American Breweriana Journal January/February 2012
Syndicate Breweries in Pennsylvania
By Rich Wagner
In the 1890's and into the early 1900's there was a trend towards consolidation in the brewing industry. Typically in major cities a group of breweries would combine into one corporation where the individual plants were branches of the same company. There were certain advantages in bigness, among them lower costs for purchasing larger quantities of raw materials, which in turn meant bigger profits. E. Anheuser's Brewing Association was formed as early as 1875 and grew to include breweries throughout the country. It survives today as Anheuser Busch which consists of large regional breweries distributed throughout the United States, and now the world. A-B was recently acquired by Belgian conglomerate InBev.
A list of syndicated breweries was published monthly The Western Brewer. In November, 1892 there were syndicates in: Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New England, St. Louis, San Francisco and other cities.
Britain was experiencing an industrial depression so there was a search for investment opportunities abroad. The United States brewing industry had grown by leaps and bounds as lager beer had become “the national beverage.” This growth industry was an attractive target for British investment.
One article in the The Western Brewer admonished, "Don't Sell Your Brewery to the British Syndicate." Apparently there was a down side to foreign investment, but in some cases Americans sold their antiquated plants to the British and made huge profits. The consolidations produced a rivalry for a market that was leveling out and there were casualties in the process.
Only one brewer in Pennsylvania, John F. Betz, of Philadelphia, ever appeared on the list of British Syndicate Breweries, and that was only for a year from 1890-91. In fact, when the Bergner & Engel Brewing Company was financing the purchase of the Henry Mueller brewery in 1891, The Western Brewer reported that the stock would not be placed on the English market. Bergner & Engel would go on to dominate Philadelphia’s Brewerytown by purchasing three of the neighborhood’s breweries prior to prohibition.
The greatest number of syndicated breweries in Pennsylvania was fifty-nine. They were distributed among: Pittsburgh Brewing Company (22), Independent Brewing Company of Pittsburgh (15), Pennsylvania Central Brewing Company of Scranton (12) Consumers Brewing Company of Philadelphia (6), and Erie Brewing (4). The Pennsylvania Central Brewing Company of Scranton and Philadelphia’s Consumers Brewing Company were the first consolidations (1897), followed by Pittsburgh and Erie Brewing Companies (1899), and finally the Independent Brewing Company of Pittsburgh (1905).
Plans for two others appeared in The Western Brewer. In September 1901, it was reported that the Lehigh Valley Brewing Company had been organized by a Philadelphia promoter with a capital stock of $4,000,000, to purchase or control the breweries at Easton, Bethlehem and Allentown, with a combined capacity of 200,000 barrels. In April 1909 a plan was announced join a number of the breweries of Eastern Pennsylvania under one management. The news was reported in local papers that breweries in Edwardsville, Pittston, Williamsport, Danville, Freeland, Sunbury and Tamaqua were being considered by the promoters of that merger. There is no evidence that either of these syndications ever materialized.
Typically the corporations closed the smallest and least competitive branches and upgraded their more competitive facilities. When prohibition arrived in 1920 the Pittsburgh Brewing Company and Independent Brewing Company of Pittsburgh each had 14 branches in operation. Six of Pennsylvania Central Brewing Company’s original 12 branches were in business. Philadelphia’s Consumers Brewing Company had two branches remaining and the Erie Brewing had three of its original four branches in operation.
The two “combines” in Pittsburgh came back after repeal: the Independent Brewing Company with six and the Pittsburgh Brewing Company with four branches. The Pennsylvania Central Brewing Company attempted a comeback by opening its E. Robinson’s Sons’ branch but the corporation fell into bankruptcy soon afterwards. In Erie the Jackson Koehler branch was the only survivor and it became known as the Erie Brewing Company.
It is interesting to note that there is a trend towards mergers occurring today in the craft brewing segment. It will be interesting to see how the concept plays out in this century.