American Breweriana Journal Jan./Feb. 2024


ECBA’s Tray Collector Philadelphia Trays Part 3

by Larry Handy


Esslinger’s Inc., Philadelphia, PA

By Rich Wagner


In 1868, George Esslinger started a small lager beer brewery on Tenth above Jefferson Street where he produced between 500 and 1,000 barrels a year. Eleven years later he moved to Tenth above Callowhill Street, near John Weihmann’s brewery. In 1893 the firm became known as George Esslinger and Son and was producing around 5,000 barrels annually. Brands included Adonis, Columbian, Export Beer, Ale and Porter. Weihmann’s brewery became the Union Brewing Company four years later and closed at the turn of the century the property was acquired by Esslinger. Expansions were made, including a new stock house and production exceeded 25,000 barrels.


During the second year of Prohibition, the company founder George Esslinger died and the brewery remained idle until the Brown brothers, Michael, James, and Louis purchased it in 1925 from the Esslinger estate. They flagged it as the Esslinger Brewing Company, and produced several non-alcoholic beverages until Repeal, after which it became Esslinger’s, Inc.


Esslinger was the first brewery in Philadelphia to package its beer in cans. Eleven more brewers followed suit. In 1935 Esslinger began construction of a five-story modern brew house along with 85-foot tall malt storage silos capable of holding over 10,000 bushels. They also purchased a 6-story building and a three-story engine room and put an addition on their washing and racking rooms. The additions nearly doubled their capacity to over 300,000 barrels a year.


In 1937, Esslinger purchased the Gruenwald brewery at American and Susquehanna Sts. It was Philadelphia’s only new brewery built after repeal. Fourth generation brewer, A.C. Gruenwald repurposed former Philadelphia Electric Co. buildings and added to them but it only lasted two years. As Esslinger’s Plant #2 it became their ale and porter brewery for a decade.


They introduced “Little Man Ale” and began advertising on a radio amateur night show. Winners received bookings at local theaters and Esslinger provided them with two weeks salary. Soon afterward porter and brown stout were added to the product lineup


Esslinger gave their billboard at Broad and Vine a facelift. Featuring their trademarked Little Man, the message proclaimed “Esslinger’s, Philadelphia’s Only Premium Beer.” Two years later they re-tooled their label for bottles and cans, retaining their trademarked Little Man but in a more stylized, modern appearance to emphasize their “Premium Beer” status. Many in the trade said the new look could hold its own among the nationally advertised brands. Supporting the brand were six television shows, two daily radio programs, billboards and newspaper advertising.


At the start of 1952 Esslinger complimented the modernization of their brewing department by adding a new bottle soaker, pasteurizer and 50-spout high speed filler to their packaging department. They hired a third shift crew to load company trucks to keep the platform free for distributors during the day. Esslinger expanded their television sponsorship to seven programs which included John Facenda as “the voice of Esslinger” on the Channel 10 News.


Detroit’s Goebel brewery sued Esslinger over the use of the term “Goblet,” for their seven ounce ACL bottle. A judge ruled in favor of Esslinger’s but the firm switched the name to “Keglet,” ‘with the flavor of draught beer in a bottle’. In the spring of 1953 Esslinger introduced the Parti-Quiz Pak containing six colorful cans in pastel colors with 21 different copyrighted facts arranged around each can. For example, “First transatlantic radio message sent 1902.” People could use the facts to ask those around them questions in a manner much like the modern Trivial Pursuit. Tavern owners said the innovative package was so popular they couldn’t keep them in stock and the brewery began offering the cans in case lots. Nationally home consumption of beer hit an all-time high with packaged beer accounting for around 75% of all beer produced, the exact opposite of the 75% draught in 1933.


In an effort to sell more beer to half the population, brewers around the country tried to tailor advertising that would appeal to men and women. Esslinger met that challenge in 1960 by introducing the “Buccaneer,” a swash-buckling pirate that presented both a macho as well as romantic image as chronicled in literature and movies. The company worked with Alcoa which developed their “Cold Chest” which held six cans and kept them cold for hours, and could be used as a picnic cooler.


In January 1961, the company created a new management team headed by Ron Perelman, president, Robert Brown general manager and Tom Park, sales manager. They drew up plans for expansion with the addition of new equipment in all areas of the plant. They were running five bottling lines and working two and three shift days to meet demand. The company purchased the Gretz brands as part of the expansion strategy.


In an effort to boost sales, Esslinger launched their “33⅓% More Beer” campaign in June, charging the same price for cases of 16 oz. and 12 oz. bottles. Perelman claimed brewers in other markets had success with this strategy. By the end of the month, Perelman informed stockholders the company had just shown a profit for the first time in three years and current sales were 25% above last year.


In January 1964 the Jacob Ruppert brewery of New York City acquired the Esslinger, Keglet and Gretz brands for $1.8 million and moved production to New York City, aiming to raise their production to two million barrels. Robert M. Brown, former owner of the Esslinger brewery and his sales manager formed the Esslinger Distributing Company, Inc. to be Philadelphia’s Ruppert wholesale distributor which included the Knickerbocker, Gretz and Esslinger brands.


A year later, Ruppert’s brands were sold to Rheingold. Schmidt’s of Philadelphia acquired Rheingold’s brands in 1977 but were not interested in the McSorley’s label which went to Ortlieb nor Esslinger, which went to The Lion, Inc. in Wilkes-Barre, which produced Esslinger’s until 1980.


A Brief History on the Trade Character: The Esslinger Little Man

By Larry Handy


After the Brown brothers purchased the brewery from the Esslinger estate in 1925, they introduced several non-alcoholic beverages to the Philadelphia market. To help promote their new Esslinger Old Style Lager, a small trade character was added to their advertising and labels to promote the brand, and was called the “Esslinger Kid.” The character’s name was changed to the “Esslinger Little Man” by 1931. The Esslinger Little Man was created by one of the Brown brothers after a visit to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. The character resembled one of Waldorf-Astoria’s bellhops representing fast and highest quality services.


The Esslinger Little Man became well[1]known throughout Philadelphia and was eventually adapted as the brewery’s icon after Repeal in 1933. The character was copyrighted in March 1934 and the name “little Man was filed in May 1936. During the 1950s Marty Needleman, dressed in his red “bell hop” uniform as the Esslinger Little Man, distributed Esslinger’s cigarettes at promotional events.


By 1960, the Esslinger Little Man and Parti-Quiz can & coaster series popularity started to wane, so Esslinger decided to retire the Little Man and the beer can series all together. Esslinger launched a Buccaneer themed campaign, chosen to appeal to both men and women as it celebrated the romance associated with pirates in literature and movies as well as identifying Esslinger’s hearty and full[1]bodied flavor. A redesigned label featuring a Buccaneer as well as an extensive advertising campaign including point of sale displays were part of the rebranding effort. The company outfitted one of their salesman in regalia for making personal appearances. The Esslinger Buccaneer remained as Esslinger's icon until the brand disappeared by 1980.


 Note: The Tray Collector appears regularly and features pictures of trays from different cities and states.