American Breweriana Journal May/June 2024


Remembering the Good Old Days, and Some of the Bad Ones With Charlie Lieberman


By Rich Wagner


A spry 76-year-old Charlie Lieberman had just mopped the tennis court with a brewmaster half his age when I met him at a Master Brewers’ Technical Conference in Maryland back in 1986. He had recently retired from his role as brewery consultant for Schwarz Laboratories in New York and had returned to his roots in Allentown, PA.


PHOTO: 00 Charlie Lieberman portrait. (Family collection)


When I explained my interest in Pennsylvania brewery history and homebrewing, the affable Lieberman started preaching to the choir. He said his brewing career started shortly after Repeal and that he cut his teeth at several Lehigh Valley breweries then regaled me with recollections of a career in the brewing industry: …Northampton owned a brewery in New York City. In 1937 Charlie Neuweiler went to inspect Scheidt’s can line in Norristown, Horlacher got kegs from Poth in Philadelphia when they closed as well as a centrifugal pump when Kuebler’s closed in Easton.  He said the Brown family owned Esslinger and one of that family’s daughters was married to a president of Schlitz. Charlie described an article he wrote (Brewers Digest September 1961) about his flight back from Europe with Charlie Gretz, another famous Philadelphia brewer and that he had consulted with Ortlieb’s when they began contract brewing Olde English 800 for Blitz-Weinhard in the 1970s. He brewed an experimental batch using unmalted barley as an adjunct at the Duquesne brewery in Pittsburgh and he solved a problem Rolling Rock was having with their grits cooker. He did what he could with Reading Brewery’s bulk pasteurizer and had it on good authority that the brewers at Mount Carbon cooked sausages in their wort. I was flabbergasted! All this, scribbled into my notebook during a twenty-minute conversation!


We exchanged contact information which led to many phone calls and visits. Having just retired from Schwarz Laboratories, he told me about his travels to breweries in China, South Africa, Ireland, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. His stories touched on both technology and history and his recollections as one of the “Young Turks” of the post prohibition brewing industry were as close as I’d get to being there! This was oral history at its finest! Charlie wrote extensively so most of the following is extracted from his articles, one of which is the title of this article (Brewers Digest April 1983). The rest are quotes from his other articles and interviews he gave.  


PHOTO: 01 Daeufer-Lieberman brewery, Lehigh Valley Brewery Tour July 6, 1991. (Wagner)


PHOTO: 02 Charlie and the author at Daeufer-Lieberman brewery, Lehigh Valley Brewery Tour July 6, 1991.


“…I was born in 1909 in one of a row of four red brick houses located on the premises of the Joseph A. Lieberman & Sons Brewery at 6th and Union sts. in Allentownwhere my ‘gross mȕtter’ stirred mash with a paddle… Someone said that I probably crawled out from under a fermenting vat or came into the brewery in one of those burlap linen lined bales of European hops.”


Having graduated cum laude with a B.S. in Chemistry from Georgetown, Charlie went on to Lehigh for a masters degree in chemical engineering. He took his future wife to a speakeasy in Allentown called the Spanish Garden: "It was fixed up like a garden. They served wine in a coffee cup and it didn’t taste good. …Bars had ways of getting good beer. They’d get fined or shut down and a new manager would take over and do the same thing until they got caught again. It was a revolving door. They had to satisfy the public!”


In my school days and later as a brewery worker, I heard many tales of underworld activity in the bootleg beer era. One of the cleverest I heard about was placing a keg of near beer inside a tank of real beer, hooked up to the test cock for the tank. …Horlacher supplied ‘Bronx Beer Baron’, Dutch Schultz with beer.” “The ‘kettle helper’ in the brew house also had the title of ‘spotter’. He would wait at the top of the Lehigh Mountain for a particular car bearing a certain license plate and then follow the revenue agents until they left Allentown and were on their way back to the Bureau headquarters in Philadelphia then phoned in his report.”


After repeal, we broke an opening into a ‘secret cellar’ so we could use its four wooden fermenting vats. This room was on the top floor. During Prohibition, the only access had been through a trap door in the roof. Where beer hoses were strung for illegal operations. …The door to the racking room was supposed to be axe proof and the racker reservoir tank could be emptied in a matter of seconds. No tools were necessary. A twist of a hand wheel did it. I was told, however, that with all these precautions, an agent managed to break his way into the room and collect the evidence as the last few gallons of beer were flowing down the over-sized drain and the brewery lost its license.”


My apprenticeship at the Widman brewery in Bethlehem lasted eight months. They had a wooden mash-lauter combination run by a steam engine known as a donkey engine. Belts activated the various machines when you threw in the clutch. Sometimes when I was cleaning inside this wooden tub, the clutch would slip which started the iron-clawed mixing apparatus to grunt and groan towards me. I would high-tail it ahead of the rotating forks until I reached the manway in the tub’s cover. A youthful hop took me out of danger…” Charlie, who had lettered in football and track regarded the tough manual tasks as "mere exercise." One of his more memorable jobs at Widman’s was to hand-crank an old, open-bed Ford truck and haul spent hops to the dump under the Broad Street Bridge.


