American Breweriana Journal September/October 2006
Philadelphia Breweries After Repeal …And Then There Were None (With Apologies to Agatha Christie)
By Rich Wagner
Philadelphia, like most cities, has experienced a beer renaissance in the past decade. There have been a few success stories, none the least of which is Yards Brewing Co. which has thrived for over a decade and has become the city’s only production brewery. In the spring of 2003, Yards moved into the bottling plant of the old Weisbrod & Hess brewery. Since then I’ve presented a series of free lectures there every few months to share the fruits of my research with beer aficionados and local history buffs. In March my presentation focused on the demise of nineteen Philadelphia breweries that managed a comeback after prohibition. Don Fink and Larry Handy (ABA 2694) provided a display of trays and signs. Larry even made Yards a stop on his Philadelphia Bar Tour which added a busload of Bar Tourist – many of whom are breweriana collectors – to the audience. One of those in attendance was Jim Cartin (ABA 3317) whose collection provided a wealth of images to illustrate the story. This article is a summary of that presentation.
In the weeks and months leading up to the repeal of prohibition, reporters scoured the city interviewing brewery owners and brewmasters calculating just how many glasses of beer were waiting in their tanks to assure the public that there would be enough “real beer” to go around. The papers proclaimed “1,500,000 Gallons of Beer Waiting!” They reported with hope and enthusiasm on all the money being spent modernizing plants and all the jobs that would be created. Nineteen breweries came back after repeal, but like so many disappearing dinner guests in a mystery thriller they vanished one by one …until there were none.
According to American Breweries II Bergdoll (PA 373) was licensed but became the city’s first post prohibition casualty when it closed in 1934. While there is some anecdotal evidence of production, there is no known breweriana. However the massive brewery complex which became synonymous with “Brewerytown” was converted into condominiums in the 1980s and represents one of the finest examples of brewery architecture preservation in Pennsylvania (see “Pennsylvania Brewery Preservation Success Stories,” ABA Journal Nov./Dec. 2004).
According to American Breweries II the Straubmuller brewery (PA 596) emerged as the Quaker City Brewing Corp. under the control of the George Ehret Brewing Co. (NY 85) for one year, so it is uncertain whether the brewery ever actually produced beer after prohibition. It is listed as not producing from 1938-1941 and may have served as a warehouse for the Ehret brand during those years.
The Trainer Brewing Company’s North and South plants were all that remained of six branches of the Consumers Brewing Co. in the early 1900s. A bottle house was added to the South Plant (the old Welde & Thomas brewery PA 504) in 1934. Construction was begun on a new brew house but the South Plant was closed in 1937 and production was moved to the North Plant, formerly the Premier brewery (PA 598), and the firm became known as the Otto Erlanger Brewing Co.
There were many “Wolf” breweries in Philadelphia but the John Jacob Wolf Brewing Co. (PA 610.1) was the longest-lived and best-known. Immediately after repeal the Wolf brewery was selling Light, Dark and Porter and was reportedly doing a brisk trade shipping near beer to dry southern states. In 1937 the brew house was purchased by a soda company and much of the equipment was sold as scrap.
Weisbrod & Hess (PA 614) invested nearly a quarter of a million dollars modernizing their brewery after prohibition, enabling them to bottle over 3,000 cases of beer per day. Their brewmaster, Herman Dambacher, was a 1915 graduate of the United States Brewers Academy. He developed Certified Beer in 1935 with the claim that “Every Vat is Certified by a Nationally Known Laboratory, Tested and Approved for Purity - Digestibility - Age and Quality.” Each licensee was presented with a certificate signed by the president of the company. Other products included Shakespeare Ale, Rheingold (Vienna style) and Weisbrod Beer. The company went out of business in 1938.
The demise of John F. Betz & Sons, Inc., (PA 451) came in 1939, ending a brewery with roots dating back to colonial times as the birthplace of Porter brewing in America. Mr. Betz established breweries in New York City then came to Philadelphia in the 1860s and purchased the old Gaul brewery. In 1935 the brewery purchased the old American Theatre and converted it into a bottling house.
