The Keg (Eastern Coast Breweriana Association) Winter 2005
Ortlieb's, Brewers by Birth, Since 1869
By Rich Wagner
It was a sunny Saturday in May of 1982 that the Bar Tourists of America held their first Philadelphia Tour, stopping for dinner at Ortlieb's Brewhaus Tavern. We needed to be there by 5:00 PM, because in those days the place closed at six. I remember feeling as if we were walking back in time as we entered the bar. The walls were covered with old Ortlieb advertisements from the forties, fifties and sixties. In the bathroom, there were Stars and Stripes newspapers dating back to the second World War lacquered to the walls. And best of all, there was Ortlieb's Beer and McSorley's Ale on tap!
Although the beers were being brewed up the street at Schmidt’s, this was the closest we’d ever get to sitting in the old brewery saloon to have a cold one after the brewery tour, or so I thought. I had begun touring Pennsylvania’s working breweries in August of 1980 and had never gotten around to visiting Ortlieb’s, and I was kicking myself for showing up a year after it closed.
The brewery traces its origins to Trupert Ortlieb who emigrated to New York City, found a job in a brewery, then joined Private Company G of the 41st Regiment of Infantry of New York in 1861. He was wounded and mustered out in June of 1864. Four months later he joined up with a unit from New Jersey for another hitch and was discharged in July, 1865 at the age of twenty five.
According to American Breweries II, he operated a Weiss Beer brewery at 1248 Germantown Avenue and Third Street from 1866-1879 (PA 630). Then he purchased a twenty-year-old brewery at 845 N. Third Street (PA 568), the location which would grow to encompass an entire city block.
Trupert and Margaretha Ortlieb had six sons and one daughter. In 1899 the brewery was named for the eldest son, Henry F. Ortlieb, whose brothers Joseph, William, Frederick, George and Albert were all active in the brewery. Trupert retired to his farm in Lansdale, where the house still stands on Knapp Road, identified by a small stone sign near the roof’s peak which reads T. Ortlieb 1901. He died at the age of 72 in 1911.
Henry F. Ortlieb died in 1936 and his brother, Joseph T. Ortlieb became president of the company. “Uncle Joe” Ortlieb is probably the most colorful and best-known member of the Ortlieb clan and prided himself as being the hardest worker at the plant from the time he was fourteen years old until the day he died; one day before his 90th birthday in March of 1969.
It was this post prohibition period when the Ortlieb brewery established itself as a significant player in Philadelphia’s brewing industry. Prior to 1920 the brewery was producing 20 to 25,000 barrels of beer annually. Following repeal, Ortlieb’s quickly reached the 100,000 barrel mark, growing by leaps and bounds. Expansion after WWII gave Ortlieb’s a 500,000 barrel per year capacity. In 1954 Ortleib’s Beer won the Premium Quality Medal of Leadership at the Munich International Beer Competition, sponsored by the Internationale D’Allmentation of Brussels, Belgium..
In conjunction with the Cooper family (who owned the Liebert & Obert brewery in Manayunk after repeal), the Ortlieb family had financial interests in a number of Pennsylvania breweries including the Eagle Brewery (makers of Old Dutch) in Catasauqua. In 1951 they purchased the old Barbey brewery in Reading and renamed it the Sunshine Brewing Company. In 1966 Ortlieb purchased the Fuhrmann & Schmidt brewery in Shamokin as well as the Kaier brewery in Mahanoy City. In 1974 the company was making Neuweiler’s Cream Ale.
Breweriana collectors can be thankful that Ortlieb’s did a lot of advertising during this period. In addition to point of purchase items, the brewery sponsored radio and television programs. To emphasize their status as a longstanding family owned and operated brewery, Ortlieb’s ran a campaign of full-page newspaper ads showing family members involved in every step of the beer-making process. One of these showed Albert’s son, Henry T., handing his sixteen-year-old son, Henry A. Ortlieb, his first pair of brewers boots marking the fourth generation’s entry to the trade. Henry T. Ortlieb was well-known for his work with many charitable causes, most notably the March of Dimes and the American Cancer Society. The brewery even sponsored benefit concerts featuring luminaries such as Petula Clark and Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass at the Spectrum.
In 1975 Henry T. Ortlieb died and George’s son Joseph W. Ortlieb, then vice-president, assumed the helm. The brewery was not doing well financially but another “Joe Ortlieb” did his level best to keep the ship afloat. Having started with the company on the loading docks as a college student in 1947, he was an integral part of the company and well-known and active in the brewing fraternity
Young Henry stayed on for awhile and developed the Bicentennial Collector’s Series of cans which helped boost the company’s sales. Can collecting was in its hey day and the series included thirteen different revolutionary era scenes. The brewery got repeat orders from as far away as Chicago and the promotion gave Ortlieb’s a foothold in the New England market. This, despite the fact that most of the brewery’s customers were “within fifty miles of the smokestack.” The Bicentennial Collector’s Series was followed by an Americana Series which featured Philadelphia Soft Pretzel vendors and Mummers among other themes.
Joe Ortlieb bought up other family members’ interests in the brewery until he owned the whole thing, “lock stock and barrel.” Henry A. Ortlieb left the company and got into real estate. Joe changed from promoting Ortlieb’s as a regional brewery and began marketing Ortlieb’s as a local beer. In fact, when the last brewery closed its doors in New York City, he even told New Yorkers that Ortlieb’s was their local beer.
