American Breweriana Journal May/June 2019
Post Prohibition Brewing in Reading, PA
By Rich Wagner
Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey were awash with beer during prohibition, much of it produced in Reading and other “Pennsylvania Dutch” communities where beer was considered essential to life. In fact, Reading was home to “Beer Baron” Max Hassel, who had an interest in many of the breweries in the supply chain. He was ready to become a “legitimate businessman” and return the city to its glory as a brewing center but was gunned down by his associates who wanted to continue bootlegging after repeal.
As it happens, one of Reading’s breweries that came back didn’t last long because they were skirting the law. Whether or not it had been a Hassel brewery is open to debate. Another reopened with a clean record after repeal only to have its life blood sucked dry at the bitter end. The last man standing would slug it out until 1976 before selling its brand, but not the bricks, leaving Reading without a brewery for the first time since its founding as a frontier outpost on the Schuylkill River.
PHOTO 01 CAPTION View of the Fisher brewery reflagged as Woerner briefly after repeal. (Doxie Collection)
PHOTO 02 CAPTION Fisher coaster (Raub Collection)
During prohibition in Reading, Max Hassel owned the Fisher, Reading and Lauer breweries, all of which would ultimately be padlocked and or dismantled. Some breweries that had run afoul of the law during prohibition had difficulty getting licenses after repeal due to real or alleged connections to organized crime. Fisher Brewing Co., Inc. is listed as being in business from 1920-1934. After a three year hiatus it was flagged as the Woerner brewery for a year, then another break until 1942 when it was reorganized as the Adam C. Jaeger Brewing Co. before going out of business within a year.
The Muhlenberg Brewing Co. in Bernharts made a stab at coming back as the Munich Brewery (for a Mr. Munich, not the Bavarian city) and the Heidelberg Brewing Co. was a new brewery license at 131 S. 2nd St. Both are listed as being in and out of business in 1934. The post repeal environment was difficult for breweries that wanted to reboot after a thirteen year hiatus. Of course the “racket breweries” were probably in the best condition having been active during the so-called dry years.
PHOTO 03 CAPTION Deppen lighted sign. (Doxie Collection)
PHOTO 04 CAPTION The Deppen brewery is just waiting to be turned into a brewery/museum! (Wagner February 2018)
Peter Nagel established a brewery at 10th and Chestnut streets in 1828. It became known as the Spring Garden Brewery and had several owners before the company built a modern plant at 3rd and Buttonwood streets in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. So it would seem Deppen was well positioned to succeed when beer came back.
In January 1935 Deppen and Old Reading breweries were among a half dozen Pennsylvania brewers given a slap on the wrist by the State Liquor Control Board for giving free signs and advertising items as sales inducements. But the following year the State Liquor Control Board suspended Deppen’s license for allegedly violating 17 state laws and liquor regulations. Louis E. Wiswesser, president of the company, was ultimately convicted and Robert R. Gerhart, Berks County Treasurer pled no defense to charges of embezzling public funds. Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas J. Curtin told the jury, the alleged conspirators claimed false owners of the brewery, concealing the fact that some of the defendants were major stockholders in the company which had become insolvent. After two years Wiswesser was sentenced to six months in Federal Penitentiary.
In June 1937, after filing for bankruptcy and subsequent financial juggling, a judge ordered the brewery to be liquidated; the property and assets including trademarks were put up for public sale in July, stipulating that the property was not to be used as a brewery.
PHOTO 05 CAPTION Coaster. While they had a Sunshine brand the company was known as Barbey’s until it was purchased by the Ortliebs and Nate Cooper in 1951.
Barbey’s Columbia Hall Brewery & Lager Beer Saloon got its start in 1855 during a period when lager beer was gaining popularity as a national beverage; not that Reading’s Pennsylvania Germans needed convincing on that score!
I have not come across any newspaper accounts of the brewery being active during prohibition either manufacturing cereal beverages or “high powered” beer, and a newspaper story of the day says the family shut the brewery up tight in 1920 and waited for the inevitable return of beer. Flagged as Barbey’s Inc. after repeal, the company was capitalized with $200,000, of which $50,000 was devoted to modernization.
