In the summer of 1980, two friends and their girlfriends packed up their gear into a 1950 Buick straight-eight with Dyna-Flo automatic transmission and headed throughout Penn's Woods in search of hospitality from the State's nine breweries. The first stop was at the eternal tap at Straub's in St. Marys (PA 745). It was only 10:30 AM. but that first Straub tasted better than any beer we'd ever tasted. The tour, conducted enthusiastically by the late "Gibby" Straub (pictured) was our introduction to small regional breweries in Pennsylvania. Our next stop was the Pittsburgh Brewing Company. On the way we traveled through DuBois and photographed and explored the old DuBois Brewery (PA 130) complex. It was complete, with all the buildings and the architecture was very impressive. We toured the Pittsburgh B.C. (PA 654) and were impressed with the beauty and size of nineteenth century industrial architecture. In examining these two brewery complexes we were developing an interest that would motivate us to explore the history of Pennsylvania's brewing industry.
Rich Dochter at the eternal tap; August, 2001
Gibby Straub at the eternal tap; August 1980
First beer of the tour, August 1980. We all agreed it was the "Freshest beer ever."
We visited the Jones B.C. (PA 784) in Smithton, PA another small family owned regional brewery that dominated the local market. Down the road in Latrobe, the Latrobe B.C. (PA 267) was on strike but a mediator happily took us through the plant, advising that we just wouldn't see anything going on, sure enough the brewmasters were sitting in the boiler room reading the paper and not doing much of anything else..
On our way to tour the Yuengling brewery (PA 709) in the eastern part of the state we traveled through Shamokin and explored the ruins of the recently closed Fuhrmann and Schmidt brewery (PA 771), makers of F & S! It was like a bombed out building, huge gaping holes in the walls, labels scattered everywhere, rusting machinery and very little else. Our tour of Yuengling was one of the most impressive on the trip. Visiting "America's Oldest Brewery" really had some significance for us now.
The Lion brewery (PA 849) further north in Wilkes-Barre was a truly nut and bolt tour conducted by the brewmaster himself, Don Mudrick during the third shift. I can still remember tasting the "freshest Steg ever" right out of the aging tanks. We visited the defunct Stegmaier brewery (PA 842) across town and were awestruck by the architecture. All the buildings were intact: boiler house, brew house, stock house, bottle shop and stables/garage. A huge, hulking giant of a building, vacated and serving only as an attractive nuisance.
We all had fun that summer camping and sampling Pennsylvania's regional brews but we got to thinking about all the relics of defunct breweries we had seen. We wondererd if it was only a matter of time before all of the nine breweries in the state would end up with the same fate. We purchased a book entitled The Register of United States Breweries 1876-1976. (Friedrich & Bull, 1976). We used a roadmap and underlined every town in Pennsylvania that was listed in the book and jokingly challenged ourselves to find every standing brewery in the State. The book has been updated twice now and is in the process of being updated again. The current version is American Breweries II by Dale Van Wieren (1995), who is in the process of making additions and corrections for American Breweries III.
They say you should be careful what you wish for, and perhaps you should be careful challenging yourself to a seemingly impossible task, but for over twenty years that's exactly what has happened. We've photographed about two hundred buildings (or parts of buildings) that were still standing at the nearly five hundred locations we visited. We've conducted bus tours of historic breweries and visited microbreweries and brewpubs in: the Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, South-Central Pennsylvania and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. For each tour we published a guidebook containing information, old ads, production statistics and lists of brands, pictures of the old breweries, etc.
In fact, I've gone “outside the lines” of the map and created a list of every known standing brewery building in the United States using past issues of American Breweriana Journal, E.C.B.A.'s magazine the KEG and correspondence with collectors and others throughout the country.
One of the bottle collectors we've met along the way is Tod Von Mechow. He searches for mid-nineteenth century beer and soda bottles from Philadelphia. Click here to check out his site and see some of the oldest beer bottles known from Philadelphia. Rich Wagner has collaborated with Tod and others to create a list of all known Philadelphia brewery bottles. He has installed an exhibit of his collection at which will be on display at the National Brewery Museum in Potosi, Wisconsin through June 2009. He plans to exhibit brewery bottles from Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania the following year. Check out this link to see how American Breweries II is helpful in dating old brewery bottles.
Since the original tour in 1980 craft breweries have emerged increasing the number of brewing companies throughout the Commonwealth. In addition, there have been at least a half dozen old brewery complexes that have been revitalized, several being reincarnated as breweries. Check out Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine's 35th Anniversary issue which contains an update on much of what has happened since Dochter and Wagner's article “Brewerytown U.S.A.” appeared in 1991.
In 1992 I had an opportunity to brew beer at William Penn's Manor at the bake and brew house. A year later, I constructed a colonial brewing system which can be taken to festivals. You can read more about my efforts to re-create the past here.
We've revisited many sites and I've digitally photographed them. It was fun going back to Straub's eternal tap twenty years later! Pictured below is Sam Komlenic at the scale in the mill room of Jones B.C. His dad worked at the brewery for thirty-five years.Eric Rosengrant, pictured at left with Rich Dochter on the roof of the Jones B.C. in Smithton, is doing some brewery research of his own with the benefit of modern methods and obtains satellite images of the sites from the internet before he even goes to the location. This preliminary reconaissance can tell you for sure if there's a building at an address. Eric correlates Sanborn maps with the satellite photographs and takes photographs of any buildings, walls or foundations he finds.
So much has changed and continues to change with respect to breweries and their architecture in Pennsylvania. Visit the Archives link to read more on this subject.