American Breweriana Journal July/August 2018

Breweries on the Schuylkill

By Rich Wagner

 

 00 PHOTO: View of people cutting ice on the Schuylkill with the Fairmount Water Works in the background. BALLOU’S DRAWING-ROOM COMPANION c. 1871 (Philadelphia Water Dept. Archives)

 

My interest in brewery history has connected me with an organization called the Society for Industrial Archeology (SIA). An active chapter in Philadelphia, the Oliver Evans Chapter, is named for a man who, among other things, patented an automated grist mill that could be operated by one man around the turn of the Nineteenth Century. George Washington had an Evans mill at Mount Vernon, and a number working Evans mills are still in place at historical sites.

 

Ed Grusheski, a member of the SIA, had a long career with the Philadelphia Water Department, and his crowning achievement was resurrecting the Fairmount Water works from ruins. It took a great deal of money, time and effort but today the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center is a showcase of the Philadelphia Water Department. Exhibits about water and biology include a fish ladder cam and impressive machines left from when it was an active pumping station.

 

It has become a favorite place for the SIA to meet. The first time I went there I noticed a map of the Schuylkill River represented by sinks connected by pipes representing locations of towns that drew water from the river. Of course instead of sinks I saw breweries, and that was the inspiration for what became a PowerPoint presentation on the subject.

 

In 2009 I was contacted by the Schuylkill River Heritage Center which is located in the foundry building of the Phoenix Iron Works (later steel mill) in Phoenixville. They hosted a catered event and had me present “Breweries on the Schuylkill,” with Sly Fox Brewing Co. supplying the (canned) beer. My presentation was mostly about the historic breweries, but Sly Fox was an early craft brewer on the Schuylkill having started out in Phoenixville in 1995.

 

When I first heard of the Schuylkill referred to as “one of the nation’s oldest industrial rivers” it made me cringe. As a college student, I had a summer job cleaning up an oil spill in Pottstown after Hurricane Agnes blew into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1972. But industries have relied on rivers from the founding of our nation for water, power, navigation and waste disposal.

 

In February the Montgomery County Historical Society had me do a repeat performance. Only the topic was a repeat, however. I had to expend a considerable amount of shoe leather to visit all the breweries that have opened in the decade since I first developed the program. The Schuylkill River forms the western boundary of Montgomery County so it was perfect. After a great deal of research I gave my updated presentation. Jim Cartin and Larry Handy displayed breweriana on the topic, especially items from the Adam Scheidt Brewing Co. in Norristown, the county seat.

 

01 PHOTO: Jim Cartin displays breweriana from the Schuylkill River Valley at the Montgomery County Historical Society.

 

The late Robert Porter was a lifelong county resident and the quintessential Adam Scheidt collector (ABJ March/April 2003), not to mention his fame among the collecting community for his preservation work, increasing the value of countless collections. His widow attended my presentation and donated historically significant printed items from his collection to the historical society.

 

So morph into a shad or hop into your virtual canoe and follow the course of the river to its headwaters where “America’s Oldest Brewery” (Yuengling) got its start in 1829, the year they finished the Schuylkill Canal. Here we go.

 

Early Dutch explorers sailing up the Delaware River almost missed seeing the mouth of the Schuylkill because of the way it sneaks into the river. They dubbed it a “shy stream” pronounced with a very guttural accent: Schuylkill or SKOO-kill by locals. Today it’s probably most famous for its expressway. The mouth is located between Philadelphia International Airport and what had been the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

 

There had long been talk of a canal to connect Philadelphia with valuable coal fields to the north. Construction began on the water works in 1812 and continued until 1872, just in time for the Centennial Exposition. In 1820 the city built a dam for the water works. The dam ponded the river for six miles upstream, which led to the development of multiple industries, none the least of which were ice harvesting and brewing lager beer.

 

Brewerytown Breweries

 

Fairmount Water Works was on the cutting edge of technology and got a lot of attention during the Centennial Exposition of 1876. It was the gateway to Fairmount Park, created by banishing all industry from the banks of the river for six miles above the Water Works. Just beyond the dam the spectacular Girard Avenue Bridge rises in the distance, and just above it is Brewery Hill Drive, a one way road that winds down the river bank past the site of the old Spring Garden Water Works, another of the city’s historic pumping stations. At the top of the hill looking north is Brewerytown Square, a sea of condominiums that stand where a dozen or so breweries once produced half the city’s beer, their products distributed throughout the country and the world. Bergner & Engel was the largest, being the nation’s third largest brewer around the time of the Centennial Exposition. They absorbed three other breweries and came to dominate the neighborhood at the time of Prohibition (ABJ May/June 2008). The second largest brewer in the neighborhood was F.A. Poth & Sons. A portion of that brewery was home to Red Bell Brewing Co. (1996-02), and it now stands as the last part of the old neighborhood to be developed, awaiting renovation or the wrecking ball.