PHOTO 06 CAPTION Lighted Sign. (Doxie Collection)
PHOTO 07 CAPTION Sunny “Lucky 7” green “Sparkle Bottle.” (Doxie Collection)
In July of 1951 Alex Bombinski joined Barbey’s from nearby Columbia Brewing Co. in Shenandoah. Before starting his brewing career with Pabst he was a footballer as a student at Marquette University. In August the Ortlieb family and Nathaniel F. Cooper purchased 51% and 49% respectively of the company, which they renamed Sunshine Brewing Co. Nate was president and Henry T. Ortlieb vice-president. They increased sales by rebranding, investing heavily in advertising and marketing. By 1960 production was around 122,000 barrels, just 38,000 less than cross-town rival Old Reading.
In September 1948 Barbey’s participated in Reading’s Bicentennial celebration flying a 30-foot-long neoprene-coated nylon helium balloon replica of their beer bottle 75 feet above the fairground. In February, Barbey’s set up an elaborate display in the street window of the Reading Chamber of Commerce illustrating the technical operations of brewing at Barbey’s
“Sunny’s the One” was the new slogan for the 1956 advertising campaign. Sunshine developed a method of reprinting newspaper advertising on heavy waterproof stock which could be slipped into aluminum frames on the sides of their trucks or could be adapted to point-of-sale advertising. This made it possible to inexpensively change signage more frequently.
Sun Sets on Sunshine
We rely on investigative journalism to get a picture of the demise of this sturdy regional brewery that managed to survive the “beer wars” into the 1960s. “The Region’s Vanishing Breweries” by Elliot G. Jaspin ran in two parts in the Pottsville Republican in September 1977, seven years after the brewery came to an ignoble end and, not surprisingly, no one wanted to talk about it.
He described a “motley assortment of businessmen, some with associations to organized crime” that descended to feast on whatever they could suck out of a viable business operating in the black. It sounds like an all too familiar story in the days when Pennsylvania’s breweries were dropping like flies, but this one takes the cake.
On July 1, 1964 Leo Israel Bloom became president of Sunshine. He got a group of Reading businessmen to bankroll his purchase of Sunshine through his Reading Financial Corp. while putting up just $8,500 of his own money. His previous experience had been to bankrupt his family’s long-standing furniture business in Reading. It would appear this was when Ortlieb and Cooper sold their interest. Bloom announced a $1M building and expansion program, the first detailed in the trade journals since repeal. Within three years under his management Sunshine went into bankruptcy.
The story sounds like a “might have been” had Max Hassel gone along with the gangsters after repeal and continued bootlegging, but his breweries made money! Thirty years after prohibition William J. Paulosky was the so-called “Beer Baron” of Schuylkill County. He was a former owner of the Columbia brewery in Shenandoah. In 1964 he started Beer City distributors in Minersville as a subsidiary of his company, General Programming. He flouted just about every liquor law on the books: giving away free beer incentives, extending credit to distributors and horning in on other distributors’ territory were probably just the tip of the iceberg. Bloom recruited Anthony Sicilian, who along with his two brothers ran Cold Beer Distributing in New York City. Together the trio began sucking the lifeblood out of the brewery.
When undertaking such nefarious business practices, why not a little trademark infringement? Sunshine rolled out “Playmate” malt liquor as early as December 1964 and applied for the use of “Playboy” in January 1965. Their lawyer suggested they drop the application for use of the word “Playboy” but that only showed they knew it was an infringement. HMH Publishing of Chicago sued them and requested an injunction against further use of the “Playmate” brand. The fact that the artwork on the label was nearly a direct copy of the January 1950 Vogue cover was small potatoes.
It was around this time that a labor dispute in New York City got Sunshine some contract brewing business. Esslinger was one of three remaining breweries in Philadelphia and had recently acquired the Gretz brands. In 1965 Ruppert purchased Esslinger’s brands before being absorbed by the Liebmann Brewing Co., makers of Rheingold. So for a short time Sunshine was packaging Ruppert, Rheingold, Esslinger and Gretz Keglet.
Bloom’s strategy was based on high-volume sales with a razor thin profit margin. In order to increase output he announced a $1M expansion program. In July, Sunshine purchased the Columbia brewery and its brands: Columbia Beer, Senators Club, Whitman and Lord, and Ger-Brau. Given Sunshine’s declining sales, it’s surprising that Bloom claimed the purchase was in order to increase the company’s capacity to 250,000 barrels a year; unless of course, he wanted to appear attractive to a prospective buyer.
