American Breweriana Journal Sept./Oct. 2023 Issue No. 245


ECBA’s Tray Collector: Philadelphia Beer Trays Part 1


by Larry Handy


Schmidt’s of Philadelphia


by Rich Wagner



This issue’s Tray Collector brings us back to Pennsylvania and showcases beer trays from the Christian Schmidt Brewing Co. of Philadelphia, PA. The C. Schmidt Brewing Co. operated from 1859 to 1986 and has used over a dozen different serving trays over the years.


Christian Schmidt was born in Machstadt, Wurtemberg in 1833. As a youth he became a brewer’s apprentice in Stuttgart before sailing for America at the age of eighteen. After working in Philadelphia breweries for eight years he became brewmaster at Robert Courtenay’s brewery in the city’s Kensington section. Courtenay produced about 500 barrels of ale and porter a year, mostly for the corner saloon adjacent to the brewery. In 1860, Schmidt acquired an interest in the company and three years later he became the sole owner, changing the name to Christian Schmidt’s Kensington Brewery.


Thus began his continuing effort to expand and improve the business. He started by building a new brewery which increased production ten-fold. In 1870 Christian Schmidt added a 50,000 bushel malt house across the street which included an underground 4,000-barrel storage cellar connected to the brewery with pipes. By the end of the decade, Schmidt’s was the only brewery in Kensington producing over 10,000 barrels. However there were over eighty breweries in Philadelphia, and Schmidt’s 14,000-barrel production amounted to only two percent of the city’s total.


When sons Edward A., Henry C. and Frederick W. were admitted in 1892, the firm became known as Christian Schmidt and Sons. But at the age of 61, while on his fourth visit to the Wildbad resort in Germany, it was reported in The Western Brewer that he was “stricken with apoplexy.” He made it home but died shortly after his arrival on September 6, 1894.


His eldest son, Edward A. Schmidt, became head of the firm. As a practical brewer, he was a tireless innovator and continued expanding the business so that by 1896 Schmidt’s had the capacity to produce 100,000 barrels. Henry C. Schmidt was sales manager until his death in 1919.


In 1896 Schmidt’s purchased the Robert Smith Ale brewery which dated back to 1774 and was famous for its Tiger Head Ale. It had just moved into a new 50,000 barrel plant about three miles up Girard Avenue at 38th Street, across the Schuylkill River from Brewerytown. Ten years later the company purchased the Schemm brewery another old firm dating to the mid-1800s. Located about a mile away at 25th and Poplar Streets, it was also a 50,000-barrel-a-year plant which had been built twenty years earlier. The firm was incorporated as C. Schmidt & Sons Brewing Company in 1902, with a 200,000-barrel plant capable of producing a tenth of the city’s beer.


Prohibition and Repeal


When Prohibition arrived in 1920, two generations of meticulous planning, growth, and innovation all seemed to be for naught. Schmidt’s began marketing Puritan Special and Green Label cereal beverages, and despite one government raid in 1925 where agents found tanks containing 20,000 barrels of high-powered beer along with 400 barrels and 7,000 cases ready for shipment, the company stayed clear of the law. As president of the United States Brewers Association, Edward A. Schmidt lobbied lawmakers and worked tirelessly to repeal Prohibition. As head of the Pennsylvania State Brewers Association, he wrote extensively and published a book of “facts and fallacies” on the dry law, providing figures enumerating the economic benefits of the brewing industry. April 7, 1933 marked the beginning of repeal and Schmidt’s was ready to hit the market with over 4,000 barrels of “3.2 beer.” Edward A. Schmidt was quoted as saying, “This is a wonderful thing the President has done, I’ve always been a Republican, but I’m for Roosevelt now. We have a large stock of beer on hand ready to serve as soon as it becomes legal; in full barrels, half barrels and quarter barrels. We haven’t given much thought to price yet, but certainly our idea is to be able to supply a nickel glass of beer,” adding that Schmidt’s was capable of producing 3,000 barrels a day to meet the anticipated demand.



The Rise Continues


A year following repeal there were fourteen breweries operating in Philadelphia. With annual production of 500,000 barrels, Schmidt’s emerged as the state’s largest brewer producing a third of the city’s beer. In 1940 the company was the twentieth largest brewery in the nation with a canning line and four bottling lines. Schmidt’s pioneered the quart-sized can and bottle as well as the six-pack package and remained the city’s top selling brand. Part of the building program involved the construction of an “ideal tavern” used to educate licensees on proper beer handling and tavern management.


Edward A. Schmidt continued to lead the company until his death in 1944. Frederick W. Schmidt, the last remaining son of Christian, became president for one year before becoming chairman of the board. In 1945 Christian H. Zoller, son of Christian Schmidt’s daughter Anna, became president and was responsible for the biggest sales expansion in the company’s history.


From 1947 through 1950 postwar expansion increased capacity to over 1,000,000 barrels per year. In the mid-1950s, the brewery purchased the Adam Scheidt Brewing Company, a modernized 400,000 barrel-a-year plant twenty miles up the Schuylkill River from Philadelphia in Norristown. The company was well-known for its Prior, Rams Head Ale and Valley Forge Beer brands. Schmidt’s became the nation’s twelfth largest brewer, producing just under 2,000,000 barrels in 1955.


