American Breweriana Journal January/February 2009
The Story Behind America’s First Lager Historic Marker
By Rich Wagner ABA 2360
It was a cold, drizzly February afternoon back in 1986 and I was searching for old breweries in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood, a place that almost single-handedly defined Philadelphia as the “Workshop of the World” a century ago. But like much of the city’s industrial landscape, most of the manufacturers were long-gone and gentrification was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak terrain, and that kind of progress was spotty at best.
I got half way through the list of addresses I was checking and stepped inside the old Ortlieb’s Tavern at Third and Poplar Streets. I was numb to the bone and the prospect of shelter and a draught of Ortlieb’s was the only invitation I needed. Ortlieb’s was being produced a few blocks away at Schmidt’s (ABJ Nov/Dec 2005), the city’s only surviving brewery. Sipping my beer, I ordered a sandwich and enjoyed the comfort and ambiance of this quintessential brewery saloon.
Back in 1980 I had taken on the ambitious challenge of chronicling every standing brewery building in Pennsylvania and started my comprehensive Philadelphia search in 1985. I became intimately acquainted with all the nineteenth-century city atlases and librarians at the Free Library, all of which were invaluable for showing how the breweries were situated on the properties and sometimes revealed breweries not listed in American Breweries (Bull, Friederick & Gottschalk 1984). Some breweries were covered in the Hexamer insurance surveys on microfilm, which included floorplans and orthopanic views of entire plant complexes. Photographic evidence came in the form of a Souvenir Album published when the United States Brewers Association held their convention in Philadelphia in 1896 and featured virtually every brewery in the city. At this point in my research I was basically sketching or photographing the maps from the library and then visiting the addresses with all the information I could muster to see what might be extant.
Leaving the tavern I headed towards the Ortlieb brewery complex on American Street, a street that runs between Third and Second Streets. The wind was still raw but the rain had let up and as I approached American Street I noticed that next to the street sign there was a terra cotta “Saint John Street” sign in the corner house and somehow it clicked. This was my epiphany! When I first read the account of John Wagner making America’s First Lager in his home brewery in One Hundred Years of Brewing I remembered looking for Saint John Street, but there was no such street on a modern map. I figured I’d never know the exact location and put it out of my mind, but here was the answer right in front of me!
To complicate things, the city standardized their address numbering system in 1857. John Wagner’s address listed in American Breweries was 455 Saint John Street but this was seventeen years before the address change. There was no way to cross-reference old and new addresses unless they were listed at the same location before and after the change. In this case, my “Rosetta Stone” came in the form of Philip Gucke’s brewery, a property just south of the decaying 1914 Ortlieb brew house facing American at Poplar Streets. I discovered much later, after even more map research, that Gucke’s was larger and was there before Ortlieb. Gucke’s pre-1857 address was listed as Saint John and 447 N. Third Street which correlated with John Wagner’s 455 Saint John Street listing. Ortlieb’s came to dominate the block and absorbed Gucke’s property into their complex. In fact, what remained was razed to make a parking lot for “Poor Henry’s Brewery & Restaurant.”
This realization that I had found the location described by Charles Wolf in One Hundred Years of Brewing prompted me to embark on what would turn out to become a most challenging endeavor. I began by obtaining a historic marker nomination form. The first thing I needed was additional corroborating evidence to substantiate Wolf’s account (ABJ January/February 2008). This included creating and publishing a data base of every “first lager” mentioned in One Hundred Years of Brewing in E.C.B.A.’s KEG (Fall 1998), which turned John Wagner up at the top of the list. Probably the most significant primary source was Freedley’s Philadelphia and Its Manufacturers, which was published less than twenty years after the event. I submitted my marker application three times, over a period of four years, each time expanding the scope of my research.
In 1999 I was elected Technical Chair of District Philadelphia Master Brewers Association of the Americas and when I told them we needed a non-profit organization to sponsor the marker the members voted their support unanimously. When the marker was finally approved, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Don “Joe Sixpack” Russell wrote a story about my quest and won a beer writers award for the article.