 

02 PHOTO: Spring Garden Water Works along Brewery Hill Drive with Bergner & Engel’s brewery in Brewerytown in the distance. (Philadelphia Water Department Archives)

 

Just a mile or so north is Fountain Green. The Engel & Wolf brewery purchased property in 1859. The spring supplied water for brewing and cooling, and being situated on the riverbank provided ready access to ice. They had a brewery downtown, and brought wort by ox cart five miles out to their man-made caves at Fountain Green where it would ferment and then lager. But the property was taken through eminent domain in 1870 during the creation of Fairmount Park, at which time Mr. Wolf retired and Mr. Engel joined Bergner in Brewerytown. (ABJ Jan./Feb. 2008)

 

East Falls Breweries

 

As we continue swimming, paddling or mapping our way north, we reach the Falls of the Schuylkill, which were submerged under water after they built the dam in 1820. The community of East Falls was even further out in the country and served as a resort. John F. Betz, one of the nation’s largest brewers, operated a fleet of excursion steam ships that ran from the dam to his Riverside Mansion above the falls. East Falls was another ideal location for digging lager beer vaults in the days before artificial refrigeration and was home to a number of breweries.

 

Stein’s Fountain Park brewery and Hohenadel’s Falls Park brewery were both in park settings. Hohenadel built a second brewery he called the Falls Brewery in 1875, which remained in business until 1953.

 

03 PHOTO: Hohenadel’s first mansion in East Falls has recently been purchased and is being renovated. (2013)

 

04 PHOTO The remains of Hohenadel’s Falls Park brewery in East Falls. Residents believe the hillside is a honeycomb of vaults. One lost some of his backyard to a “sinkhole.” (Free Library of Philadelphia)

 

Today East Falls is home to Wissahickon Brewing Co. which opened in 2017.

 

Manayunk Breweries

 

A little further upstream we encounter the mouth of the Wissahickon Creek, beyond which is Manayunk, a name said to be a corruption of the Leni Lenape expression for “where we go to drink.” Manayunk was to textile mills what Brewerytown was to breweries. When the textile industry went south, so did Manayunk until a revival of stores and restaurants perked things up in the 1980s. Manayunk Brewery and Restaurant was established in 1996 in what had been a water-powered knitting mill at the outfall of the Schuylkill Canal. The brewpub has an extensive deck overlooking the river which affords a view of the “mule bridge,” now an active rail line.

 

I found myself working at Manayunk Brewery and Restaurant as assistant brewer for three years around the turn of the century (this century!). It was a family business run by father and son and the old man told a story of skinny dipping in the river as a kid and igniting coal gas bubbles emerging to the surface from all the coal dust in the river. He insisted one of the beers be called “Schuylkill Punch,” a derogatory name locals used to describe city water back in the day. Appropriately Schuylkill Punch became a pungent raspberry wheat beer and is a top seller. It should be added that in modern times Philadelphia Water Department gets high marks for its product at annual tasting events held by the water industry.

 

I’ll never forget the day the brewer called to tell me I might not have a brewery to return to when Hurricane Floyd flooded the brewery with six feet of water. When I did return the receding water was still nearly covering the stone pillars of the mule bridge and it was scary as the water level was not too far below the level of the patio! We served guest beers in the mean-time (as soon as they shoveled the flopping fish out of the rest rooms) and after massive effort and cleaning, were pouring our own beer for a Halloween party within six weeks.

 

Today Yards Brewing Co. is the city’s largest but they got their start in 1995 in Manayunk cranking out three-barrel batches of dry-hopped keg-conditioned ale. Their British style ESA (one grade higher than ESB) became so popular that their distributor started importing hand pumps for all of Yards’ accounts. When they grew into a fifteen-barrel brew house it was located literally on the banks of the river in Roxborough just north of Manayunk.

