Philadelphia Breweries During Prohibition

By Rich Wagner

It's hard to believe that a city with a brewing tradition dating back to the days of William Penn, home to nearly a hundred breweries in the 1880's, and a neighborhood called Brewerytown inhabited by some of the nation's largest brewers, could find its industry crushed with the passage of an amendment to the Constitution. But for thirteen years, from 1920 to 1933, America, at least by law, became "dry." And what may seem like ancient history, remarkable only to fans of Elliot Ness and the Untouchables, is how prohibition decimated and changed the course of an industry.

The reasons for prohibition are myriad, but it was said that the Eighteenth Amendment passed more quickly through the legislative process than any other amendment. The temperance movement had been gaining steam for over a half a century, and combined with sympathy from the Women's Suffrage movement, along with (some say) anti-German sentiment surrounding World War I, the drys were well positioned to embark on their "noble experiment." This, much to the chagrin of veterans returning from the Great War who never had a chance to vote against the Eighteenth Amendment.

Over a dozen Philadelphia breweries went out of business in 1920. Those who remained were licensed to make near-beer, a cereal beverage containing no more than one-half of one percent alcohol. Since, in the process, it was necessary to make real beer and then de-alcoholize it, there was a temptation to just sell the real beer, for which there was a much greater demand. The Volstead Act was the enforcement arm of the Amendment, and many breweries were raided and padlocked by the Federal Government. When repeal brought beer back on April 7, 1933, only ten Philadelphia brewers had licenses. Ten more got back in the business, but from then on the industry wasted away by attrition. Five firms went out of business in 1934 leaving fifteen breweries.

That's why I never wanted to research prohibition. Following repeal, the number of breweries in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the U.S.A. began dwindling until by the 1970's the forecast was grim; it was only a matter of time before we would be a nation with just one or two brewing companies. We can take solace in the fact that the microbrewing renaissance created more brewery startups than ever leading to unprecedented product diversity, but one wonders what the industry might be like had prohibition never reared its ugly head.

Of course technology had a lot to do with the changes that took place. In the 1880's nearly a hundred Philadelphia breweries produced less than a quarter of a million barrels. By 1915 thirty-eight brewers rolled out over two million barrels. The economy also played a part. Nine years into prohibition, the nation suffered the stock market crash and economic depression. In fact one of the reasons FDR got elected was his promise to end prohibition and bring beer back.

During my research, I unearthed 400 newspaper articles on the subject of Philadelphia breweries. Keep in mind that these pertained only to breweries, not gangsters, saloons, speakeasies, bathtub gin, homebrew or bootlegged whiskey. I was fascinated by the story that emerged, beginning with defining the term "intoxicating." The brewers claimed that 2.75 percent beer was non-intoxicating while the government maintained one-half of one percent was the limit. There were court cases that challenged search warrants and agents' rights to trespass on brewery property, as well as under what circumstances the Government could padlock a brewery or had the right to destroy the brewer's property. Add to this the fact that there were wet and dry congressmen, judges and local politicians. Philadelphia had a reputation for being particularly wet, and in some cases there was a tug of war between Federal and local authorities where local police were accused of taking bribes and protecting brewers' interests rather than upholding the law. The details of the law and its enforcement were being determined with each judicial ruling. Adolphus Busch even wrote a letter to the president decrying the fact that he had been told by the Federal authorities themselves that they were powerless to enforce the law due to the corruption the Volstead Act had wrought.

It was interesting to see how the Eighteenth Amendment became law, how it was administered, and ultimately repealed with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Our Constitution is truly a living document. This story made me see current events in a different light. In this case, rights were restored, but that result is not necessarily guaranteed. One writer of the day claimed it wasn't so much that people wanted beer (or alcohol), but they felt that a fundamental right had been taken away from them by the Government. Imagine coming to the "land of the free" only to find the land bone dry. It was reported that some immigrants actually went back to their homelands!

In all my research of brewing history, the brewers emerge as civic-minded, forward- thinking business leaders in the community, not criminals. When prohibition arrived, many found themselves on the wrong side of the law. And the thirteen years our nation spent sorting out the details of the Volstead Act caused many to shut their doors and pursue other interests. For those who weathered the storm and remained hopeful, talk of repeal must have been welcome.

