American Breweriana Journal January/February 2012
The Pennsylvania Central Brewing Company
By Rich Wagner
In an age where multi-national corporations control virtually all of the world’s largest breweries, and where players seem to be involved in an endless Monopoly game jockeying for dominance over their markets, the consolidation of a dozen firms on a regional scale may seem quaint. But the multi-plant corporations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century formed for many of the same reasons as today, even though their “economies of scale” were played out on a much smaller playing field.
At one time Scranton was the third largest population center in Pennsylvania and located in the state’s “northern coal fields.” The city has been home to two dozen breweries throughout its history including a short-lived brewpub called W.T. Hacketts which inhabited an old Woolworth’s building for two years at the turn of this century. One or two years was actually the average lifespan of a dozen of the city’s breweries in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The Pennsylvania Central Brewing Company was the first of three “syndicates” that formed in Pennsylvania around the turn of the last century. It was formed by Charles Robinson of E. Robinson’s Sons Brewing Company and Patrick and Andrew Casey of the Casey and Kelly Brewing Company in 1897 with the intention to dominate the northeast Pennsylvania market. The P.C.B.C. consisted of a dozen brewing firms, with the main branch being the Elizabeth Robinson’s Sons brewery in Scranton. Four other breweries in that city were part of the combine along with two in Pittston and one each in Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, Carbondale, Honesdale and Dickson City. The Dickson City branch was closed in 1899. The Hughes Ale brewery in Pittston shut down in 1906. Next to go were the Scranton, Mina Robinson branches in that city and Hartung brewery in Honesdale which closed in 1910. Pittston’s Hughes & Glennon branch in Pittston closed in 1912, leaving six breweries to carry the corporation into the dry years.
By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century the P.C.B.C. had an aggregate capacity of around 450,000 barrels. At the same time their largest competitor in Wilkes-Barre, the Stegmaier Brewing Co., was producing 250,000 barrels per year. Together, the competition which in addition to Stegmaier, included the Standard and Anthracite breweries in Scranton, the Keystone Brewing Co. in Dunmore, Howell & King in Pittston and two breweries in Hazleton boasted a capacity of around 700,000 barrels.
The Pennsylvania Central Brewing Company did not fare well after repeal. In November 1933 George Weaver announced that the Reichard & Weaver brewery in Wilkes-Barre would probably re-open in two months after repairs were completed but it never did..
In December 1933 a newspaper ad proclaimed: “Announcing the Return – Saturday December 23, of Scranton’s Favored Beer - You’ll be glad we waited until now… The element of time cannot be substituted in making a properly aged beer.” The E. Robinson’s Sons brewery was the only P.C.B.C. branch to re-open and its run did not last long. In January American Brewer reported that the “Famous Old Scranton Brewery Reopens Under New Management,” and that Old Stock Pilsner had received an enthusiastic reception in that city. It was further stated that over $100,000 had been spent on new equipment and renovations to the plant. George Weaver was listed as president along with Joseph G. Casey as treasurer. The board of directors included: J. George Hufnagel, Harry J. Arnold, Harrison W. Reichard, Edward J. Rutledge, Otto J. Robinson, Max Hughes and Frank L. Hawley. Theodore Schimpff was brewmaster.
But in January1935 it was announced that the firm would be in the hands of trustees pending reorganization. A plan for refinancing through an exchange of capital stock and bonds for preferred stock could not be agreed upon by the bond holders and in December the company went into bankruptcy. Three years later the properties of the P.C.B.C. were sold at auction. Lackawanna County purchased the property of the Reichard & Weaver plant for $16,000, Ted Smulowitz, sales manager for the Lion Brewery, Inc. in Wilkes-Barre got the E. Robinson’s Sons plant for $31,000 and the company sold its property in Honesdale. In June 1943 the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Judge Albert W. Johnson of Federal District Court at Scranton to bring to “rapid termination” the bankruptcy case of the Pennsylvania Central Brewing Co., which had been in the courts for nine years.
Interestingly enough, in the spring of 1939 the principals of the P.C.B.C. became officers of the Pilsener Brewing Co. in Hazelton and packaged their product in the bottling plant of the Arnold brewery which had been their branch prior to prohibition.
Two branches of the P.C.B.C. did survive repeal, unaffiliated with the corporation. The Lackawanna branch reopened as the Lackawanna Beer & Ale Corp. and lasted until 1943. The Hughes Ale Brewery Department which had left the combine in 1906 to become the Joseph H. Glennon Brewery was reflagged as the Liberty Brewing Corp. (1933), the Pittston Brewing Corp. (1934), Yankee Brewing Co. (1942) and finally the Champ Brewing Co. (1946) which went out of business in 1948.
The Standard Brewing Company which was formed in 1904 by Otto J. Robinson, brother of Charles, and had been a “thorn in the side” of the P.C.B.C. was the most successful post prohibition brewery in Scranton and was the “last man standing” when it closed in 1954.
Luzerne Lackawanna Brewery Tour
In 1991 Rich Wagner and Rich Dochter led the “Luzerne-Lackawanna Brewery Tour,” the first-ever event jointly sponsored by historical societies in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton (see American Breweriana Journal May/June 1992). Sadly, it would be the last tour to see the E. Robinson’s brewery intact. Shortly thereafter it was demolished. As is frequently the case, it took much more time, effort and money to demolish than anticipated.
In July 1993, in an effort to “save the Stegmaier brewery” the Eastern Coast Breweriana Association held their annual convention in Wilkes-Barre and sponsored a second tour. Two years later, the ABA held their convention there, which coincided with the announcement that grant money had been obtained to preserve the Stegmaier brewery complex and adapt it to reuse.
Rich Wagner published a guidebook to go with the tour which is available through his website: http://pabreweryhistorians.tripod.com. Rich Dochter produced a T-shirt as a souvenir for tour participants that contained images from brewery letterheads from the region. On the front of the shirt, the Keystone Brewing Co. proudly declared it was “Not Connected With Any Trust or Combination” while on the back, the Pennsylvania Central Brewing Co. proudly listed all twelve of its branches.
In September Rich Wagner set up an exhibit on the subject of the Pennsylvania Central Brewing Company at the National Brewery Museum in Potosi.
Here is a link to an article on Syndicate Breweries in Pennsylvania.
Here is a Flickr Album of an exhibit about the Pennsylvania Central Brewing Co. of Scranton.
Here is a Flickr Album of an exhibit bottles from branches of the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. and the Independent Brewing Co. of Pittsburgh, as well as those of breweries not connected with the combines.