By 1977 Joe Ortlieb had turned the company around and was beginning to show a profit. Two separate Brewers Digest articles touted the “Ortlieb Renaissance” and it’s impressive to read about the improvements that Joe Ortlieb brought to the plant. He installed a computer in the office (back in the days when a computer took up a significant portion of the office) to analyze sales and for bookkeeping. He doubled both the steam generating and ammonia compressing capabilities of the brewery, increasing fuel efficiency by 40% in the process; installed a new wort chiller; constructed a new yeast room; installed a new 60-spout can filler; replaced the CO2 collection system; upgraded machinery for carbonating beer and installed a new unit for making birch beer. And in packaging innovations, Joe worked in conjunction with Alcoa to introduce the “Saturn Ring Cap” for use with 12-ounce non-returnable bottles.
Joe Ortlieb was a familiar figure in Philadelphia. He too, was involved with a variety of charities and kept the pulse of how his beer was selling in the neighborhood taverns. He could often be found soliciting reactions from patrons on his beer as well as his advertising. When a focus group decided the name ‘Ortlieb’ was too hard for many people to pronounce, Joe used his persona in a series of television ads that told viewers to simply ask for “Joe’s Beer.”
But these were tough times for regional breweries considering that there were only 47 left in the country- 125 had gone out of business from 1960 to 1978. To get a perspective on the trend, consider that in 1960 the nation’s five largest brewers accounted for a third of production, while in 1978 they accounted for 70%.
A writer for the Wall Street Journal described the lot of the small brewer in 1978, when Ortlieb had competition from four of the five national brands: Anheuser-Bush, Miller, Schlitz and Pabst (Coors was not available in Pennsylvania at the time) as well as two of the biggest regional brewers, F & M Schaefer, who had just opened a plant in the Lehigh Valley, and Schmidt's in the city’s Kensington section. The editor of Brewers Digest wrote, "Joe seems willing to take chances. There are probably a dozen small breweries that are resisting [the trend] and Ortlieb is one of the primary examples." Joe was quoted as saying, "We'd rather fight than fold."
In 1979 a newspaper story told how Ortlieb was bucking the trend towards lighter drinks. Ortlieb’s regular beer was 4.35% alcohol by weight, while most American beers were 3.75- 3.85%. Not only that, Ortleib’s was selling McSorley’s Ale, Neuweiler Cream Ale and introduced Sean O'Shaughnessy Stout. Around this time Ortlieb’s was contract brewing Olde English 800 for Blitz-Weinhard and introduced Coqui Malt Liquor, a Spanish word describing the sound a frog makes.
Despite the improvements and innovations, the brewery started losing money again, and in January of 1980 a newspaper story reported a possible buyout by Coors. In 1981 the brands were sold to Schmidt’s. The brewery ran extensive radio ads to assure loyal Ortlieb drinkers that the formula would not be changed. They featured Joe saying, “[my old brewery] was terrific, but it was old, so now I'm using the Schmidt's brewery to brew my Ortlieb's." Schmidt’s only lasted another six years, but the Ortlieb’s brand would continue to be made by Heileman at their Baltimore plant for an ever dwindling market. Joe was later quoted as saying that when he signed away the Ortlieb brands it was a decision he regretted before the ink was dry.
And so it seemed a proud 112 year-old tradition had come to an end. Joe Ortlieb established Braumeister, Ltd. and contract brewed an all malt beer named Trupert, followed by Otto’s Oat Bran Beer. But then in June of 1997 Henry A. Ortlieb opened Poor Henry’s Brewery and Pub in the old bottling house on American Street.
Ironically, he couldn’t use the family name, since the brand was owned by Stroh’s at the time, but it was great to see all the Ortlieb’s breweriana that decorated the pub. Patrons could look through glass windows and see two state-of-the art brewing systems, commanded by fifth generation brewmaster John Ruhl (formerly of Champale brewery in Trenton, NJ). The brews included Awesome Ale, India Pale, Cream Ale, Stout, Bock, as well as a host of other classic styles. Henry purchased the well-established Dock Street brand and produced it along with his Poor Henry’s products. When the Dock Street brewpub opened at the old Reading Terminal Headhouse, he supplied them with the bottled product.
I came to know Henry Ortlieb and he told me he had envisioned starting a small brewery even before there was such a thing. He missed the beer business and had been saddened by the twists of fate that doomed his family’s brewing tradition. Now he was in his element, indefatigable in his efforts to realize his lifelong ambition. He promoted boxing matches, beer and breweriana shows and conventions upstairs in the “Big O’ Center” to maximize the use of his space. And after Stroh’s stopped producing the Ortlieb’s brand, he even got the use of the Ortlieb name back.
But there were more dark clouds on the horizon. Despite the fact that Philadelphia was then home to four microbreweries and three or four brew pubs, the craft brewing industry was experiencing what came to be known as a “shakeout.” Despite all of his energy and effort Poor Henry’s didn’t last and the old bottling plant was again shuttered in 2000. And that might have been the sad end to this tale, except for the determination and energy of “Poor Henry.” Somehow Henry Ortlieb was able to resurrect the family name once again when he opened a second brewpub which he named Ortlieb’s Grille at Sunnybrook, the old Ballroom in Pottstown. It was a far cry from the family brewery in Northern Liberties, but Henry continued in his pursuit of being a brewer until his untimely death in the summer of 2004. May this “brewer by birth” rest in peace.