The Class & Nachod (PA 390) brewery was a fairly new plant having been built just seven years prior to prohibition. It was purchased by the owner of the Renault Winery in Egg Harbor, New Jersey for $1,500,000. He invested another half million dollars installing new equipment and modernizing the brewery. Gus Bergner of Brewerytown’s Bergner & Engel Brewing Co. was president of the company. The Poth (PA 371) brewery, which started post prohibition production in their Brewerytown plant, purchased the Class & Nachod brewery in 1936 and remained in business there for five years. The buildings have been beautifully preserved and are part of Temple University’s campus.
The Elizabeth Vollmer Brewing Co. (PA 521) was licensed as the Vollmer Brewing Co. for the first year after prohibition. It became the Schaffhauser Brewing Corp. for five years, then the Schiller Brewing Co. for one year and finally the Jaeger Brewing Co. before closing in 1943.
The Peerless Brewing Co. (PA 523) was formed in 1934 by the Gruenwald family who had run the Premier brewery during prohibition. They purchased land from the Philadelphia Electric Company on American Street just north of the Substation on Susquehanna and spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars on alterations to the existing building and new construction and equipment. In 1937 it became Esslinger’s Plant #2 where they produced their ale, porter and stout for ten years.
Liebert & Obert Brewing Co. (PA 493) was also known as Cooper Brewing Co. after repeal. Frank Weisbrod was brewmaster. Their Bock beer returned in 1935, and the signs for this product are popular among collectors. In 1936 they came out with a “10-glass bottle” of unpasteurized beer which became popular with bartenders who could, at a late hour, serve draft beer without having to tap a new keg. Cooper’s Old Bohemian was introduced in a no-deposit bottle, a first in the Philadelphia market. In 1940 after their engineers had visited the most up-to-date breweries in the country, the brewery spent over $50,000 modernizing the plant. In 1948 an extensive water purification system, normally used in water treatment plants, was installed. The same year the brewery closed and production of their Namar beer brands was moved to the Flock Brewing Co. (PA 851) in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The brewery became the warehouse for the American Distributing Co., distributor of Namar Beer.
The Philadelphia Brewing Co. (PA 501) started gearing up for repeal in August of 1932 when it was reported that 75 men were employed making repairs to the plant. Founded by Gottlieb Manz in the 1870s the brewery became famous for its “Philadelphia Old Stock” and “Manz” brands and continued with Germanic-themed advertising after repeal with their guttural spokesman “Fritz,” who demanded “dry” beer not “sweet” beer! This approach was undoubtedly changed during the war years. In 1947 the company introduced an all malt beer made with imported Czechoslovakian hops called “Premium 1880 Old Stock Dry Lager” and remained in business for two more years.
As stated earlier, the Otto Erlanger Brewing Co. (PA 598) was formed when Trainer shut their South Plant and shifted to draught-only production at the North Plant in 1937. In June of 1938 it was announced that the Canuso family had recently modernized the brewery. Fred J. Poth was plant superintendent. The company introduced their “Erlanger Pilsner” in wooden barrels, halves, and quarters, as well as quarts and steinie bottles. Soon afterward they rolled out “Perone,” America’s first “Italian-style” lager beer. By 1950 the company expanded their market area to a 50-mile radius of the brewery, launched and extensive advertising campaign and introduced “Golden Brew.” Unfortunately the company folded the following year.
