Philly Beer Scene June/July 2011
One Big Brewerytown – A Look Back on the Historic Legacy of Our Philadelphia Beer Scene
By Rich Wagner, Pennsylvania Brewery Historian
If you stand on the railroad bridge at 31st & Girard and look north you’ll see homes dotting the landscape where the breweries once stood. But in the distance, you’ll see a large red brick building with a sign that says “Red Bell Brewing Company – Welcome to Historic Brewerytown.” That’s where the new met the old, however briefly, when Red Bell inhabited the old Poth brewery and brought brewing back to a neighborhood that was once home to nearly a dozen breweries.
Bergner & Engel was the biggest and the second largest brewery in the nation in 1879. They won two diplomas for their beer at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 and the Grand Prize at the Paris Exposition in 1878. That certainly must have gotten the attention of the old world brewers they competed against. I wish there was a time machine so I could go back and sample their Tannhaeuser and Culmbacher lagers side by side.
In its heyday, the neighborhood made about half of all the beer brewed in the city. And if you walked five or six blocks in any direction, there were a half dozen more breweries. I can only imagine stopping in at all the brewery saloons there. That bar tour would probably take a week!
The other half of the beer was produced throughout the city, although Kensington and Northern Liberties probably accounted for the lion’s share of that. In the 1880s there were nearly a hundred breweries in the city, which made Philadelphia “One Big Brewerytown.”
What remains of this legacy is the stuff of the brewery historian. The buildings that remained were the inspiration for my first Philadelphia Brewery Tour in May of 1987. I had found close to two dozen brewery buildings scattered throughout the city and the tour had fifteen stops. Ironically, Schmidt’s had just closed and it was the first time in over 300 years the city had been without a brewery.
Since that time two of those old brewery buildings have been beautifully restored and turned into housing. The Bergdoll brewery complex is south of the old Brewerytown neighborhood at 29th & Parrish Streets. “The Brewery Condominiums” are in the main building; what I have called the crowning achievement of Otto C. Wolf, the city’s preeminent nineteenth century brewery architect and engineer. The office building across the street is office space, and the bottling house, ice house and wagon shed and cooper shop have all been converted to housing.
Across town at 10th Street & Montgomery Avenue stands the old Class & Nachod brewery which has been beautifully restored by Kardon/Atlantic and is now private student housing for Temple University. Interestingly enough it became Poth’s new brewery after repeal from 1936-41. There were four more breweries in this neighborhood.
Philadelphia Brewing Company currently inhabits parts of the old Weisbrod & Hess brewery. The other old brewery to be “reincarnated” was Poor Henry’s which was in the bottling house of the old Ortlieb plant in Northern Liberties back in the 1990s.
Beyond the buildings, more of the city’s brewing history can be gleaned from advertising. Breweriana, as it is called, has become collectable and some is rare and quite valuable. The Eastern Coast Breweriana Association’s motto is “Through Breweriana, the History of the Brewing Industry Will Be Preserved.” What started as the Beer Can Collectors Club of America (now Brewery Collectables Club of America) was started by people who actually created value in discarded beer cans by becoming amateur archeologists who dug them up in dumps. I collect embossed brewery bottles, another item sought after by “dumpers.” The organizations have done a lot to promote the hobby, and the internet has changed the equation with the creation of online auctions.
Some of the most valuable items are beautiful lithographs produced by brewers for display in bars, often published as calendars. Beer trays can also be quite valuable and frequently contain beautiful factory scenes of long-gone buildings. Breweriana collecting is fun and the things people collect are as diverse as the collectors: signs, steins, glasses, labels, coasters, bottle caps, can openers, and just about anything else breweries put out with their name attached. There are even people who collect brewery radio ads and television commercials.
More of the city’s rich brewing heritage is contained in library collections. I’ve spent more hours than I care to count in the Map Room of the Free Library and it seems like every time I turn around I hear about yet another library. The Library Company has a Souvenir book that was published by the United States Brewers Association when they held their convention here in 1896. It contains photographs of all the city’s major breweries, including many interior views of brew houses, fermenting cellars and packaging facilities. It is this imagery that brings to life what has otherwise turned to dust. Google Books has become a huge resource and many old texts are now available online.
“So, whatever happened to all the breweries?,” is a question I’m frequently asked. But with a story that spans more than three centuries, there isn’t just one simple answer. Like most things, the answer depends on what time period you are considering.
The roots of Philadelphia’s brewing heritage are deep indeed, extending back to at least 1685 when the Founder, William Penn, described an “able Man” who had set up a Brew House to supply the citizens of Philadelphia and those up and down the Delaware River with beer made from malt. For the first century and a half English style ales were brewed here and shipped around the country and exported throughout the world.
In 1840 John Wagner brought lager beer yeast from Bavaria and set up a home brewery in Northern Liberties where he brewed the nation’s first lager beer. It took a few decades for the lighter lager beer to catch on beyond the ethnic German community, but it became what some have called “the national beverage.” This is what led to the city being home to nearly 100 breweries. Lager became so popular that it cut into the ale and porter market to the extent that many brewers got into making lager beer just to stay in business. A good number of the city’s brewers were producing less than 100 barrels of beer a year, others made from 1,000-2,000 barrels. Many of these would be what we call “brewpubs” today.
08 PHOTO: America’s First Lager Marker. Rich Wagner October 2008.
One of the technological breakthroughs that substantially altered the equation was the introduction of artificial refrigeration. Machines were displayed at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876. This was a dream come true for brewers who needed to store their lager beer for months in vaults packed with ice cut from rivers and ponds. Combined with advances in building technology, this led to a period of tremendous growth for the national brewing industry and to the development of larger breweries.