It was also no easy task to stir fish bladders mixed with water and “wine stein” (tartaric acid crystals) until the cold solution started foaming and became viscous. While standing at the top of the ladder, I had to pour these finings from a bucket into a small opening on top of the bilge of a 40-bbl. horizontal wooden cask… Squeezing in and out of the small cathedral-shaped manhole when cleaning the tank was an entirely different matter.”


“…When racking kegs at Widman we dropped a specific number of pills into each washed keg before filling it. The pills furnished the needed carbonation. The number of pills to be added would sometimes be abruptly changed when a report from a tavern about flatness or wildness was delivered via a shouting head appearing at the crawl sized door when the kegs were rolled out…On our menu was “hell,” “dunkel” and occasionally some color in between. The hell or light beer only required one dipper of caramel color, but several dippers had to be added to the empty kegs that were labeled “Dark” when filled and bunged. The in-between color occurred when the normal confusion got out of hand.”


“…One day we received a wooden half-barrel of yeast, covered with a taut canvas malt sack held in place by a steel hoop. A consultant from the New York lab that prepared the culture also arrived to supervise the opening of the barrel. I was given the job of removing the canvas cover, but the carbon dioxide gas from fermentation turned the keg into a bomb ready to explode. The steel hoop flew one way and the yeast slurry went flying in all directions, including all over me, which gave the consultant and my fellow workers a good laugh…”


For several months before launching my bottom-of-the-ladder brewing career, I had been involved in an experiment to make a ‘near ale’ for the family-owned Neuweiler brewery in Allentown which was famous for its Cream Ale. In the 1930s, three quarters of its production was ale. For my research project, I picked up a jug of good finished ale from Phil Neuweiler, the brewmaster. When I brought it to the Lehigh chemistry lab, my professor, who was unique in that he had spent several years in the industry before becoming a teacher, told me immediately that I had to work with only half the jug because we were going to drink the other half!”


My first step was to distill the ale and separate the volatile flavor components through a laboratory, glass fractionating column. The experiment was quite revealing. The test tubes of condensed volatiles showed a whole array of distinctly different essences. Further analytical work never materialized as shortly thereafter, beer was relegalized.”


I started working at Neuweiler’s in May 1934 as a member of the Brewery Workers Union Local 264. My pay jumped from $15.50 for a 44-hour week to $25.00. The all-day Sunday, monthly union meetings were conducted in German. …A wooden wagon designed to be horse drawn was used to dispose of spent hops, but I was the oat burner’s replacement. When the wagon was loaded, I was off at a gallop with boots thumping and a long rubber apron flapping.”



In those days, the brewery Government cellar had locks on the tank valves and everything was sealed. A government agent had to unlock and lock the tanks prior to packaging. While working in the newly installed Government cellar, I had a bucket of strong caustic solution for cleaning. It was Charlie Neuweiler’s habit to taste everything in his path, so he wetted his finger then his tongue with my cleaning solution. Needless to say, I did my union brothers a disservice as when Charlie continued on his ‘rounds’ the missing taste buds did not prevent several tongue lashings. This incident, however, did not cause him to discontinue his practice of tasting most everything he encountered.”


He taught me how to chew malt to evaluate its taste and determine how it will act in the brew. In the old days there was not much instrumentation, so you relied on taste, feel and smell. He also sent me to Wahl Institute in Chicago where I earned a Brewmaster’s Certificate.”


PHOTO: 03 Horlacher 9 Month Perfection Beer. Post-pro coaster with brewmaster’s signature. (Wagner Collection)


In 1937 Lieberman became brewmaster at Horlacher. One of his first jobs was to recreate the company’s ‘Nine-Month-Old Perfection Beer’ which was popular before prohibition. It was in the style of an India Pale Ale. The following year he rolled out the new ‘Perfection’ which was a hit. Packaged in an amber export bottle and labeled as a premium beer, it was popular in the better restaurants and night clubs in New York and Chicago. Later a blonde model was employed to enhance the attractiveness of the brand, known affectionately as “The Blonde Bomber” by Horlacher employees. Charlie also suggested using a penguin with a top hat and cane to give the brand an air of sophistication.


PHOTO: 04 Newspaper ad for Gulf Beer. (Family Collection)


In 1948 he accepted a position as brewmaster of Gulf Brewing Co., a Howard Hughes company in Houston where he subsequently became a vice-president. He began by removing segregation signs from the restroom doors saying “We’re not doing that here.” He was featured on television and appeared in full-page ads in Texas newspapers for "Pale Dry Grand Prize Beer" and told me that Schaefer brewmaster Hans Baker, famous for "Schaefer’s Pale Dry" in the 1940's, gave him a few pointers.


