Mid-Atlantic Brewing News April/May 2011
Lehigh Mountain: Higher Learning Sits Atop Old Lagering Vaults
By Rich Wagner
South Bethlehem is best known for a brewery by the same name, which closed in 1954 being the “last man standing” of Bethlehem’s pre prohibition survivors. But the area’s first brewery, Rennig’s Lehigh Mountain brewery stood on what is now Lehigh University’s campus.
Founder George Rennig emigrated with his parents and siblings from Bavaria during the 1850s and in the early 1860s he purchased a property on Lehigh Mountain containing a spring-fed creek where he built South Bethlehem’s first brewery, complete with a hotel and several barns. The hotel became a favorite resort with a “Trinkhalle” and beer garden.
As it turned out, the adjacent 75-acre parcel of land was developed as Lehigh University and a well-trod path developed from Packer Hall on campus to “Die Alte Brauerie.” Students conducted club meetings in one of the back rooms of the hotel and in the 1880s a group formed a dramatic society called the “The Mustard and Cheese,” named for the snacks they enjoyed with their beer. They performed a “Melo-Drama” and “A Romantic Extravaganza” at the Sun Inn the following year.
South Bethlehem was an industrial town and in addition to students there were locals who frequented the hotel to let off some steam. The South Bethlehem News reported in the spring of 1892: There was a dance at the Lehigh Mountain Brewery last night. No fight occurred. Said an old habitué, “It was the first time I ever seen it going off without their being a scrap.”
Unfortunately the following year an economic depression hit the country and Rennig’s wife, Christiana, in whose name the hotel was registered, approached the University to see if they would purchase the property. By 1912 the old hotel was in use as a dormitory which the students affectionately called “Die Alte Brauerei.”
The brewery is long gone, but its hotel still stands. Now known as Price Hall, the building contains offices, one of which belongs to the university’s only archeology professor, Dr. Dave Small.
Dave contacted me two years ago and said he and his students had been exploring the old beer vaults in the side of the mountain behind Price Hall. They created a rudimentary map and had searched for anything that might have been associated with Rennig’s brewery. He asked me if I could shed some light on how the brewery was laid out and how the brewing process was conducted.
We compared a 1941 drawing published in Allentown’s Morning Call with the present-day scene. Nothing remained of the brewery other than the stone wall which contained the entrance to the vaults. In the drawing there was a large barn, possibly a stable and wagon shed. This was no longer standing but the building that housed the university’s grounds and maintenance department was built on its foundation.
The following summer I had the opportunity to see the interior of the vaults. Dave and one of his graduate students met me and, armed with a work light and a long extension cord we entered the cool, dark space where Rennig’s beer was lagered. Most of the vaults I’ve seen in my travels are built as 20’ x 40’ cells. The main vault was actually two cells wide, making it a double barrel vault. I was surprised to see that interior walls and arched ceiling were made of brick, not bedrock. We aimed the light towards the back of the main vault where there was a wall containing a doorway which led to a second cell. It was in the rear of this section that contained the ventilation shaft I had seen from above the previous summer.
There was a trough dug into the floor along one side of the cells that brought spring water seeping into the vaults to a cistern near the entrance. On the wall opposite the cistern we could see another entrance. Dave shined the light and we crawled through a low entrance and emerged into another vault running perpendicular to the main vault. There was a wall in the back with a door that opened into a second cell just like the main vault. We carefully made our way towards the back and I marveled at the size of the vaults, imagining them full of hogsheads, barrels and ice.
Dave and his students plan to do more detailed mapping in the vaults this spring. You can be sure that I will be on hand with my camera to document what is possibly the largest accessible series of lagering cellars in the state. Considering that Lehigh University is known for its engineering, these vaults would make an ideal interpretive center to illustrate the history of technology associated with the construction of cellars and development of artificial refrigeration.
Photo Caption. Archeology professor Dr. Dave Small explores the network of lagering vaults underneath Lehigh University.