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Philly Weekly September 14, 2005

A Hop Through History

Brewery Historian Rich Wagner Knows Just About Everything about

Pennsylvania's Romance with Beer

by Gwen Shaffer

In 1980 Rich Wagner and his girlfriend, along with another couple, piled into a 1950 Buick Straight-Eight. They set out on a mission to visit all nine active breweries in Pennsylvania.

Not surprisingly, Wagner became enamored with the heady beer they sampled. What he didn't anticipate was falling in love with the beautiful 19th-century architecture of the defunct breweries they passed along the way.

Before heading back to Philly, Wagner and his friends bought a book called The Register of United States Breweries 1876 to 1976. They joked about visiting every standing brewery in Pennsylvania.

Wagner's life would never be the same again.

For the past 25 years, researching and writing about the history of Pennsylvania breweries has been an all-consuming avocation for Wagner. He's visited 518 active breweries in the United States and Canada, and created a photo archive for most of these sites. Now he's writing a book-which he plans to self-publish-exploring Philadelphia brewing dating back to 1683.

"That's when William Frampton opened the city's first brewery on Dock Creek," says Wagner, surrounded by sacks of malted barley at Yards Brewery in Kensington last month.

A potbelly protrudes from under Wagner's orange tank top, suggesting he enjoys drinking more than the occasional beer. A self-described maverick, Wagner sports shoulder-length graying hair, wire-rim glasses and Birkenstock sandals.

Since retiring about seven years ago from his career as a science teacher in a suburban school district, Wagner has filled some of his time giving lectures on the state's beer industry. He also conducts chartered bus tours of breweries across Pennsylvania, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

"I organized my first tour in 1987," he recalls. "Twelve people showed up, and I lost $200."

Since then he's enticed sponsoring organizations, such as the German Society of Pennsylvania and the Atwater Kent Museum, to pick up the tab for the bus rental. Sponsors also promote the events to their members.

"The character of the tours has changed as more craft breweries have opened," the 53-year-old Wagner points out.

Today, thanks to a microbrewing renaissance, some 50 Pennsylvania microbreweries create their own hoppy concoctions. Stoudt's first produced its own label in Adamstown, Pa., in 1987, marking the state's brewing resurgence.

Historically, Pennsylvania-along with New York, Missouri and Wisconsin-has hosted more breweries than most states. Brewing flourished locally mainly because German immigrants settled in the Keystone State, and brought their talent with them.

The state's thirsty coal miners and steel workers also created an infinite demand for beer during the Industrial Revolution. (They practically revolted during Prohibition, claiming pure water failed to replenish the carbohydrates and fluids lost while toiling in the trenches.) Finally, Pennsylvania's abundant river resources helped brewing thrive here before artificial refrigeration eliminated the need for ice.

Wagner is clearly proud of his hometown's high standing in the beer world. He notes that Victory Brewing Company's Hop Devil ale has won craft beer competitions in Europe. "Who would've thought these little guys in Pennsylvania would be recognized in Germany and Belgium?"

Wagner characterizes himself as "a seeker." Poring over old articles about beer, and writing about its traditions are his passions.

"I feel like a detective when I'm doing my research," he says. "When I discover new information, I've got to organize it and track down the rest of the story."

In fact, the history of the craft most fascinates Wagner. He's been known to don a tricorn hat, knickers and buckled loafers, and conduct Colonial brewing demonstrations. For these, he uses a copper kettle resting on two wrought iron wagon wheels.

"I did my first Colonial brewing reinterpretation in 1991 at the Pennsbury Manor's Bake and Brew House," Wagner recalls. His wife Anna sewed the costumes and played the role of "brewster."

A website Wagner maintains provides links to breweriana collecting organizations. He himself collects bottles and labels from Pennsylvania breweries. "The last one I bought was a rare bottle from Reading, and I paid $25 for it. I normally won't spend more than $10," he swears.

Although Wagner was already a beerhound when he and Anna set out on that initial roadtrip back in 1980, she says she had no clue beer would ultimately consume so much of her future husband's energy and time. Not that Anna is complaining.

"Visiting the breweries and attending conventions is fun. It definitely motivates us to travel," she says. Wagner has a talent for befriending the old-timers in every town and coaxing out the kind of anecdotes rarely published in library books, Anna adds.

Those working in the industry say Wagner's research has practical applications.

"Everyone learns from the people who came before them," points out Tom Kehoe, co-founder of Yards Brewery. "Technology changes how things are done, but the product remains the same-and history lends validity to the brewing industry."

Lawrence Handy, who began collecting beer cans as a teenager in 1969, has tagged along on about 10 of Wagner's brewery tours. He says Wagner's research is invaluable for collectors of Pennsylvania breweriana.

"Often an item will turn up from an old brewery no one has ever heard of, and Rich can fill in the blanks," says Handy, who lives in North Wales, and serves as librarian for a local collecting club.

Handy says Wagner often gets his hands on historical tidbits not found anywhere else. "Because of Rich's website, he hears from descendants of brewery owners," he notes. "And they may own prints or drawings most collectors have never seen."

After churning out 5-gallon batches of homebrew in his basement, Wagner was convinced he could mass-produce beer. He pursued his dream by earning a diploma in brewing technology from the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago in 1994.

Wagner's science background helped him understand the complexities and subtleties of making beer, he says. But after sweating beside fermenters and mashers for seven years, he realized studying the contents of a keg is more fun than filling one.

"There's this flight of fancy surrounding the notion of brewing," he says. "But it's physically challenging work, and I'm not so young anymore." As membership chair of the local master brewer's association, Wagner stays tied to the trade.

He diplomatically declines to reveal his favorite local craft brew, saying only, "Let's just say my favorite beer is the one in my hand."

 

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