In 2001 he was interviewed for a story: “A Brewmaster’s Keg Full of Memories” (Whitehall-Coplay Press March 4, 2001) and said his favorite position was as a brewery consultant with Schwarz Laboratories in New York. "It appeals to your ego. I’d go to a place and be looked up to as an authority. And I always enjoyed teaching." He traveled the globe, teaching seminars for brewery executives and he taught at Siebel Institute in Chicago. I recall him describing his work in China where he said the brewing industry was “about where the U.S.A. was in the forties, but they are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the next twenty years!”


During our conversations I would always ask about what he knew about the brewing methods of antiquity. He told me about Genesee Village, established by the family that owned the famous brewery in Rochester where they recreated mid-nineteenth century brewery where they used troughs to transfer liquids instead of pipes and hoses.


He saw the same thing in his travels to Mexico and Central America: “…troughs were used in a brewery claimed to be the first in the New World, built in the 1500's, the brewery as part of a Mission in the old section of Quito, Ecuador. Guillermo Moscoso was the Plant Manager and Brewmaster at Cerveceria Andia S.A. …He took me to see the ancient brewery, but the prelate with the key was not there, so Guillermo climbed through a window and then boosted me up and through. He told me how each year he made a brew with this crude array of equipment. Dignitaries of the city took part in the ceremonies that he orchestrated as head brewmaster of the region.”


While exploring the abandoned first brewery in Honduras at La Ceba, Helmut Lutz, head brewmaster at Cerveceria Hondureña and I climbed up into an unused part of the building and found a rusted rectangular tank about 6 ft. deep with supports for a false bottom about 2 ft. above the solid bottom. This tank was located above the site of an open pipe wort cooler. The copper tubes, dispersing trough and collecting pan were long gone. The tank served as both hop jack and hot wort tank. The relatively high false bottom showed that brewers in those days were already conscious of "contact time."


While at Gulf he advocated for the Kreische brewery ruins in La Grange, Texas which has since become part of Monument Hill State Historic Site.


PHOTO: 05 Charlie received a lifetime achievement award at the National Master Brewers Convention in Philadelphia in 1989. (Wagner)


Our conversations were invaluable in helping me interpret seventeenth century brewing technology at Pennsbury Manor in 1990 which he and his wife attended. He said, “You’re doing a good job here, Rick” and followed up with an article entitled “Penn’s Purity Brew” (Brewers’ Bulletin December 14, 1990) that described my demonstration noting that District Philadelphia of the Master Brewers Association visited Pennsbury to see the brew house shortly after its reconstruction back in 1939. He celebrated the fact that I was actually brewing beer there half a century later for the first time in three hundred years!


PHOTO: 06 Eagle Brewery in Catasauqua, maker of Old Dutch Beer until 1964. (Wagner)


PHOTO: 07 Northampton Brewery, Lehigh Valley Brewery Tour July 6, 1991. (Wagner)


PHOTO: 08 Larry Handy, Charlie and the author.


In July 1992 the Lehigh County Historical Society hosted “A Taste of History” which included an exhibit featuring breweriana from local collectors. The schedule of events included my slide show which he attended. I gave him a bottle of the beer I brewed at Pennsbury and he slipped it into his wife’s purse. The following week my Lehigh Valley Brewery Tour was next on the agenda and Charlie became the de facto tour guide, having worked in many of the sites on the tour.


Our subsequent conversations mostly centered around brewing technology and certainly influenced my decision to attend brewing school. I received a diploma in Brewing Technology from Siebel Institute in Chicago in the fall of 1994 and spent seven years working in Philadelphia’s craft brewers and was an officer of MBAA District Philadelphia, for a decade.


In 2000 Charlie and I took a tour of Old Lehigh B.C. (1997-2001) which was Allentown’s first production microbrewery. When they told us how much beer they had to sewer, he told me, “Percentage wise, that would be like Anheuser-Busch losing the entire production of one of their plants.”



I applied for a historic marker commemorating “America’s First Lager” and got District Philadelphia to sponsor it. I recalled that Charlie, aka “Poet Laureate of the Brewing Industry” had written a poem entitled “The Brewers’ Yeast” (Brewers’ Digest January 1957) and he enthusiastically agreed to read his poem as part of the dedication ceremonies in December 2001.



PHOTO: 09 Charlie read his poem “The Brewers’ Yeast” as part of the marker dedication ceremonies. (Anna Wagner)


PHOTO: 10 In his later years, Charlie returned to Texas and visited Monument Hill State Historic site in La Grange which includes the Kreische brewery ruins. (Family Collection)


PHOTO: 09 He continued speaking regularly on a number of topics when he moved to Luther Crest Retirement Community. He created this brewing history display. (Family Collection)


PHOTO: 12 “America’s Oldest Brewmaster” at “America’s Oldest Brewery” for a Master Brewers meeting in 2007. (Wagner)


A year after his death I put up an exhibit to honor his legacy in the brewing industry at the National Brewery Museum in 2009. (Wagner)


PHOTO: 13 National Brewery Museum 2009. (Wagner)