Mid-Atlantic Brewing News December 2005/January 2006
The Beers and Breweries of Colonial Philadelphia
By Rich Wagner
By the time Thomas Jefferson was composing the Declaration of Independence at the Graff House at Seventh and Market Streets in 1776, twenty-three breweries had already come and gone in Philadelphia, their average lifetime slightly less than twenty years. Beginning with William Frampton's fifteen-barrel bake and brew house on a lot granted to him by William Penn on Second Street below Walnut near Dock Creek in 1684, the city's earliest brewers began a tradition that made Philadelphia the world-class brewing center it continues to be today.
When Penn visited his "Greene Country Towne" in 1685, it was Frampton he referred to with his famous quote: "In our great Town there is an able Man, that has set up a large Brew House, in order to furnish the People with good Drink, both there and up and down the River." At the time, Penn had authorized seven "ordinaries," or taverns, for "the Intertainment of Strangers and Workmen, that are not Housekeepers." But even then, he was concerned with "disorders" arising from the taverns located in caves along the Delaware.
One such establishment on Front Street below Chestnut was Alice Guest's Crooked Billet Tavern, where a young Ben Franklin went for his first hot meal in the city. But he widow Guest ran a reputable tavern and was exempted from the order that banned riverbank dwellers and "tippling houses." She developed her property with a wharf, warehouses, dwelling and tavern.
It's hard to imagine what "Old City" was like back then. One can visit Independence Hall, the Betsy Ross House, and the rest of the traditional colonial era tourist attractions, but how can we get a feel for the breweries, beers and taverns of colonial times? The old "Man Full of Trouble Tavern" still stands at 127 Spruce Street, although it is no longer open to the public.
But imagine a brewery tour that Thomas Jefferson could have taken back then, perhaps to clear his head and get a better perspective on things. A block from the Graff House was William Gray's brewery at 22-30 S. Sixth Street . This had been the location of Joshua Carpenter's "Country Estate" on the outskirts of town back in 1700 which occupied the entire block between Sixth and Seventh Streets and between Market and Chestnut Streets. He built a brewery and distillery behind his mansion, and when the Carpenter property was divided up in 1746, William Gray first leased, and then purchased them in 1772. Gray's brewery continued in business until 1866.
In the next block, just south of Market on Fifth Street was Joseph Potts Ale Brewery. It became Henry Pepper's brewery in 1791, and his beer was Jefferson's favorite when he was living in Philadelphia as Secretary of State in Washington's cabinet. This brewery later became Robert Smith's in 1840 and would continue in business for 146 years, with Schmidt's of Philadelphia continuing to produce Smith's famous Tiger Head Ale.
To the north, at 35 Callowhill Street near the River, Robert Hare and J. Warren's Porter Brewery was home to the nation's first brewed porter beer, which was a favorite of George Washington. The brewery became Frederick Gaul's "plant number two" in 1824 and would continue in business for 164 years, becoming the John F. Betz Brewing Co., one of the nation's largest breweries.
The last of the breweries Thomas Jefferson could have toured in 1776 was Anthony Morris III's brewery at Dock and Pear Streets. which had been in business for thirty years and would continue into the 1840s. Anthony's grandfather had been one of the city's earliest brewers, on Front Street below Walnut in 1687.
The City Tavern at Second and Walnut Streets probably served beer brewed by Anthony Morris. It is the place where many of the delegates ate, drank, debated politics and hammered out the details of the Constitution. The current building was built by the National Park Service in 1975 to be an accurate reproduction of the original building. Today it's like a living history museum where chef and proprietor, Walter Staib, dishes up early American cuisine, giving patrons an authentic colonial dining experience.
And the beer is no exception. In an effort to recreate the beers of antiquity, Yards Brewing Company has developed their "Ales of the Revolution." After researching colonial-era recipes, they created George Washington Tavern Porter, Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale, and most recently, Poor Richard's Tavern Spruce. Ben Franklin is known for a spruce beer recipe he found while in France, and Yards has brewed a spruce beer in honor of his 300th birthday, which will be celebrated at the National Constitution Center on January 17, 2006.
If Thomas Jefferson found himself at the City Tavern today, he would still be able to find a colonial brew with which to clear his head and lubricate his pen.