The Jacob Hornung Brewing Co. (PA 459) survived prohibition by making near beer and spent over $400,000 on modernization in the two years following repeal. Hornung’s White Book Beer won Grand Prize at the Paris Exposition in 1912 and took First Prize in 1934 in Atlantic City when it competed against 24 brands, judged in a blind tasting by 60 experts at the New Jersey Licensed Beverage Association’s Convention. Recognizing the demand for “lighter paler brews” the company introduced “Pilsner Beer by Hornung” in 1936 and became known as the beer with T.A.* (*taste appeal), “The Tastiest Beer in Town.” In 1947 the brewery advertised that its beer was “homogenized” resulting in "creamy richness in every drop." In the summer of 1948 the brewery sponsored a 13-week “Hornung Beauty Parade” on WFIL-TV in which two finalists from each show competed for the title of “Miss Hornung Television.” Viewers mailed in their votes and licensees received point of sale items with pictures of the winners. This was considered quite an innovation at a time when most breweries concentrated their advertising dollars on sporting events. But Hornung also sponsored televised sporting events such as Monday Night Wrestling, and Racing at Garden State Park. They also did quite a bit of radio advertising and had Al Alberts and his Four Aces compose and perform a “jive jingle” which aired during a number of sporting events as far away as Fayetteville, North Carolina. In 1951 the brewery did extensive newspaper advertising at
the beginning of baseball season to honor the National League Champion Phils and the Philadelphia Athletics. The following year a new label featuring the hunter’s horn was introduced featuring the slogan “dry lager brew.” The company had a jeweler design and produce “horn” cuff links for their salesmen. All this was leading up to the company’s 75th Anniversary Jubilee year which was to be celebrated in 1954, the year after Hornung closed.
The John Hohenadel Brewery Inc. (PA 458) was granted a charter of incorporation in October of 1935 with capital stock of $500,000. It began producing only draught beer, but in 1939 Modern Brewer ran an article describing the extensive building and modernization program that included new brew, stock and wash houses and racking room. This was topped off with a modern and efficient automated packaging department. Brands included Hohenadel Beer, Alt Pilsener and Indian Queen Ale. In 1952 the brewery launched its “Have a Hohenadel” advertising campaign, the same year John Hohenadel Sr. was hailed as the “oldest brewery executive in Philadelphia” on the occasion of his 83rd birthday. In December the brewery shut down.
The William Gretz Brewing Co. (PA 441) was back in business shortly after repeal after having completely reconditioned and re-equipped its plant. One of the first innovations of this brewery was popularizing their half-gallon bottle of draft beer which they claimed was possible due to their Kraeusen Process which produced a “superior natural carbonation.” They also supplied the family trade with small sixthel and eighthel kegs. The company did some rather extensive consumer surveys to create effective advertising strategies in the years following repeal. In 1936 they began marketing two quart rubber sealed jars; the following year added steinie quarts and in 1938 introduced 16 oz. steinies to their lineup of unpasteurized products. The Gretz “Man on the Bike” was used to emphasize Gretz’s old-time goodness and featured a handlebar mustachioed derby-clad man “rushing the growler,” riding a big-wheel bike with a dog running along side. This trademark found its way into billboard “spectaculars,” television commercials, and all manner of animated point-of-sale items. Gretz products were advertised extensively in all media. In 1951 they sponsored six, one hour-long programs on WFIL-TV called “Gretz Cavalcade of Girls,” with contestants competing to become the “Gretz Golden Girl,” the winner being chosen by viewers who mailed in their votes. And when correspondent Robert Parker returned to the States after being in Europe for fifteen years, he declared that “Gretz Beer is the best beer I ever tasted,” a statement not lost on Gretz’s advertising agency. The brewery won awards for its outdoor advertising and distributed their product within a 100-mile radius of Philadelphia. In November 1960 Gretz introduced “Brand-X, America’s Best Known Beer!” In January 1961 the company folded and the brands were purchased by Esslinger.
