Mid-Atlantic Brewing News December 2008/January 2009
Remembering Charlie Lieberman: America’s Oldest Brewmaster
Editor’s note by Greg Kitsock: on October 12, veteran brewmaster Charlie Lieberman passed away at the age of 99. During a long and illustrious career, he had worked for such Pennsylvania breweries (all gone, sorry to say) as Widman Brewing in Bethlehem, and Horlacher and Neuweiler in Allentown. He later served as vice president and brewmaster of the Gulf Brewing Company, in Houston, Texas, an operation owned by reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes.
In 1989, in Philadelphia, Lieberman received the award of merit from the Master Brewers Association of the Americas, recognizing a lifetime of service.
We sometimes think this generation invented “craft beer,” but while in Allentown, Lieberman made a brew called Perfection Beer that was lagered for an incredible (for the time) nine months. I’ll always regret passing up an opportunity to buy a case of this beer (maybe one of the last ever brewed) to purchase some collectors cans instead.
After learning from his obituary that Lieberman was a Georgetown University graduate like myself (he received a BS in chemistry in 1931), I regret even more that I never had a chance to talk with him.
Rich Wagner did know Charlie, however, and he shares some reminiscences:
The first Master Brewers event I ever attended was the Eastern Technical Conference in the spring of 1985. New to the homebrewing hobby I was very interested in hearing Bert Grant’s technical presentation on “New Hop Varieties.” I met a number of people who would become important sources of information both on brewing practices and history; and in some cases, good friends. One of these was Charlie Lieberman, who I met right after he finished mopping the tennis court with The Lion’s brewmaster, Otto Kuhn, who was at least 30 years Charlie’s junior.
Charlie was 76 and had just retired and moved back to his native Allentown, where his grandfather started the Eagle Brewery at 6th and Union Streets in 1864. Charlie was cordial and found my inquiring mind intriguing enough to indulge me. I had already met two or three other brewmasters from “the old school” and had found each one easy to talk to and very willing to discuss their profession and tell me stories about changes in the brewing industry throughout their careers. I peppered Charlie with questions, we exchanged phone numbers and that, as they say, was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
The first time I visited Charlie and his wife Ann, I told him I had been invited to attend a Master Brewers meeting at Stroh’s in Fogelsville that evening. When I asked if he’d like to join me, he replied, “There’s always something to learn on a brewery tour,” and got his coat! I learned early on that Charlie was very vocal in the brewing fraternity and was famous for asking questions at the end of technical presentations that would elicit a “group-groan.” One brewmaster from Schmidt’s said in exasperation he had been trying to prove Charlie wrong for over twenty years, and simply couldn’t do it!
I visited Charlie many times over the years and he regaled me with many stories. He had a collection of beer glasses representing the breweries where he had consulted throughout the world. I recall him describing his recent visit to China and he told me that the Chinese brewing industry was “about where we were in the forties, but they are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the next twenty years!” He inspired me to begin collecting Latin American labels when he gave me some of his “doubles.” He had many awards, articles and photographs of which he was justly proud.
He was a consultant to me as I figured out how to do my first colonial brewing at Pennsbury Manor in 1991, and he and Ann attended the first brewing. I can think of no greater praise than when he said, “You’re doing a good job here Rich!”
He was a wealth of information and enjoyed discussing any aspect of brewing in depth and at great length. He started his career after repeal in Allentown, when, in his words, recent brewing school grads were considered the “Young Turks.” He was an incredible source of information on the history of brewering in the Lehigh Valley. As brewmaster at Horlacher’s, Charlie’s signature graced every label and coaster of his “9 Month Perfection Beer.” When I gave my Lehigh Valley Brewery Tour in 1991, he assumed the role of de facto tour guide with firsthand accounts of happenings at every stop.
By the late 1990s Allentown finally had a brewery and I took Charlie over to visit Old Lehigh Brewing Company. We took a tour and tasted their beer. Charlie offered his ever-prescient insights saying that the amount of bad beer they told us they had to buy back, would, percentage-wise, be the equivalent of A-B losing the entire production of one of its plants!
Charlie was known as the “Poet Laureate of the Brewing Industry” so when MBAA District Philadelphia sponsored the historic marker honoring “America’s First Lager” he read his poem “The Brewers’ Yeast” at the dedication ceremonies.
Three years ago, Charlie attended his last Master Brewers meeting at Yuengling. I laughed and said he was “America’s Oldest Brewmaster” at “America’s Oldest Brewery!” It was the only opportunity many members had to meet this icon they had heard so much about. At the end of the technical presentation, the guy in the audience with his trademark shock of white hair and black glasses, made some observations on what had been presented and offered anecdotes from his own experience.
When I got the news that Charlie had relinquished his title of “America’s Oldest Brewmaster,” I suggested to his daughter that we create a display to illustrate the “Biography of Charlie Lieberman” at the National Brewery Museum in Potosi, Wisconsin. The display will contain signed copies of his numerous technical articles, photographs and breweriana from the many breweries he worked in and consulted for.
At the last meeting of MBAA District Philadelphia it was unanimously decided to include the following message in the Guest Book of Charlie’s Legacy page:
We, the members of Master Brewers Association of the Americas District Philadelphia, wish to express our gratitude for Charlie’s intelligence and leadership as an articulate spokesperson for the brewing industry. We are very proud that this 1989 recipient of the MBAA Lifetime Achievement Award was a member of District Philadelphia. Charlie worked indefatigably in support of his profession and his peers, especially the small brewers. In 2001 he attended the Dedication Ceremonies for the unveiling of “America’s First Lager” historical marker, which District Philadelphia sponsored, where he read his poem “The Brewers’ Yeast.” The last meeting that Charlie attended was in the fall of 2005 in Pottsville, when “America’s Oldest Brewmaster” visited “America’s Oldest Brewery.” At the end of the technical presentation he offered an insightful question, engaged the speaker and offered observations from his own experiences. Charlie leaves us all with many fond memories. We will be setting up a display at the National Brewery Museum in Potosi, Wisconsin to illustrate the “Biography of Charlie Lieberman” with signed copies of his numerous technical articles and breweriana from the breweries where he worked and consulted throughout the world which will be on display from June 2009-10.
Read his obituary.
Visit the District Philadelphia page at the Master Brewers Association of the America’s website.