Star Newspaper October 8, 2003
Brewery Historian to Hold Lecture at Yards
By Matt Petaccio
On Saturday, October 11, Rich Wagner of the Pennsylvania Brewery Historians will return to Yards Brewing Company, 2439 Amber Street, to hold a second lecture entitled Philadelphia Breweries During Prohibition.
The Pennsylvania Brewery Historians, organized by Wagner along with his friend and business associate Rich Dochter, has been researching Pennsylvania’s brewing history over the past twenty years.
“The thing about giving my presentation at Yards is that this is an old Philadelphia brewery that is a brewery again,” said Wagner. “And that’s exciting for me.”
Last April, he held a lecture at Yards entitled The Breweries of Kensington and Beyond. This Saturday’s lecture will focus on what happened to Philadelphia breweries during Prohibition – how they survived, and how many of them did not.
“There are a lot of breweries in Kensington that are written about – having been raided and padlocked and so forth and having court cases during Prohibition,” said Wagner. “First of all, because I’m giving the talk at Yards, I’m going to have an emphasis on what was happening to some of those breweries that are in the Kensington neighborhood. Beyond that, some of the breweries that are still standing.”
His lecture will also focus on the response of local breweries – politically and economically – to the establishment of Prohibition.
“Their only alternative was to make ‘near beer,’ a cereal beverage containing less than one half of one percent of alcohol,” he said, “Some of them went into soda. Also, back then the brewers had huge refrigerating machines so they could make and sell ice. Some of them even sold yeast.
“But virtually all Philadelphia breweries were making real beer and were selling real beer. And virtually all Philadelphia breweries, by the time it was all said and done, had been padlocked and had been refused to be allowed to conduct their business by the end of Prohibition.”
In preparation for his lecture, Wagner went through the archives of Philadelphia newspapers which existed at the time of Prohibition. With old newspaper clippings kept on file by subject, a wealth of information was available. Wagner proceeded to transcribe every single article.”
“I just said, ‘Well, I gotta do something with this,’ he reflected. “And especially when Prohibition was repealed, a lot of people were doing human interest stories. A lot of people were awaiting with bated breath, or with bated tongue, for the release of beer, and they were going around to all the brewers and interviewing them about what they were gonna’ put on the market and how much beer they had on hand and so forth.
However, the Prohibition era is only one component of the history Wagner has studied.
“I’m looking at every facet of the subject that I can get a handle on,” he said. “And I’m bringing it together to try to create a view of what it must have been like to live in a city that had almost 100 breweries – You know, what was that time period like? And where possible, I’ve uncovered information that gives you a window into this brewing establishment – even into the late 1800s, and in some cases earlier.”
The Pennsylvania Brewery Historians found its origin in a tour Wagner and Dochter took in the summer of 1980, visiting six out of the nine Pennsylvania breweries that were in business at time.
“After the tour,” Wagner said, “we were recapping what we had done for the week and we looked at a roadmap and I said, ‘We had come across all these standing breweries,’ and I said, ‘You know, we ought to photograph every standing brewery building in the state.’ And my friend Rich Dochter looked at me as if I was crazy. And then, of course, that’s exactly what we did. We’ve spent the last 23 years not just going to addresses and sites throughout the state, but spending a lot of time in libraries, finding what written history we could.”
Wagner elaborated on some of the factors which spurred his interest in this field of study.
“The other thing about the breweries that fascinated me from the beginning was the architecture,” he said. “These buildings are massive. They’re industrial architecture of the late 19th century – that was kind of the pinnacle of things for the breweries before Prohibition. It was an evolution that started a century earlier, that led to these huge complexes containing brew houses that looked almost like castles. We even have a neighborhood named ‘Brewerytown’ where at one time it was breweries as far as the eye could see.
“That’s what makes Philadelphia so fascinating to me. It’s got such a wealth of brewing traditions dating back to 1685.”
Wagner is currently working on a book on Philadelphia breweries and has self-published The Breweries of Kensington and Beyond, which will be available at the lecture.
For more information on the Yards Brewery lecture and on the Pennsylvania Brewery Historians visit his website.
Photo Caption. Rich Wagner of the Pennsylvania Brewery Historians in April during a lecture on the Breweries of Kensington with a display he created to illustrate the subject.