In 1934 Esslinger's Inc. (PA 418) introduced the “Easy-Pour” quart bottle designed with a gently sloping conical neck to permit free and easy flow of beer, saying, “When we couldn’t improve the beer, we improved the bottle.” More significantly, the brewery was the first in Philadelphia to sell beer in cans. The brewery underwent a massive post repeal building program. In 1943 Esslinger sponsored a weekly half-hour radio program called “The Flavor Lingers” which was broadcast in Philadelphia, Wilmington and Atlantic City. After repeal, Esslinger’s became famous for their “Little Man” who, in addition to being represented in cartoon form, was portrayed by Marty Needleman who made personal appearances decked out in his “bell hop” uniform. In the 1950s he even gave out Esslinger cigarettes. They updated their label and packaging in 1952 and proclaimed themselves to be Philadelphia’s only “Premium Beer.” They were the largest television (seven shows) and radio sponsor (fourteen hours) in the Philadelphia market and claimed to show more sales growth than any other brewery on the East coast. Newscaster John Facenda essentially became “the voice” of Esslinger. The brewery introduced a 7 oz. “Goblet” package and was sued for it by the Goebel Brewing Co. of Detroit. In spite of winning the decision, Esslinger changed the name of their product to the “Keglet.” In 1953 Esslinger introduced the popular “Parti-Quiz” can which contained 21 different “facts” pertaining to sports, geography, history and general knowledge, a kind of precursor to the “Trivial Pursuit” game that encouraged bar patrons and party-goers to act as quiz-masters and try and stump their friends. It was hailed as the "Greatest Idea For Selling Beer Since Repeal! In 1960, salesman Lenny Klem, replaced the Esslinger’s Little Man as the company’s icon. The strapping six-footer donned a custom-made pirate costume and kicked off the “Esslinger’s Beer With a Buccaneer” campaign. The packaging was completely redesigned and the Esslinger’s Cold Chest was introduced. The Cold Chest was a specially designed case containing sealed air spaces in corrugated board and insulated with an aluminum foil lamination to keep the beer inside as cold as a conventional cooler. A series of commercials were filmed in Hollywood to promote the new theme and a saturation advertising campaign was launched to coincide with National Tavern Month. In December the brewery was sold to a new owner although the previous owners remained in management. The following month Esslinger’s acquired the Gretz brands. In June, in an effort to maintain a competitive edge, Esslinger’s started selling cases of “King Size” 16 oz. bottles for the same price as the 12 oz. package advertising, “One Third More Beer at No Extra Cost.” In the summer of 1961 Esslinger’s reported to stockholders that it had earned its first profit in three years. In November 1963 it was reported that New York’s Ruppert brewery had purchased the Esslinger’s brands. The former owners of the brewery would become Philadelphia’s Ruppert distributor.
Founded in 1869 by Civil War veteran Trupert Ortlieb, the Henry F. Ortlieb Brewing Co. (PA 568) was a family run business right up until the end. The most notable family member was the indefatiquable “Uncle Joe” Ortlieb, a 1900 graduate of the United States Brewers Academy who became president of the firm upon the death of his brother, Henry F. in 1936, a position he held until his own death the day before he was to turn 90 in March of 1969. During the war years Ortlieb donated space to their 2,000 “outdoor panels” to publicize the many facets of civilian defense activities. In the post war years billboard space was donated to support the March of Dimes and Cancer Society drives. The company received numerous awards for their outdoor advertising. In 1949 their modern and efficient “million dollar bottling house” capable of filling a “million bottles per day” was the culmination of an extensive post-war building program. In 1951 the brewery published an extensive advertisement in the Philadelphia Inquirer to “clear the smokescreen” of facts and fallacies regarding the use of the term “Premium” when applied to brands of beer. One industry veteran lauded the piece as being “the finest effort ever made by anyone in the industry to clear up many wrong ideas about beer and beer advertising.” Copies were made available to distributors and licensees. The ad urged to public to try Ortlieb’s Beer which offered them “Premium Quality at the Regular