Timeoff Bucks County (Princeton Packet) August 16, 2006
The Science of Suds:
Beer historian Rich Wagner will discuss brewing methods of Colonial times
at the Mercer Museum's Brewery Night.
By Jillian Kalonick
The coolest possible job for a former high school science teacher? Beer expert.
"Brewing touches every branch of science that you can think of — biology, chemistry, physics," says Rich Wagner, who has spent more than 25 years researching Pennsylvania's brewing heritage. Since retiring from teaching at Wissahickon High School in Ambler, Pa., he has conducted tours of Philadelphia's brewing past, and spent seven years working at craft breweries in the city.
His technical training became especially relevant when he earned another "degree" — a diploma in brewing technology from the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago. Founded in 1873, it is the oldest brewing school left in the country. In 1990, Mr. Wagner, who lives in Hatboro, Pa., produced the first batch of beer at Morrisville, Pa.'s Pennsbury Manor in more than 200 years.
Mr. Wagner will showcase his reproductions of Colonial brewing equipment during the Mercer Museum's first Brewery Night Aug. 18. Following a 45-minute presentation, participants will have the opportunity to taste local brews from Philadelphia's Yards Brewery.
After brewing beer at Pennsbury Manor using some of the equipment there, Mr. Wagner decided he wanted his own so he could take his demonstration on the road. The most difficult part, he found, was finding someone who knew the coopering trade to make the necessary drums and tubs. David Miller, a self-taught cooper and retired industrial arts teacher, guided him through the process, which began by drying the cypress logs that made up the tubs for four months. From a farm auction, a friend of Mr. Wagner's bought a copper kettle, and Mr. Miller constructed a trivet from an old wagon wheel rim. Mr. Wagner lights a fire underneath the trivet and kettle to boil water for the brewing process.
He knows the quality of the Cascade hops he uses because he grows it himself. "It puts roots in the ground around Easter," says Mr. Wagner. "In commercial hops farms in the Pacific Northwest, they don't harvest until September, but mine is usually ready at the end of July — I have to pick it now or it gets eaten by bugs. Basically you put in a trellis, wrap twine around it, and it grows maybe six or eight feet tall. The plants produce cones, and that's the hops — the hops produce a bittering agent that gives beer its bitter flavor. It's almost like seeing balls on a Christmas tree, when you see the cones."
Participants at Brewery Night will be tasting Yards' Ales of the Revolution, three beers produced using authentic recipes by Founding Fathers Ben Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Poor Richard's Tavern Spruce is brewed with molasses and organic spruce tips. Since Britain restricted and taxed hops and barley, spruce was often used instead. Gen. Washington's Tavern Porter, also brewed with molasses, reflects the first president's admiration for Philadelphia-style porter. Thomas Jefferson's Tavern Ale is a multi-grain beer brewed with honey that Jefferson brewed at his Monticello estate. Though it's a strong beer (8 percent alcohol), it's still not quite as potent as the beer Jefferson would have brewed, which was nearly as strong as wine, says Mr. Wagner. Yards will also be serving its Philadelphia Pale Ale (Philly Pale), a modern beer with pilsner malts that has citrus flavors and aromas.
"Back in Colonial times, Philadelphia was the largest seaport on the East Coast," says Mr. Wagner. "Brewers shipped to all the Colonies and around the world, and from the earliest days, Philadelphia was known as being the big brewing center. Farmers in rural areas grew barley and hops. Bucks County, with all its stagecoach stops and taverns, certainly had a lot of places that made their own beer as well."
From 1987-1997, Mr. Wagner conducted a bus tour throughout Philadelphia, visiting what used to be the city's major breweries. He will discuss the current states of several former breweries in a program titled "Philadelphia Brewery Tour Revisited" at Yards Brewery Sept. 16. In the Brewerytown section of the city there are now a number of condos, and a Temple University dorm, where there were once breweries.
A Pennsylvania beer tradition was recently lost when the last batch of Rolling Rock beer was produced at Latrobe Brewing Co. in Latrobe, Pa. Belgium's InBEV USA sold the Rolling Rock brand to Anheuser-Busch, which will now brew the beer in Newark.
"I'm happy to see the brand continue, but the mystique surrounding it — it was based on it being brewed in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania — it's sad to see that go," says Mr. Wagner, who wrote a story on the buyout for the August/September issue of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. "The good news is that I just read that City Brewery in LaCrosse, Wis., signed a contract with the (former Latrobe Brewing) workers, so things are looking good."
Rich Wagner will host Brewery Night at the Mercer Museum, 84 S. Pine St., Doylestown, Pa., Aug. 18, 6 p.m. Tickets cost $20, $15 Bucks County Historical Society members. For information, call (215) 345-0210, ext. 123. On the Web: www.mercermuseum.org. Rich Wagner will present "Philadelphia Brewery Tour Revisited" at Yards Brewing Co., 2439 Amber St., Phila., Sept. 16, 2 p.m. Free admission. For information, call (215) 634-2600. Yards on the Web: www.yardsbrewing.com. Rich Wagner on the Web: pabreweryhistorians.tripod.com.