 

Conshohocken Breweries

 

Gulph Mills is located eight miles north where a creek by the same name empties into the river. Gulf Brewery (1892-98) was located on Balligomingo Road (try saying that three times in a row).

 

Across the river is another gritty industrial town that has gotten a facelift. Conshohocken was once home to Alan Wood Steel and Lee Tire and you could always tell when you were driving down the Pennsylvania Turnpike in those days and crossed the Schuylkill River because the air smelled like rotten eggs. But all that industry resulted in thirsty workers. The Conshohocken Brewery dates back to 1893 and has been converted to housing. One of the only things I’ve found about the brewery was an obscure reference about them using the upper floor as a union hall where “Iron Mike” would rally the troops.

 

05 PHOTO Conshohocken Brewing Co. was later known as the Crystal Spring Brewing Co. before it closed in 1902. (2009)

 

Today there is a beautiful Schuylkill River Trail about half of the 130 miles from Philadelphia to Pottsville. The Conshohocken Brewing Co. opened along the trail in 2014 and has become a popular stop for bikers and hikers seeking hydration. They have a fifteen-barrel brewing system serving the house and their two tasting rooms.

 

Bridgeport is the next town to the north on the west side of the river. Conshohocken Brewing Company opened its second brewing location there in 2016. They brew specialty beers on a three-barrel system. Nearby is the King of Prussia Mall that was home to Brew Moon/Rock Bottom for 19 years until 2017.

 

Main Line Brewers

 

King of Prussia is named for a tavern and is just to the north of the Main Line, named for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s primary artery paralleling the river from Philadelphia to Norristown. Main Line Breweries (south to north): Ardmore is home to two Tired Hands locations as well as a location for the Wilmington-based Iron Hill chain. In Wayne the Valley Forge Brewing Co. remodeled an Eric Twin Theater to create a brewery and restaurant in 1995. Two years later John Harvards, a Cambridge-based chain opened a location there. Both lasted a decade. Bryn Mawr saw two brewpubs open in 2017: Tin Lizard and Wrong Crowd Brewing. In Berwyn LaCabra opened in 2016.

 

On the east side of the river ten miles above Conshohocken, the Schuylkill River Trail rambles through Betzwood Park, which had been John F. Betz’s farm in the country, then through Valley Forge National Park. It is the forge that Washington was interested in when he wintered there (1777-78). Schuylkill River Valley has long been associated with iron, steel and coal.

 

Phoenixville Breweries

 

06 PHOTO: Heritage Center, Phoenixville: Sculpture made of Phoenix Columns rescued from the Stegmaier brewery in Wilkes-Barre.

 

Looming ahead is Phoenixville, home to Phoenix Steel which started in the late Eighteenth Century and lasted into the 1980s. The company was famous for bridges and their patented Phoenix Column, made of four lengths of iron riveted together to form a hollow square column, was forerunner of the modern I-beam. It is interesting that up until the craft brewing renaissance Phoenixville had never had a brewery; and beer, as we all know, is an essential ingredient in making iron and steel.

 

Sly Fox opened a brewery restaurant just outside of town in 1995 and has become quite an economic engine. If ever there was a case to be made for synergy, it is with the emergence of Phoenixville as one of the top ten towns in the nation with the highest density of brewpubs!

 

The short-lived Destiny Brewing Co. started in 2005 and lasted a year in the basement of the American Legion Hall. Iron Hill opened in Phoenixville in 2006. Armstrong Ales was a one-barrel nanobrewery from 2013-15. And four have opened since 2017: Root Down, Crowded Castle, Stable 12 and Rebel Hill. In addition Conshohocken Brewing Co. opened the Rec Room, a tasting room supplied by their production facilities.

 

Royersford Area Breweries

 

Trappe was briefly home to Tuned Up Brewing Co., a one-barrel nanobrewery (2014-15). In Collegeville the short-lived New Road Brewing Co. (1999-2001) set up in an old lumber yard. A decade later it became one of Appalachian Brewing Company’s locations.

 

Sly Fox started a second brewery in a larger space in Royersford from 2004-12 where they were able to have a production brewery and restaurant. It was here that they became famous as the first East Coast brewery to start canning their beer. People from all over the country came to see what they were doing and the rest is history. In 2015 a portion of that space became Stickman Brews which operates a tasting room.

 

In Limerick, Dirty Dawg Brewing Co. was another short-lived pioneer (1998-99) that moved on to craft soda for a short time.