Price.” The same year they introduced their “six bottle take-home carton.” In 1954 Ortlieb’s beer won the Premium Quality Medal of Leadership at the Munich International Beer Competition and in 1958 received the Prix D’Honneur Award at the Brussels World Fair. “The Light-Wet Champ” advertising campaign was replaced by “The He-Man Brew That Gals Love Too” in 1958 which was followed by the “Wet Beer” drive in 1960. The company did a great deal of television and radio advertising and in 1960 sponsored a western drama called “Tombstone Territory” which featured actual stories from the Arizona town’s newspaper The Epitaph. Company officials actually received badges and were sworn in as honorary Sheriffs of Tombstone, Arizona. The same year Ortlieb’s was the only Philadelphia brewer to take out ads in the Saturday Evening Post. The following year Ortlieb challenged consumers to “Take the Paper Cup Test” saying their beer was so good, it would stand up to being sampled from a paper cup. At this time Ortlieb’s was the largest selling draught beer in the city. In 1962 the company launched a campaign with full-page newspaper ads which emphasized the family tradition and involvement of family members in the day-to-day operation of the brewery. The ads proclaimed that, “The beer with the Brewery Fresh Taste, is inviting all beer drinkers to compare the taste of Ortlieb’s to any beer in the world, selling at any price.” The following year Ortlieb’s was the first brewery in Philadelphia to introduce the “Zip-Top” can. Ortlieb’s Malt Liquor was added to the brand list in 1964. In 1970 Ortlieb’s began their “Big O” advertising campaign in an effort to streamline the brand name and identity. Henry T. Ortlieb became president upon the death of “Uncle Joe” in 1969 and when he passed away six years later another “Joe Ortlieb” took the reigns and made a gallant effort to steer the company successfully through some very tough times. He was featured in a Brewers Digest article entitled “The Ortleib’s Renaissance” which described his efforts to modernize the plant and remain competitive. In 1976 Ortlieb’s introduced a series of “Bicentennial Cans” which featured 1776 themes and became an instant hit with collectors, widening distribution into New England and as far west as Chicago. Ortlieb’s beer was known for being stronger than most other beers, and in 1979 the company bucked the trend towards light beers by introducing Sean O'Shaughnessy Stout following the success of their McSorley’s Ale brand the previous year. But in 1980 the newspaper reported merger talks between Ortlieb’s and Coors, and at the end of the year it was announced that Schmidt’s was purchasing the Ortlieb brands but not the brewery. Joe Ortlieb became a vice president at Schmidt’s and was featured in television ads to assure Ortlieb’s drinkers that the beer would continue to be the same. In 1987 Joe Ortlieb introduced a contract beer called “Trupert” in honor of his grandfather and founder of Ortlieb’s. Joe’s cousin Henry Ortlieb brought the brewery back to life briefly in the 1990s when he opened Poor Henry’s brewpub in the bottling house. Ironically, Henry could not use the Ortlieb name, since at the time it had become property of Stroh’s. He finally did get his name back and he produced the Ortlieb’s and Dock Street brands until the brewery closed in 2000.
C. Schmidt & Sons, Inc. (PA 396) emerged as the largest brewer in the city after repeal and quickly went on to become the largest in the state (see ABA Journal Nov./Dec. 2005). In 1936 Schmidt’s was producing 500,000 barrels which accounted for a third of Philadelphia’s beer production. In 1937 “the world’s largest steinie bottle” was erected on the Philadelphia side of the Ben Franklin Bridge seen by 130,000 people each day, outlined in red neon with the label illuminated in green during the evening. Schmidt’s was an innovator in packaging, and its cone-topped cans became known as “Silver Noggin’s,” a term used to describe beer tankards in colonial times. The 1930s building program was widely acclaimed and described in a 1940 Modern Brewery Age article. In 1945 Schmidt’s began publishing a house organ called The Case, which kept employees, distributors and licensees abreast of technical and advertising developments as well as human interest stories, which fostered a sense of pride in the company. There was an extensive post-war building program that employees could feel a part of as they watched it unfold in issues of The Case. 1947 marked the first year that