The downside was pricing: their margin was not just thin, it was nonexistent. They sold beer for less than it cost to produce and gave away huge quantities as inducements to purchase more. The icing on the cake came in 1966 when Bloom told employees they each needed to purchase $1,000 bonds to keep the brewery operating. Those who couldn’t’ afford it could take out a loan at American Bank & Trust Co.
In what might be described as a “Swan Song,” Sunshine Beer won the Gold Medal for Quality at the Investigation Centre and Sales Promotion, Brussels, Belgium in 1967: judged on the basis of analyses for quality, purity, texture, density, age stability and other properties and characteristics. If Bombinski could take any solace in the debacle going on around him, at very least, his skill as a brewmaster was vindicated.
In 1969 Bloom found a group of investors in Philadelphia who got a Small Business Administration loan for nearly half a million dollars, secured through American Bank & Trust. They bought the brewery and helped form ARC Distributing in Richmond, which was set up as an exclusive dealer of Sunshine beer. A reception for the founding of that company included representatives of the Bank of Virginia, Internal Revenue Service, Vice-Mayor of Richmond, Small Business Administration, National Business League, Special Assistant to the Governor and deputy director of the Department of Defense! It all looked good on paper, (promoting minority entrepreneurship, getting an influx of cash and expanding the brewery’s territory) except when the guy buying the brewery has a couple of aliases.
The new owners ran the brewery for about a year, during which time Sicilian, of all people, said they took every penny out of the company they could. In fact, right before they went out of business Brewers’ Digest ran a cover story proclaiming Sunshine having a record year and a “Sunny” future, with a two page spread promoting their “Lucky Sunny” seven ounce green sparkling bottle. Part of the article emphasized that Sunshine was the only black-owned brewery in the nation, the same to be said for ARC Distributing. Jamaica Sun Premium Beer was introduced to appeal to the African American demographic. In the end Bloom and the gang scammed American Bank & Trust Co., Small Business Administration, the Federal Government and Sunshine employees, collectively, for $1M.
PHOTO 08 CAPTION Alex Bombinski, master brewer, greets A. Bart Starr, one of the last owners of Sunshine. (Brewers’ Digest December 1970)
PHOTO 09 CAPTION Sign. Jamaica Sun Premium Beer. (Doxie Collection)
Old Reading Brewing Co.
The Reading Brewing Co., known as Health Beverage Co. during prohibition, was renamed Old Reading Brewing Co. after repeal. They published a number of trademark announcements in The Western Brewer in the summer of 1934 establishing claim to their use of the term “Reading” since 1886 and establishing the name “Old Reading.”
Charles A. Spaeth was master brewer after repeal. His brother George D. Spaeth, (U.S. Brewers’ Academy 1937) replaced him upon his death in 1944 and continued until he retired in 1952. Their chemist, Kevin S. Merkt, graduated two years later. Edward Elmo Messer, also a U.S. Brewers’ Academy graduate joined Old Reading as assistant brewmaster in 1944. He had experience at Home Brewing in Richmond and more recently at Otto Erlanger Brewing in Philadelphia. Messer became bottling superintendent in 1951 about the same time Adolph Uhrig came on board. He was assistant brewmaster to Messer when the brewery closed in 1976.
The company announced a $150,000 modernization and expansion program in January 1958, which increased storage capacity by 10,000 barrels and upgraded machinery in the bottling plant. The following year they allocated $375,000 for a modern warehouse and platform with a tunnel beneath the main line of the Reading Railroad to convey packaged product to the warehouse. Five years later there was a $1M expansion which added an additional 12,000 barrels of storage and improvements to the bottling plant.
PHOTO 10 CAPTION Was Old Reading’s use of Vargas artwork in their advertising the inspiration for Sunshine’s Playmate brand? (Doxie Collection)
PHOTO 11 CAPTION Before they dropped “Old” from their name they tried out “New” Old Reading. (Doxie Collection)
PHOTO 12 CAPTION New packaging for Light Reading Premium. (Doxie Collection)
Brands and Advertising
Bru-Joy was introduced in November 1935. In December 1938 they rolled out Berkshire Ale. In 1940 Trommer’s brewery in Brooklyn filed a suit against Old Reading for using their trademarked “White Label” brand and won.
