(Master Brewers Association of the Americas) Technical Quarterly Volume 52, No. 4. 2001
District Philadelphia Sponsors Historical Plaque Commemorating First Lager Beer Brewed in U.S.A.
By Rich Wagner
I started researching Pennsylvania breweries over twenty years ago. One of my primary sources of information was a book called One Hundred Years of Brewing. It was published as a supplement to the Western Brewer in 1902. In the chapter devoted to early lager beer brewing in the United States there was a story about a Bavarian brewmaster named John Wagner who came to Philadelphia in 1840 and brewed the nation's first lager beer with a new type of bottom fermenting yeast. The story piqued my interest but it took a few years before I became intent on finding the location of this event.
The first obstacle was that John Wagner lived at 455 N. St. John Street which is now called American Street. Another problem was the city changed the street numbering system in 1857. The description in One Hundred Years of Brewing describes the location as St. John Street near Poplar. In today's system Poplar is the beginning of the 900 block.
I went to the library and consulted city directories. I went to City Hall and did a title search. I looked in vain for a cross reference from the 1840 address to the current address. Finally I was able to use the address of a brewery down the street, Philip Gucke's International Brewing Co. to get a before and after address; the 400 block had become the 800 block so 455 would have become 855. The only problem now was that the last building south of Poplar was 853. In the old system it is possible that Poplar would not have been the beginning of the 500 block so I determined to place the marker just above Poplar where I believe 455 St. John Street was in the old numbering system. There's a house there that could date to that period and has a nice marble sign in the corner wall that says "St. John Street." This is a neighborhood that's seen slow but steady improvement over the last twenty years and I hope that the marker will be one more positive element to help improve the environment.
The next thing that required persistence was getting the State to approve my marker application. I submitted three applications over a four year period. My application grew from sixteen pages to thirty. I amassed information from every source where the story was reported. And while One Hundred Years of Brewing was my primary source the story was verified as early as a treatise on Philadelphia dating to 1859. I did use One Hundred Years of brewing to create a data base of all "first lager brewings" and John Wagner came out at the top of the list. The fourth year my application was approved, all I needed was a sponsor. If I could get a non-profit organization as a sponsor the State would provide a matching grant to pay for the casting of the marker.
After all this, the last hurdle was the easiest to overcome. I appealed to the membership of District Philadelphia and they all agreed that this was worthy of their support. The plaque says: AMERICA'S FIRST LAGER. In 1840, brewer John Wagner brought lager yeast from his native Bavaria and brewed the nation's first lager beer This marked the beginning of the rise of lager beer which produced a tremendous expansion in the United States brewing industry. The dedication ceremony is scheduled for Saturday, December 1, 2001 at 2:00 P.M. To read more about early lager brewing in Philadelphia check out my website at: http://pabreweryhistorians.tripod.com
Rich Wagner is assistant brewer at Manayunk Brewing Company in Philadelphia and was recently elected technical chairman of District Philadelphia.