Schmidt’s produced 1,000,000 barrels. In 1954 Schmidt’s was the 12th largest brewer in the nation and recorded a 10% gain in sales when the national trend was a 4.5% decline. That year Schmidt’s purchased the Adam Scheidt (PA 349) brewery in Norristown adding 400,000 barrels to their production but with all the industry mergers taking place only maintained their rank as the nation’s 12th largest brewer. The company introduced its “One Man in Four” campaign aimed at the consumer who wanted a full taste in beer. 1960 saw the 100th Anniversary year for Schmidt’s and Modern Brewery Age published an article devoted to the company’s expansion, innovations and improvements. The article appears on the District Philadelphia page of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas website. Schmidt’s was sold in a 14-state market area and the brewery used extensive television advertising to compete. 1964 saw the introduction of the “One Beautiful Beer” advertising campaign. That year Schmidt’s purchased the Schaefer (OH 142) brewery in Cleveland and became the first Pennsylvania brewery to break the 2,000,000 barrel production mark. Six years later they purchased the Carling (OH 108) brewery and moved their production there. In 1974 Schmidt’s launched their “Easy Beer” advertising campaign. But the following year, Schmidt’s closed its Norristown branch and there was talk among stockholders of a sale to Heileman. Two years later the brewery was sold to William Pflaumer, a Philadelphia beer distributor who purchased failing regional brands in an effort to maintain production and market share. In 1977 Schmidt’s dedicated a new $7.5 million packaging facility. The brewery’s production had already peaked at about 3.5 million barrels and times were getting progressively worse for large regional brewers. Pflaumer tried to get a controlling interest in Schaefer to give him access to their modern Lehigh Valley plant, then made an unsolicited bid to purchase the ailing Pabst brewery, which would have made him the nation’s third largest brewer. None of these deals panned out and by 1982 Schmidt’s was operating at 60% of its capacity. In 1984 the company shut down production in Cleveland. Three years later Schmidt’s brands were sold to Heileman and production was moved to Baltimore.
The breweries that came back after repeal found many roadblocks to success; the Depression; financing modernization efforts; excessive taxation; war rationing; the trend towards mergers, which offered economies of scale; changes in technology, especially with respect to packaging; and a whole new marketing landscape that included expensive television advertising campaigns. Then as now, dumb luck can sometimes be more significant than any of the best laid plans. Here's hoping that the new generation of brewers can meet and survive the challenges facing them today.
Philadelphia Breweries After Repeal…
And Then There Were None
(With Apologies to Agatha Christie)
By Rich Wagner
Returned After the Drought
Two lasted a Year
And Then They Were Out
Poth Left Brewerytown
Their Old Plant Was Beat
And Fled Across Town
Where They Could Compete
In ’37 We Lost Two More
Wolf Shuttered It’s Plant
Trainer Went Out the Door
13 Remained to Settle the Score
Old Weisbrod & Hess
Went Out the Next Year
Then Betz Closed its Doors
And Stopped Making Beer
Poth Lasted Five Years
In Plant Number Two
Vollmer Changed Names Three Times
And Then They Were Through
First Peerless, Gruenwald,
Esslinger’s Plant Number Two,
Brewed Ale For Ten Years
Before They Were Through
Cooper’s Died the Next Year
And Went On To Heaven
Manz Took It’s Last Gasp
And That Left Just Seven
Otto Made a Gallant Attempt
But By ’51 Even He Wasn’t Exempt
This Left Six Going Strong
Wondering Just For How Long?
Two More Years,
And Hornung and Hohenadel
Would Be Here No More
Leaving Just Four
The Man on the Bike
Rushed His Growler No More
Esslinger Lasted the Decade
Then Brewed Beer No More
Ortlieb’s Were Brewers By Birth
Schmidt’s Lasted Six More
And Then There Were None
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MacDonald, Andrea L. “Just Listed: Historic Breweries of Pennsylvania Edition. Pennsylvania Historic Preservation. Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office. July 15, 1915.
Reilly, Pamela. “100 Years After Prohibition, the Legacy of Pennsylvania's Historic Breweries Survives.” Pennsylvania Historic Preservation. Blog of the PA State Historic Preservation Office. March 11, 2020.
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