Only ten had permits when prohibition was repealed, April 7, 1933. The first thing to be legalized was 3.2 beer, although just to be safe, brewers here were keeping it around 3.0. For weeks, writers interviewed brewers and tallied up the amount of beer that could be shipped the moment beer became legal. They speculated on the cost of a glass of beer and wondered what the new 3.2 brew would taste like compared to pre-prohibition beer. Not that there wasn't plenty of "high-powered" beer available. But most of that was either homebrew or "needle-beer" which bootleggers made by using a syringe to inject alcohol through the bung of a keg of near-beer.

As the day approached, trade groups touted how much revenue the tax on beer would bring to Federal coffers, how much business and how many jobs would be created with the return of beer. The United States Brewers Association proclaimed that brewers were ready to infuse the economy with $400,000,000 in renovations. The list of products required by brewers is diverse, from ingredients and processing equipment to packaging and delivery vehicles. Add to this the fact that technological innovations had rendered some traditional methods obsolete, particularly the time needed for aging and the speed of packaging. And of course the government at all levels scrambled to figure out just how to regulate the "intoxicating beverages" they had been dumping down the sewers for thirteen years.

Just three weeks before beer was to become legal a Public Ledger story proclaimed:

"Philadelphia Vats Ready for Word to Yield 7 Billion Beers … if the average foaming beaker contained about half a pint, that's the approximate number of glasses that could be filled from vats, brimming right now with beer… There are, in the seven Philadelphia breweries operating under Government permits to make near-beer, 448,229 gallons of brew…." The article also noted that in Norristown, the Adam Scheidt brewery had nearly that amount in stock!

Here's an interesting glimpse at the preparations being made for the return of beer in the Bulletin by Laura Lee:

  • …Over at the George Esslinger Brewing Co. M. Brown, president, and Louis H. Brown, secretary and treasurer, are harassed and perplexed, though good natured. They hardly know what to do first. …they have already made plans for doubling their force, having three shifts of fifty men each, as soon as beer is legalized. One thing, they say, is certain - the two $20,000 machines for removing alcohol from beer to make it near-beer will soon be "worth about a dime." The only places in the plant which are not humming with activity are the bottling rooms.

    Esslingers is bottling as little near-beer as possible, and holding the real beer in vats as they wait for the President's word. And those who love to quaff the foam from a tall cool seidel, yet fear there may not be enough of the amber beverage to go around, once the gates are thrown open, should take a tour among the great steel storage tanks in the fermentation and storage building. Some are filled, holding from 4,000 to 8,000 gallons. Others are being scrubbed and washed preparatory to being filled. Wandering among them is like being lost in a forest of white giant tree trunks. There are 91 tanks (12 feet in diameter) filling several large rooms. Esslingers have on hand 10,000 barrels (310,000 gallons) of beer. With their present equipment they can produce 4,000 barrels a week. They expect to quadruple this figure once things are under way. One of the most impressive sights is in the brew house, peeking in the copper brew-kettle. The juice (first wort) from more than 9,000 gallons of mash flows for three hours from the mash tub into the copper kettle, which is two stories tall.

    You may see through the port-hole how the steam and heat are whipping up the foam. It is like some strange natural phenomenon in which all the elements are raging. For three hours the boiling and foaming continue, after which the brew is lead to the hop remover splashed over cooling pipes and into the fermentation house. Here in great square tanks it lagers for three months. Climb up a ladder and look into one of the tanks. You might be looking over a field covered with billowy mountains of snow. One of the memorable features of a trip through the plant is the lusty cheery roar of the big brewmaster, John Mauthe, spurring his men on and on. Mr. Mauthe, typical German to his very mustache ends and his "choost so's" and "chentlemens," came to this country as a young man and has been in the brewery business since 1876. While neither he nor his assistant, Marten Knapp, also typically German, drink much beer themselves, they welcome its return. They say, perhaps now, Philadelphia will be full of beer gardens like in Germany… people will be friendlier, more leisurely, and will revive the art of conversation….

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