I’ve been back to that intersection seemingly hundreds of times since that rainy day so many years ago. All fifteen of my Philadelphia Brewery Tours have seen the Ortlieb brewery complex, several stopped for lunch at Poor Henry’s in the old bottling house that Henry Ortlieb reopened briefly as a brewpub and production brewery. I’ve posted a video of Henry giving us a tour on YouTube. But the time I remember most fondly was that beautiful sunny fall day, December 1, 2001 when we dedicated the marker commemorating “America’s First Lager.” As Master of Ceremonies, in my colonial brewer’s garb, I waxed poetic about Philadelphia’s place in the history of brewing, and had the pleasure of introducing Charlie Lieberman, probably the oldest brewer in the country, known as the poet laureate of the brewing industry, who read his poem, “The Brewers Yeast,” to rave reviews by those assembled. Following the ceremony our libation included a toast at a nearby tavern where they were serving Golden Goose Lager, brewed especially for the occasion at Manayunk Brewing Company, where I was working as assistant brewer at the time!
Since then a lot has happened. For one thing the neighborhood which had been gradually progressing has fully blossomed, as has the real estate! Today horsedrawn coaches take tourists past the marker. The old brewery saloon which has been known as the Ortlieb’s Jazz Haus for years recently got a new owner and a makeover and maintains its reputation as one of the city’s premier jazz clubs. Huge swaths of the Ortlieb’s complex have been cleared but the hulking remains of the old brew house still stand. Across American Street the bottling house awaits a new tenant. But just north of Poplar, in the shadow of that industrial skeleton on a block lined with houses from the mid-nineteenth century, stands the historic marker commemorating John Wagner’s small home brewery.
I’ve added even more sources to my files and have developed a series of PowerPoint presentations on the city’s brewing heritage, including one that covers the city’s earliest lager beer brewers, which I’ve used to give talks at several craft breweries throughout the city. And digging even deeper into the atlases has also provided many additions and corrections for American Breweries III which Dale Van Wieren is currently working on as an update to his 1995 version.
A tremendous number of resources are now available online, none the least of these has been the city atlases and Hexamer insurance surveys (philageohistory.org). The city archives has begun posting photographs from their extensive holdings (phillyhistory.org). In addition, a number of old texts have been republished by BrewersBooks.com, while others are readily available as Google books on line.
In June 2007 the Society of Industrial Archeologists held their national convention in Philadelphia. Naturally a Philadelphia Brewery Tour was part of the itinerary that included a visit to the marker in the shadow of Ortlieb’s.
The Oliver Evans Chapter of the S.I.A. hosted the convention and they have lots of information on the city’s industrial heritage on their website.
Most recently I was a member of a writing team to flesh out the story of Pennsylvania’s industrial history sponsored by ExplorePAHistory.com, a website that tells the state’s history through its markers. As a result, much of the primary source material that was used in “America’s First Lager” marker application is available on line. Some of the same beautiful lithographic interior views of Bergner & Engel’s brewery (from Larry Handy’s book published by the brewery in the 1880s) were among those featured in my article on that brewery in ABJ June/July 2008.
Addendum July 23, 2020:
Dale Van Wieren published American Breweries III Mid-Atlantic Edition in 2016.
Check out tantalizing new research by Tod Von Mechow.
Wagner, Rich. "Tracking a Legend." Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. June/July, 2000.
Wagner, Rich. “Defending a Legend: The Truth About America's First Lager.” Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. April/May 2007.
Wagner, Rich. “Engel & Wolf: Die Erste Lagerbier Brauerei in Amerika.” ABA Breweriana Journal. January/February 2008.
Wagner, Rich. “The Ice Age” of Brewing: Lagering Before Refrigeration. Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. August/September 2011.
Wagner, Rich. “Brewery Vaults I Have Known and Loved... and Some I've Only Heard About.” American Breweriana Journal March/April 2020