After much research, Old Reading adopted an advertising campaign that embraced the local Pennsylvania Dutch culture. Harry Fishman, secretary and general manager of the firm wrote about the sales boosting campaign for American Brewer in March 1946. The research involved oral history, historical society collections and artifacts in order to produce drawings and paintings to authentically illustrate, among other things: "The Pennsylvania Dutch Fireplace"; "Making Apple Butter"; "Hop Pillow"; "Basket Making"; "The Kentucky Rifle" ( which really came from Pennsylvania) and "Barn Raising." They had requests from as far away as Canada from schools, historical societies and museums to add the images to their curricula and collections. Along with these, a series of coasters with a cartoon treatment of Pennsylvania Dutch sayings, complete with English translations, provided some levity to the campaign. A 16-page illustrated booklet with a summary of the campaign was sent to all licensees and distributors.
PHOTO CAPTION 13 Old Reading display. (Doxie Collection)
In November 1952, responding to changing tastes, the company ran full page newspaper ads proclaiming the introduction of “New” Old Reading Beer as being “Lighter! Dry-er! Tastier! With Good Pennsylvania Dutch Flavor.” Thumbing their nose at the trend, Philadelphia Ortlieb’s advertised theirs as the “Wet Beer.”
At a certain point the folksy image was appealing to an ever-shrinking customer base, and like most breweries needed to attract the post-war baby boomers that were coming of age. "A market largely up for grabs with a largely non-loyal segment of 21 to 35-year-olds that comprised 30% of the market,” said John Whitehall a local beer distributor for a newspaper article in 1988. Reading beer was distributed throughout the Mid-Atlantic States and while sales were good, the company was looking for growth. Starting in 1959 the company deleted the word “Old” from their name and developed a totally new and modern brand image manifest in the new “bulls-eye” label and Reading Premium Beer brand. Attention was given to make the font at least resemble the former label so as not to alienate older customers who had responded so well to their traditional Pennsylvania Dutch theme. There was even a stylized Distelfink in the bulls-eye above the word “Reading,” craning its neck with a nod to tradition. The campaign resulted in a 17% increase in sales. The following year the brewery ranked 49th in the nation with sales of 160,000 barrels.
PHOTO 14 CAPTION. Introduced in 1961 Mardi Gras Malt Liquor credited a slow fermentation for its champagne-like flavor and was packaged in green 12 oz. bottles with foil neck label. (Doxie Collection)
One could say that all the expansion came at just the wrong time as one regional brewer after another became casualties of the larger national brewers’ capture of the market. For a perspective, the Blue Book in 1973 lists eighteen breweries in Pennsylvania. Seven years later there were only nine. John Whitehead, the distributor interviewed in an article about the brewery in 1988, said that back in the day he couldn’t give away the national brands, but television changed that and local brand loyalty went the way of your grandfather’s moustache, although loyalty to local products probably lasted longer in tradition-bound Pennsylvania Dutch Country than in other demographics. He credited some poor business decisions for the demise of the Reading brewery, especially chasing far-flung markets where Reading ex-pats lived and traveled, like Florida.
The End of Brewing in Reading
Schmidt’s of Philadelphia purchased Reading’s brands in order to add 200,000 barrels to their production. The same year they ended up with Rheingold’s brands. It was as if struggling regional brewers were playing Monopoly, picking up brewery brands instead of properties like Boardwalk and Park Place. With breweries in Philadelphia and Cleveland, Schmidt’s acquired the Duquesne, P.O.C., Erie, Reading, Ortlieb’s, McSorley’s, Rheingold and Knickerbocker brands. But in 1987 Heileman purchased the Schmidt brands and moved production to their plant in Baltimore.
Gary Catt covered the closing of the Reading Brewery for the Reading Eagle April 16, 1976, writing: “Death came officially to the brewery at 4 p.m. The knell was a foggy blast of an air whistle… that signaled hopelessness for the men in the stanawat [steinwert or tasting room] Thursday. It blew too long, loud and empty. The raucous atmosphere in the stanawat stilled. White-capped glasses of fresh Reading brew were hoisted ceremoniously. The men drank deeply… and swallowed hard …as they ribbed each other, “See you Monday at 8th and Penn… the unemployment office.”
PIC Caption. 15 View of Reading brew house before it was torn down. You can see the storage tanks visible in the background. (Rothdeutsch Collection)
NOTE: This version of the article is slightly different than the printed version with additions and corrections.