Mid-Atlantic Brewing News October/November 2010
Breweries of the Schuylkill: A Virtual Trip Upstream
By Rich Wagner
As I toiled among the kettles and tanks at the Manayunk Brewery and Restaurant it was inevitable that I should absorb something of the “lore of the Schuylkill,” if for no other reason, than every time I walked out the back door there was a spectacular view of the river and the “mule bridge” (now an active rail spur) which was once used to transport barge mules to and from their stable on the other side. The restaurant had been one of countless water-powered textile mills that relied on the canal for power and was located at the “outfall” where the canal poured into the river.
The canal was constructed to bring coal from Schuylkill County to Philadelphia for shipment throughout the country and the rest of the world. It’s no coincidence that D.G. Yuengling situated his brewery in Pottsville two years after the canal was finished as this meant a tremendous increase in coal production and, of course, thirsty miners.
I cringed the first time I heard the Schuylkill referred to as “one of our nation’s oldest industrial rivers” but that is indeed its claim to fame. When I worked at Manayunk the owner’s dad told me the river was so full of coal sludge that they could light bubbles of escaping coal gas when they were swimming as kids. He’s the one who insisted the brewery make a beer called “Schuylkill Punch” in honor of the name given to Philadelphia water back in the day.
Two years ago I gave a talk at Manayunk entitled “Philadelphia Breweries on the Schuylkill.” I intended to developing a series of talks about breweries on different stretches of the river. When the Schuylkill River Heritage Center in Phoenixville contacted me about doing something beer related for their fundraiser last year I decided to devote a single presentation to all the breweries that ever existed on the river from “mouth to head” and commenced gathering information and images.
I counted no fewer than 80 breweries in towns along the river with 38 being in Philadelphia and 22 in Reading. There have been 14 craft breweries of which only a handful survive.
The Schuylkill River Heritage Center is in a foundry building of the Phoenix Iron & Steel Company which went out of business in 1987. The company got its start making iron nails in 1790. There is a sculpture garden near the entrance to the building comprised of the company’s patented “Phoenix Columns” that came out of the Stegmaier brewery in Wilkes-Barre, PA when part of that complex was being razed during its renovation. Patented in 1862, the Phoenix column consisted of four wrought iron segments riveted together to create a structural column that was the standard of the industry until the development of steel “I-Beams.”
The fundraiser was attended by the movers and shakers of Phoenixville, none the least of which were members of the Giannopoulos family who own Sly Fox Brewery and supplied the beer. I invited members of the audience to take a virtual trip upstream to view all the breweries that have ever existed in the towns along the river from Philadelphia to Pottsville.
The nation’s first large-scale lager brewery was situated on the east side of the river at Fountain Green where river ice could be cut to refrigerate storage vaults dug into the banks of the river. Brewerytown developed about a half mile downstream above the river bank. Across the Girard Avenue bridge next to the Philadelphia Zoo was the famous Robert Smith Ale Brewery. There were several breweries in East Falls which was a resort in the early days as well as breweries in Manayunk, Gulph Mills and Conshohocken.
Norristown was home to the Adam Scheidt Brewery which has been beautifully preserved as the Stony Creek Office Center. Scheidt was famous for their Valley Forge and Prior brands. Schmidt’s bought the brewery in 1954 and it remained in business until 1975.
The King of Prussia Mall is now home to Rock Bottom Brewery and nearby Wayne was home to the Valley Forge Brewing Company and a John Harvard’s brewpub each of which lasted for ten years.
Continuing upstream is Phoenixville which did not have a brewery until Sly Fox opened in 1995. This year Sly Fox moved across the street from their original location into more spacious quarters. There was the short-lived Destiny Brewing Company and most recently an Iron Hill location which is located just around the corner from the Schuylkill River Heritage Center. Across the river is the recently restored Lock 60 and the only remaining stretch of the Schuylkill canal above Manyunk.
Limerick was home to the short-lived Dirty Dawg Brewing Company from 1998-1999. A little further upstream, Sly Fox opened a combination brewpub/production brewery in Royersford in 2004.
Pottstown was home to four breweries, most recently Henry Ortlieb’s Brewery and Grill at the Sunnybrook Ballroom. Prior to that the Pottstown Brewing Company advertised in 1901 that: Pottstown Beer and Porter is Best for you. It is brewed from the best Canada Malt and New York State hops and possesses the ingredients which the system demands. It not only quenches your thirst, but renews your tissue and “tickles your palate.”
Some of the earliest breweries along the river were in Reading, starting with Henry Eckert’s brewery dating back to 1763. Frederick Lauer took over the brewery his father started in 1826, and brewed the city’s first lager beer in 1845. Prohibition survivors included the Reading, Sunshine and Deppen breweries. Two craft breweries started in 1995: Pretzel City, which lasted three years, and Neversink Brewing Company which became Fancy Pants and then Legacy Brewing Co.
In Schuylkill County, Pottsville and nearby Mount Carbon have been home to no fewer than nine breweries. Today Yuengling thrives as the nation’s fifth largest and one of the few family-owned breweries. At the turn of this century they built a new brewery in Port Carbon to keep up with demand.
There isn’t nearly as much industry along the river as there once was and certainly not as many breweries as there were back in the nineteenth century hey-day, but you can still tour “America’s Oldest Brewery” and visit over half a dozen craft breweries that continue to keep the Schuylkill River Valley’s brewing heritage alive.
View of the Pottstown Brewery. (Van Wieren Collection)
Sign for Scheidt’s Rams Head Ale. (Porter Collection)