The Keg Quarterly Newsletter of the E.C.B.A. Summer, 2001
Reprinted from the Whitehall-Coplay Press, Feb. 26- Mar. 4, 2001
"When they find out I worked in the beer business all my life, they wonder why I was paid," Lieberman laughs.
Not only was the 92 year old immersed in beer throughout his career, he was born on the grounds of the Lieberman Eagle Brewery in Allentown- a company started by his grandfather in 1864 and eventually turned over to Lieberman’s father and uncle.
Although Lieberman, a resident of Luther Crest in South Whitehall Township, worked at several local breweries, he never had that opportunity at his family’s brewery. It was sold in 1911 to the syndicate that also bought the Daeufer Company, he explains, and within a few years the breweries and equipment were combined to form the Daeufer-Lieberman Brewery which stood at the corner of Jefferson and Lawrence streets in Allentown.
He recalls his amazement, years later, at seeing a copper kettle at the Daeufer plant inscribed with the Lieberman Brewery name. The old kettle remained in service until the last brew was produced in 1948, according to Lieberman who adds that the kettle then went to a brewery in the Dominican Republic where it was used until the late 1970’s.
The 1927 Allentown High School graduate who excelled at football and track, pursued bachelor’s and master’s degrees before entering the brewing profession in 1933 as a laborer at Bethlehem’s Widman Brewery located in the ravine behind the Hotel Bethlehem.
A self-described "jock" Lieberman says he joined the Brewery Workers Union and regarded the tough manual tasks as "mere exercise." One of his more memorable jobs at Widman’s was to hand-crank an old, open-bed Ford truck and haul spent hops to the dump under the Broad Street Bridge. That former dump is now the site of Musikfest, Lieberman said.
His introduction to brewer’s yeast was even more memorable. Cultures of living yeast, which are needed to start the brewing process, had to be obtained from another brewery or from one of the industry’s scientific laboratories, he begins.
While he was still a neophyte at Widman’s, a wooden half-barrel of the yeast, covered with a taut, canvas malt sack held in place by a steel hoop, was received by the brewery. A consultant from the New York lab that prepared the culture also arrived to supervise the opening of the barrel, he recalls.
"I was given the job of removing the canvas cover," Lieberman reminisces, chuckling. What he quickly learned was that during the fermentation process, alcohol and carbon dioxide gas had formed, making the keg like a bomb ready to explode. The steel hoop flew one way and the yeast slurry in all directiions, including all over himself, he remembers, adding that his fellow workers and the consultant had a good laugh.
After Widman Brewery went bankrupt late in 1933, Lieberman briefly worked at other jobs in the beer industry, but soon returned to Allentown and Neuweiler’s Brewery on Front Street. His memory still sharp, Lieberman recalls that the owner Charlie Neuweiler lived in the home which later became the Trexler Funeral Home on Highland Street. It was Neuweiler who taught him how to chew barley malt to evaluate its taste and "how it will act in the brew," Lieberman explains. "It should be nice and brittle and break easily. The hulls have to stay intact." Barley malt doesn’t taste like beer, it tastes like grain, according to Lieberman. Chewing the kernels was a reliable source of information he adds, because "In the old days there was not much instrumentation, so you relied on taste, feel and smell."
Delving into his memory bank, Lieberman discloses what became of the hot, soggy spent hops he shoveled into a farm wagon at the Neuweiler Brewery and lugged to a dump behind the brewery yard. They became mulch for Allentown’s park system and for Cedar Crest College campus.
During his employment at Neuweiler’s, Lieberman obtained a Brewmaster’s Certificate from Wahl Institute in Chicago, which provided an opportunity to visit midwest breweries and malt houses that furnished the malt to Lehigh Valley breweries.
In 1937 when he joined the Horlacher Brewery on Gordon Street in Allentown, Lieberman was appointed brewmaster. Pointing to an old Horlacher bottle, whose label featured his signature, Lieberman explains that one of his first jobs as brewmaster was to try to recreate the company’s popular Nine Months Old Beer which was sold before Prohibition.
Since the brew’s recipe could not be found, Lieberman produced a similar, well-received version, Nine Months Old Perfection Beer, which he says was priced higher than premium brands and many imports. It was popular in night clubs and better restaurants in the major cities he recalls.
Although Prohibition had almost ended by the time Lieberman started working in the beer industry, he vividly recalls the speakeasies of his college days: out of the way locations, secret knocks on locked doors and magical passwords. Closer to home, he says he took his wife-to-be Anne, to the Spanish Garden speakeasy on Hamilton Street near the river. "It was fixed up like a garden. They served wine in a coffee cup, it didn’t taste good," he remembers.
Since beer was the popular local drink before Prohibition, it continued to be demanded during Prohibition as well, according to Lieberman. "Bars had ways of getting good beer. They’d get fined or shut down and a new manager would take over and do the same thing til they got caught again. It was a revolving door," he reports. They had to satisfy the public!
Near-beer, a weak solution that was allowed to be manufactured during Prohibition, actually became the source for good hearty beer sold illegally at the corner bars. Lieberman tells of brewers claiming they first had to produce conventional beer and then distill off the excess alcohol- which, of course, was sold to the taprooms. He also tells of taverns using needles to inject alcohol into near-beer and of secret beer-carrying hoses on the roofs of breweries and even strung across the Delaware River from Easton to New Jersey.
Lieberman laughs as he recalls the ruses used to thwart federal agents: "A load of empty kegs would be sent out of the brewery yeard so the agents would follow that truck. Then a load of full kegs would leave in a different direction." He believes Prohibition failed "because it didn’t have the support of the people. They felt it took away a right they have." Also, he adds, "The worst kind of characters got control of the industry, got control of the people in the government. They virtually owned the elected officials."
When Lieberman left Horlacher in 1948, he became the head brewmaster at the Gulf Brewing Co. in Houston, a Howard Hughes company. Immediately he raised eyebrows by removing segregation signs from the restroom doors, he recalls. Describing the position of head brewmaster as a "curiosity," Lieberman notes he was featured on television and appeared in full-page ads in Texas newspapers. Articles he also wrote were published regularly in brewing journals.
Although he enjoyed the prestige of being head brewmaster, Lieberman says his favorite position was with Schwarz, a brewery consulting firm in New York. "It appeals to your ego. I’d go to a place and be looked up to as an authority. And I always enjoyed teaching." As a consultant Lieberman traveled the globe, teaching seminars for brewery executives. From South Africa to Central America to Ireland, he and his expertise were in demand.
These days he still travels, most recently to the Black Sea region, but now it’s simply for fun. He also busies himself writing poetry-often about beer, painting in pastels and shooting pool. He willingly shares his vast knowledge of Lehigh Valley brewery history and recently had an article published in the Proceedings of the Lehigh County Historical Society.
Could all those years of good brew be responsible for Lieberman’s remarkable energy good health and clear mind? He smiles at the question. I don’t think beer harmed it," he maintains.