People frequently blame Prohibition for the decline in breweries, but over thirty breweries in Philadelphia closed just before that time, from 1900-1920. When Prohibition arrived in 1920 there were 33 breweries operating in the city. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, only seventeen breweries started up. The only brewer from Brewerytown to come back was Poth.
A lot had changed in thirteen years and even more technological innovations were on the horizon, none the least of which was the introduction of the beer can in 1935. A dozen Philadelphia brewers introduced their product in cans. Many are now prized by the collectors and worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. In the old days most beer was draught, but packaged beer became more and more popular in the decades after repeal, especially in the post war era.
Advertising became more sophisticated, especially radio advertising. Later, television advertising, especially by the nation’s largest brewers, would probably put more brewers out of business than any other single factor.
An examination of the Evening Bulletin’s “1946 Consumer Analysis of the Philadelphia Market” provides a window into brand preferences in the nation’s third largest city. Of the nineteen brands on the list, nine were made by Philadelphia brewers and five were made in Pennsylvania. Of 350,000 households surveyed, Philadelphia brands were preferred: 66% draught and 72% bottled. Schmidt’s of Philadelphia was preferred by 28.5% draught and 23.5% bottled; Ortlieb’s was preferred by 17% draught and 14% bottled. By comparison, Budweiser was preferred by 13.5% draught and 3.8% bottled.
While this survey might paint a rosy picture, the city’s breweries were dwindling. One by one they became casualties of market forces that no amount of advertising or local pride could withstand. The large shipping breweries mounted tremendous building programs and had advantages of scale and advertising dollars that led to the demise of smaller brewers throughout the nation.
In 1953 the Hohenadel and Hornung breweries closed, leaving Philadelphia with what breweriana collectors call “the final four.” Gretz would last until 1960. Its brands were purchased by Esslinger, which survived another four years. In 1981 Ortlieb’s went out of business and sold their brands to Schmidt’s, which continued cranking out beer until 1987 when its brands were sold to Heileman.
And so, if you wanted a Schmidt’s or Ortlieb’s beer, you’d have to settle for one made in Baltimore! It was a sad time for anyone who valued hometown beer. In September of 1989 the Master Brewers Association of the Americas held their 102nd Convention in Philadelphia. The convention was planned so far in advance that no one could have anticipated they’d be holding it in a city with no brewery. This was a time when the industry types were joking about just how many “microbreweries” you could fit in your pocket. But I heard that several of them went over to see Philadelphia’s first brewpub under construction. It must have been a sight for these guys to see a seven barrel kettle with an electric heating element being installed. But two months later, David Mink opened The Samuel Adams Brew House on Sansom Street above his restaurant. You have no idea how exciting this was for all the homebrewers and beer aficionados who had been wondering when Philadelphia would get a brewpub!
In 1991 Dock Street Brewery and Restaurant opened as the city’s first “full mash” brewery and the rest is, as they say, history. Independence Brewing Company became the city’s first production “microbrewery” in 1995, the same year that Yards opened. The following year saw Red Bell and Manayunk Brewery and Restaurant, and Poor Henry’s came on-stream in 1997.
These were heady times, and we thought the sky was the limit, that is, until the bubble burst. In 2000 Independence and Poor Henry’s went out of business, and two years later Red Bell closed. We were left with Yards as the city’s only production brewery, and three brewpubs.
What we have witnessed in the meantime is what some refer to as the “maturation of the craft brewing industry.” There are currently two production breweries and five brewpubs which is a situation that could hardly have been predicted a decade ago. What does the future hold? That’s anyone’s guess but I certainly hope that craft brewers will continue to carry on the city’s proud brewing tradition for many years to come.
01 The old Poth brewery was home to Red Bell from 1996-2002. Rich Wagner October 2006.
02 B & E Letterhead factory scene. (Handy Collection).
03 The Brewery Condominiums in the old Bergdoll Brewery. Rich Wagner November 2006.
04 As part of the renovations of the Class & Nachod brewery the terra cotta decorations of the entrance were cleaned with a non-abrasive agent. Rich Wagner May 2003.
05 Cardboard sign depicting Erlanger cans. (Cartin Collection).
06 Postcard featuring Esslinger’s Little Man. (Handy Collection).
07 Hornung Neon. (Cartin Collection).
08 Independence Billboard. (Company Newsletter).
09 Worker measuring out hops in Gretz brewery's refrigerated hop room.
Learn More About Our Historic Beer Scene During Philly Beer Week
Friday June 3, 2011 at 5:00 PM. “First Fridays at CHF.”Chemical Heritage Foundation 315 Chestnut St. Beer tasting and talk - Rich Wagner will present: “A Quarter of a Century of Craft Brewing in Philadelphia”R.S.V.P. to Jennifer Dionisio (JDionisio@chemheritage.org)
Saturday June 4, 2011 at 2 P.M. Philadelphia Brewing Company. Free, no R.S.V.P., open to the public. Rich Wagner will present: “Philadelphia Breweries After Repeal – And Then There Were None”
Sunday June 5, 2011 Haverford Township Historical Society Heritage Festival 11:00 A.M. - 4 P.M. along Karakung Drive in Haverford Rich Wagner will conduct a Colonial Brewing Demonstration.
Wednesday June 8, 2011 Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center 5:30-7:30 Beer Tasting and Presentation by Rich Wagner “The Breweries of Brewerytown and Vicinity.”Call 215-685-0723 to R.S.V.P. by June 6. $12.00 Seating is limited.
Friday June 10, 2011 Perkins Center For the Arts in Moorestown, NJ. At the Moorestown Community House from 7:00 P.M. - 10:00 P.M. $75 Contact: http://www.perkinscenter.org/ Beer Tasting and Talk Rich Wagner will present: “Philadelphia Breweries After Repeal, And Then There Were None”