutting down in 1920 don’t necessarily reflect what was really going on during prohibition, a time when steel workers demanded beer, saying water didn’t quench their thirst after 12 hours in front of a blast furnace. Some Eastern European immigrants chose to return to their home countries when prohibition arrived as it was such an intolerable affront to their way of life!
Thirty-three of the breweries came back after repeal. This represented nearly 40% of the pre-prohibition breweries, mirroring a nation-wide trend. PBC came back with half a dozen branches, IBCP licensed 7 branches and there were 16 unaffiliated companies. Each category closed two branches within the first year. A dozen wouldn’t make it through the 1930s and the 1950s were a steady, agonizing decline, with 8 more down the tubes. PBC’s plant in Latrobe was reorganized by the Tito brothers in 1934 as an unaffiliated company which became famous for their ACL pony bottles of Rolling Rock Beer. The second-to-last PBC branch to close came in 1952 when the Eberhardt & Ober brewery on Pittsburgh’s north side closed.
Duquesne was the first and last brewery of the IBCP when it closed in 1972. It could have become a branch of Schmidt’s of Philadelphia, but for whatever reason that company got the brands and purchased a brewery in Cleveland instead.
PIC Caption 10 View of the re-developed portion of the old Eberhard & Ober branch of the PBC reincarnated as a brewery in 1989. (Wagner 2001)
In 1989 entrepreneur Tom Pastorius brought the Eberhard & Ober brewery back to life as Pennsylvania B.C. He had begun a few years earlier by contract brewing with PBC, which operated from what had been its anchor, the Iron City branch. Later he contracted with Jones Brewing Co. in Smithton before becoming Pennsylvania’s first brewpub.
PIC Caption 11 Eureka Brewing Co., Smithton (The Western Brewer June 1908)
Two of the region’s breweries survived into the 21st century. The unaffiliated Jones brewery in Smithton began in 1907 as the Eureka B.C. William B. Jones III, the grandson of the founder, died in 1986, and the family sold the business two years later. The new owner basically milked the brewery dry and went out of business in 2002.
Iron City was the first and last branch of the PBC when it closed in 2009. Its post-prohibition saga reads like a roller coaster ride. It seemed like nearly everybody that bought the brewery was involved in shady dealings, and in one case, it was owned by a wealthy Australian art collector. In the end, after a protracted battle over water bills, it closed, but there is hope that part of the development of the site will include a brewpub.
PIC Caption 12 Interior of brew house of Latrobe B.C. (Wagner 1980)
Today the brewery in Latrobe is owned by City Brewing Co. of LaCrosse, WI. The old Rolling Rock plant had its ups and downs after repeal, finally being sold to LaBatt in 1987. The brand was sold to Anheuser-Busch which moved production to Newark, NJ where they still had “glass-lined tanks.” City Brewing purchased the plant in 2007. They do a great deal of contract brewing and ironically, produce many of the brands formerly brewed in the region.
Captions for images in Folder “OtherUnaffiliated”
PIC Caption 101 Aliquippa B.C. (Ball Collection)
PIC Caption 102 The Harmony-Economy B.C. was a latecomer and didn’t make it to prohibition (1908-1916)
PIC Caption 103 Brownsville B.C. (Raub)
PIC Caption 104 Brackenridge B.C. (“Uncle Ernie” Oest c. 1950)
PIC Caption 105 The Hazelwood B.C. returned as the Derby B.C. after repeal (1934-38).
PIC Caption 106 Liberty B.C. (1904-1920) was featured in a book published by Otto C. Wolf showing “works executed.” (Van Wieren Collection)
PIC Caption 107 Beaver Valley B.C. in Rochester, PA was another short-lived latecomer (1905-11). (Ball Collection)
PIC Caption 108 Rockwood B.C. was an ale brewery that started 1908. It came back after repeal as Belmont Ale Brewery Corp. (1934-45) and switched to bottling spirits.
PIC Caption 109 Moose B.C. in Roscoe, PA (1903-50).
PIC Caption 110 The post-prohibition architecture of the Fort Pitt B.C. in Sharpsburg stands out as being in the “art deco” style. (Wagner 1994)
PIC Caption 111 The Westmoreland B.C. in Sutersville (1899-1920).
PIC Caption 112 Remaining buildings of the Zelt B.C. in Washington, PA (Wagner 2014)
A number of captions listed were for photographs intended for the article but which did not appear because of limited number of pages available for the printed article. Also, the following tables were not in the printed version of the article. May 4, 2020
Western Pennsylvania Breweries
Arranged by Affiliation
In business at the time of PBC organization (1899)
Within a roughly 50 mile radius around Pittsburgh
Created by R. Wagner 2020
The Same List of
Western Pennsylvania Breweries
Arranged by Date of Closure