 

Pottstown Breweries

 

John Potts was the largest and most successful iron-master in the American Colonies, operating mines, furnaces and forges in Pennsylvania, and also in Virginia. In 1752 he purchased 1,000 acres of land near the mouth of the Manatawny Creek, which ultimately became Pottstown and a major iron and steel producing center. Potts was the first brewer in Montgomery County (1765-70) according to American Breweries III, Mid-Atlantic Edition (2016). An unknown brewer took over from 1770 until the turn of that century.

 

07 PHOTO Pottstown Brewing Co. was located along the banks of the Manatawny Creek (1884-1920). (Van Wieren collection)

 

The new mixed with the old when the Sunnybrook Ballroom re-opened as a brewery restaurant in 1999. The dance floor walls were covered with autographed photos from all the Big Bands that played there in its glory days, when trainloads of Philadelphians would arrive to dance to the latest music. Henry Ortlieb took over from 2003-04.

 

08 PHOTO Bill Moore at Sunnybrook. (Wagner, 2000)

 

In 2012 Sly Fox left Royersford and opened a production brewery in an industrial park in Pottstown. One of the owners even started a keg manufacturing business nearby. Most recently they opened a tasting room and, from what I hear, have an interest in the micro distillery across the street. Schuylkill River Trail Ale aka SRT, now a regular product, debuted on Earth Day 2015, and $1 from every case is donated to the Schuylkill River Greenways NHA.

 

Reading Area Breweries

 

We pass Daniel Boone’s homestead in Birdsboro before treading into Reading in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, a hotbed of breweriana collecting owing to its rich brewing heritage. You may remember reading about the “Beer and Pretzels in Berks County” exhibit hosted by the local historical society. (ABJ Dec./Jan. 2007)

 

Henry Eckert established Reading’s first brewery in 1763. Reading had 19 breweries prior to Prohibition. Eckert’s lasted 63 years. But the city is best known for Frederick Lauer which brewed its first lager beer in 1845. The United States Brewers Association erected a statue in his honor in City Park. He had two breweries, the first dating back to 1826, the second, a lager brewery, eventually became part of an extensive network of bootleg breweries operating throughout the region during Prohibition by Reading’s “Beer Baron,” Max Hassel. More recent brewers were among the longest lived and continue to be popular with collectors: Sunshine, originally Barbey (115 years), Deppen, once Spring Garden (109 years) and Old Reading (90 years), the “last man standing” in 1976.

 

09 PHOTO: Deppen brewery as it stands today. (2018)

 

Reading had two breweries early in the Pennsylvania craft brewing scene: Pretzel City and Neversink Brewing Co. Neversink re-morphed a number of times and lasted 14 years before closing as Legacy Brewing Co. In 2016 Oakbrook Brewing Co. opened in an old fire station. 

 

Across the river in West Reading, Chatty Monks opened in 2014. They recently moved brewing operations to another site so the original location is now a tasting room. Broken Chair Brewing Co. opened in 2017.

 

Finally we get to Mount Carbon just south of Pottsville, home to Mellet & Nichter, whose modern incarnation’s flagship brand was Bavarian Beer. Then to Pottsville, home to America’s Oldest Brewery and seven other breweries. Part of my research includes a drawing made by Pottsville native, spelunker and breweriana collector, Jay Herbein, of the brewery vaults of the Rettig brewery, located behind a gas station in Pottsville.

 

Of course the big story here is Yuengling which emerged from near collapse in the early 1980s to having three breweries: one in Tampa and a modern 2M barrel plant built in 2000 in Port Carbon just outside Pottsville, adjacent to where the Schuylkill Canal ended.

 

From its headwaters to its mouth, the Schuylkill River has made a lot of beer!

 

10 PHOTO: Yuengling’s Mill Creek plant has already been enlarged a decade after it was built. (2011)

 

The society was planning a year-long “Manufactured in Montgomery County” exhibit and I agreed to write an article for their journal devoted to local brewing in the twenty-first century. Larry took on the task of supplying breweriana.

 

A lot of breweries have opened and closed in the past decade in fact Phoenixville is in the top ten towns in the nation with the highest concentration of brewpubs. There’s even a brewpub in Philadelphia’s Brewerytown neighborhood! So when the Montgomery County Historical Society scheduled my talk on breweries of the Schuylkill for February, I had to do a significant amount of research.