Pennsylvania Heritage Winter 2009
A Backward Glance at Thirty-Five Years Young
By Michael J. O’Malley III
…To celebrate our milestone, we’ve revisited articles that proved popular with our audience over the years. Whether a veteran or a new reader, we hope you enjoy this look back- complete with updates- on landmarks that define both generations and communities: covered bridges, carousels, drive-in movie theaters, breweries, and even an enormous glass mosaic mural.
…History Brews and Blooms
Microbreweries- with their distinctively-named lagers, ales and porters- have been popular since the mid-1990s. These modern craft breweries produce a limited amount of beer for what the industry calls an informed and loyal following. Many named signature brands after popular attractions or events in history. Erie Brewing Company produces Drake’s Crude, a seasonal stout named in honor of Edwin L. Drake, who sank the work’s first successful oil well on August 28, 1859. Harrisburg’s Appalachian Brewing Company turns out Water Gap Wheat and Susquehanna Stout, both named for the region’s prominent topographical features. The Lancaster Brewing Company makes- what else?- Amish Four Grain, a multi-grain pale ale. The Sprague Farm and Brew Works in Venango, Crawford County, unabashedly makes a statement on the Commonwealth’s diminished industrial prowess with its Rust Belt Amber Ale.
The Schuylkill County seat of Pottsville, in the southern anthracite region, claims D.G. Yuengling and Son, the oldest continuously operated family-owned brewery in the United States. Founded in 1829 by David G. Yuengling (1808-1877), a twenty-one-year-old German brewer, the operation is run by the family’s fifth generation. But Pennsylvania’s brewing tradition dates to the Commonwealth’s earliest days.
Founder William Penn (1644-1718) made sure Pennsbury Manor, his beloved country estate overlooking the Delaware River at Morrisville, Bucks County, was equipped with facilities for making beer. Concerned with both affairs of state and household matters, he wrote from London in 1684 to James Harrison (circa 1628-1687), steward of the eight-thousand-acre-estate, instructing him to erect “a brewhouse & in it an oven for bakeing.”
Within forty years after its construction (and eighteen years after his death), Penn’s beloved manor house which he occupied only periodically between 1699 and 1701, was in decay. The proprietor’s son, Thomas Penn, who visited Pennsbury Manor in 1736, found the house “was very near falling, the Roof open as well as the windows and the woodwork almost rotten.” The seriously dilapidated house was eventually torn down later in the eighteenth century. However, the Bake and Brew House, the manor’s last original building, survived until 1864, when it was destroyed.
In 1991 at Pennsbury Manor, one of PHMC’s attractions along the Pennsylvania Trails of History TM, Richard Wagner, a brewery historian, conducted the first brewing of beer in more than three centuries, using only colonial era equipment and processes. Today, brewing is part of the historica site’s programming.
In his article entitled “A Tradition Brewing,” the cover story of the Fall 1985 edition, William D. Cissna chronicled the history of beer-making in Pennsylvania, beginning in the late seventeenth century. Pennsylvania has been home to at least 865 brewers, even though many were small and highly dependent on the loyalty of their local consumers. Over the years many disappeared, victims to large competitors or Prohibition.
For the Summer 1991 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage, Rich Wagner and Rich Dochter, founders of Pennsylvania Brewery Historians, wrote “Brewerytown, U.S.A.,” in which they chronicled the rise and fall of a once mighty industrial section of Philadelphia that boasted a dozen brewing firms in a seven square block area, including Arnholt and Schaefer, Bergner and Engel, and Weger Brothers. According to Wagner and Dochter, Philadelphia was “one mammoth brewerytown,” with hundreds of plants in its history.
Brewerytown, however, “eventually came to define a section of the city larger than just the seven blocks of breweries. The related businesses provided raw materials, machines, harnesses and wagons, coopers, printers, bottlers, and a host of other products and services. For example, it was common to see the familiar Bergner and Engel label “bottled by” any number of plants. Many nearby firms also specialized in all types of brewing accoutrements, such as refrigeration equipment, cedar vats, and steel tanks. Some companies even specialized in tax stamp paste.”
As Philadelphia hosted the nation’s celebration of its one hundredth anniversary in 1876 with the Centennial Exhibition at Fairmount Park, Pennsylvania counted 361 breweries, which declined to 220 within twenty years, in 1895. In 1919, the year before the Keystone State’s taps went dry because of Prohibition, there were 209 operations, but by 1935, two years after the Volstead Act was repealed, the number had plummeted by nearly half, to 107. The downward spiral continued through the twentieth century, with fifty-three breweries in operation by 1950, twenty-four by 1965, and eighteen by 1973. Only a handful remain.
“My interest in Pennsylvania’s brewing history,” says Rich Wagner, “began when I started seeing so many industrial skeletons across the landscape. In 1980, there were nine traditional breweries still in business in the Commonwealth. That number dropped to seven with the closing of Schmidt’s of Philadelphia in 1987, but that was also the same year when Stoudt’s Brewing Company of Adamstown, Lancaster County, became the state’s first craft brewery. Today, Pennsylvania is home to more than forty breweries and brewpubs! While their total production is a fraction of what the state’s largest brewers once produced, it’s heartening to see an industry rooted in the very founding of the Commonwealth springing back to life.”
Wagner, who has been researching the history of the brewing industry in Pennsylvania since 1980, has documented a number of breweries and beers and interviewed individuals associated with them. He has conducted bus tours of old and new operati8ons in Pennsylvania, for which he developed guidebooks. He earned a diploma in brewing technology from the Siebel Institute, Chicago, in 1994, and two years later retired from his teaching career and worked for seven years in craft breweries in Philadelphia. For the past four years he has been giving presentations on a wide array of topics, from colonial period brewing to today’s craft brewing industry.
“Traditionally, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have led the nation in both beer production and the number of breweries,” Wagner says. “Pennsylvania was often at the top of the list for the number of breweries. This is rooted in the fact that there were many Germans and Eastern Europeans who brought their culture and traditions with them as they came to America to work in the mines, factories and mills.” He notes that, “previous generations of the Keystone State’s brewers coped with Prohibition, war rationing, high taxes, and competition from the country’s largest producers. The second half of the twentieth century saw the formation of ever-larger brewing companies whose size afforded them many advantages over small producers. Today’s craft brewers face their own challenges, the most recent of which is an enormous increase in the cost of raw materials. The good news is that they are meeting those challenges, and judging from the number of medals they’ve won at the Great American Beer Festival, Pennsylvania beers are recognized far and wide for quality.
D.G. Yuengling and Sons, Pottsville, Schuylkill County, in 1875. (From the Manufactories and Manufacturers of Pennsylvania of the Nineteenth Century. 1875.
Demolition of the DuBois Brewing Company complex, Clearfield County, in 2003. Photo by Sam Komlenic/Courtesy Rich Wagner.
A preservation triumph: the recently rehabilitated Stegmaier Brewing Company building in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County.
Dubois Budweiser label.
Rich Wagner portraying a colonial era brewer. Courtesy Rich Wagner.