American Breweriana Journal September/October 2012

On the Bookshelf – Book Reviews

by Doug Hoverson


Philadelphia Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Cradle of Liberty by Rich Wagner History Press: ISBN 978-1-60949-454-4, paperback, 160 pages, $19.99.


Philadelphia is often listed among America’s great beer cities. Its biggest newspaper has a regular beer columnist that goes by the name “Joe Sixpack.” But this certainly isn’t based on current production. The current number of breweries and brewpubs in the city is in single digits – much lower than several other metropolitan areas. How about history? Here the city has a legitimate claim. Rich Wagner, ABA member, brewer and outstanding historian, has attempted to capture more than 300 years of brewing in less than 150 pages. As in his other works, Wagner combines exhaustive research, knowledge of the brewing process of the broad currents in American history to give beer historians and drinkers a thorough grounding in the heritage of Philadelphia brewing.


The first 150 years or so, the story of Philadelphia beer was the story of local ale breweries. Considering how old they are, and how uneven the historical documentation is, it is amazing that we know as much as we do about these businesses. – by 1700 the city had five established breweries. One of the surprising things that Wagner uncovers is the importance of branding (literally) was even in the early 18th century. One brewery was accused of shipping ale to South Carolina with another brewery’s mark on the barrel, and the case made the newspapers. Wagner uses his own brewing experience to create a clear description of the brewing process of the colonial era (a process he has recreated many times for demonstrations throughout the region). He is particularly strong in explaining the technological innovations that helped brewers increase production and improve efficiency. The Perot and Morris breweries installed one of the first stationary steam engines in the nation, were among the first to use step-infusion mashing techniques, and of course John Wagner is generally credited with being the first to brew lager beer in the United States.


It was after the introduction of lager that Philadelphia’s brewing industry expanded to take over entire sections of the city. The 1876 Centennial Exposition included a large pavilion called Brewers’ Hall, which showed the present state of the industry and how far it had come since colonial times. But Philadelphia’s authority to make such a demonstration came from the explosion of brewing in the city. In the first thirty years of lager, more than 250 breweries opened in the city. Chapter 4 goes through the city neighborhood by neighborhood tracing the development of breweries large and small, and explaining why particular areas were able to exploit local resources.


Brewerytown, the section between Girard Avenue and Oxford and Glenwood Streets from Thirtieth to Thirty-third Streets, contained eleven breweries, a keg factory, a bottling machinery maker, a company that dried brewers’ grains for feed, and was served by both the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads.


Wagner also describes the diversity of the beers of the 19th century – diversity that would delight modern craft beer lovers. John F. Betz, for example, offered at various times Bohemian, Pale Export, Salvator, Munich, and Betz’s Best lagers and Burton Ale, East India Pale Ale, India Pale Ale, Extra Brown Stout, Double Stout, and Half and Half. The Burton Ale was claimed to be four years old at the time of bottling (anticipating modern interest in barrel aging by a century and a half) and the EIPA and IPA were robust beers at 6.5 and 7.5 percent alcohol. Wagner also covers weiss beer, which was popular in German communities and was easy to make since it did not require boiling and therefore required less equipment (and less expense).


The periods of Prohibition and the years following are also represented in local detail and national context. Quite a few Philadelphia breweries remained in business during the dry years, and nearly eery one of them was charged with some sort of violation (only Hornung seems to have escaped). After Prohibition, seventeen breweries restarted, including relatively famous names like Esslinger, Hohenadel, Schmidt’s and Ortlieb. Wagner chronicles their struggles and eventual demise with clarity. However, he also provides hope by relating the development of the craft brewing industry with stories of those like Red Bell which had success for a while but eventually closed, and others like Yards Brewing Co. which remain today.


Philadelphia Beer provides enough history for a multi-volume work, but Wagner does a fine job of distilling it down to 140 pages in a way that will interest the general reader and satisfy the brewerianist and historian. There are several dozen grayscale illustrations and a section of color plates which illustrate the important points in this history, including rare and important pieces. Philadelphia loyalists will find their pride confirmed, and all readers will understand brewing and its history better by this important example.