In 1958, Carl von Czoernig, 40, grandson of Edward A. Schmidt, became the company’s fifth president and one of the industry’s youngest brewery executives. Schmidt’s innovations now extended to modern marketing techniques. Von Czoernig introduced a new management-marketing team and hired a public relations firm which launched the “Full taste beer for the one man in four” campaign. The labels were redesigned and a unified packaging design developed to present a modern image.


Nineteen-sixty marked the brewery’s centennial year which was celebrated in fine style. A Modern Brewery Age cover story proclaimed that Schmidt’s had more of its own original custom-made equipment than any other brewery in the country.


Two years later, Schmidt’s entered the Cleveland market and in 1964 purchased Schaefer’s plant there to produce beer for Buffalo, Erie, and Pittsburgh and open up potential for Ohio and West Virginia. Schmidt’s became the first Pennsylvania brewery to produce 2,000,000 barrels and the first in the nation to use computers for production, planning and inventory control. The same year it launched the “Schmidt’s, One Beautiful Beer” campaign. In 1965 the company inaugurated a $3.5 million building program involving all three plants.


In 1971 Schmidt’s moved into Cleveland’s Carling brewery and closed the old Schaefer plant. In an effort to capture even more of the market, Schmidt’s acquired the labels of Pittsburgh’s Duquesne Brewing Company, Cleveland’s third largest selling brand. That year Schmidt’s purchased the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and continued to operate it as a wholly-owned subsidiary.


The Fall


The “Beer Wars” raged on and Schmidt’s lost money for the first time in 1974. The following year they closed the Norristown plant, laid off 62 truck drivers, and stockholders approved a $16 million sale to Heileman. But the brewery happened to get some great press over a “How Good is Coors?” taste test featured in the The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Today Magazine, where Schmidt’s came out on top. Schmidt’s immediately capitalized on the publicity and created an ad campaign around the fact that most people preferred Schmidt’s over Coors at a time when Coors had developed quite a mystique on the east coast where it was unavailable. The resulting blip in sales caused the stockholders to briefly take down the “for sale” sign.



However, in 1976 when it looked like the brewery was ready to close, a local beer distributor named William H. Pflaumer, also known as Billy, or “the beer baron,” put together a deal and purchased Schmidt’s for $15.9 million. Pflaumer grew up tough in Kensington and had started a beer distributorship with one truck, $7,000 and a 3,000 square foot warehouse back in 1961. In the ensuing years he purchased thirty beer distributorships, making him the largest in the state, owned a trucking company, and was Schmidt’s largest hauler.


Pflaumer adopted the strategy of purchasing the brands of troubled regional brewers to gain market share. He started with the Old Reading brands which added 200,000 barrels to production, giving Schmidt’s a 13% rise in sales for the year. Schmidt’s acquired the Erie Brewing Company’s brands, then Ortlieb’s. The following year, he acquired Rheingold’s brands, including the Knickerbocker label, which added 800,000 barrels, bringing production to 3.5 million barrels and making Schmidt’s the eleventh largest brewer in the nation. The same year Schmidt’s dedicated a brand new $7.5 million packaging plant, despite the fact that the brewery was running at only 75% of its capacity.


In 1978 Pflaumer made a bid to purchase 29% of Schaefer stock. Schaefer was then the tenth largest brewer in the country and had just built a new plant in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania. The deal wound up in court. Schaefer impugned Pflaumer’s integrity by saying his previous brushes with the law would jeopardize their licensing in New York and New Jersey. Two years later the judge ruled Pflaumer’s bid to be a violation of anti-trust laws and made him pay Schaefer’s legal fees which amounted to nearly half a million dollars.


With industry trends showing the biggest gains in “premium” beers, Schmidt’s rolled out its Select and Classic brands and invested $2 million advertising them. Pflaumer’s unsolicited offer to buy the ailing Pabst Brewing Company for $131 million baffled industry experts. Pabst was a national brand, four times larger than Schmidt’s and operated five plants around the country. Pflaumer’s plan was to become the nation’s third largest brewer in an effort to survive.


Unfortunately William Pflaumer was involved in an elaborate scheme to avoid paying $125,000 in federal excise taxes on fuel purchased for his trucking company in three states. He was convicted of tax evasion and appealed his case for two years, but in March of 1986 he was fined $25,000 and began a three-year sentence at federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. He was permitted only one fifteen-minute phone call per day which restricted his ability to run the brewery. Advertising had been virtually eliminated and production dropped to 1.85 million barrels, just half of 1983’s output.


In April of 1987, Pflaumer was furloughed from prison to negotiate a deal with Heileman which bought the brands and moved production to their Baltimore plant. A few years later they combined the Minnesota Schmidt and Philadelphia Schmidt’s brands into one label with a composite “look.” On June 1 the remaining 250 to 300 workers (down from 1,400 in 1983) were out of a job. The following year Pflaumer was released from prison after serving twenty months, and he began the huge task of dismantling the “Dowager of Girard Avenue.” The all too familiar site of holes being poked into walls for tank removal began and continued for several years. Equipment was bought up for pennies on the dollar and ended up in other breweries or in the scrap yard.


The property was sold to a real estate developer named Bart Blatstein, who proposed a variety of projects. The site was even considered for the city’s new baseball stadium. In late 2001 demolition began in earnest and brick by brick a mountain of rubble replaced what had been Pennsylvania’s premier brewery. The debris has been trucked away leaving the site vacant, awaiting its next inhabitant.


Note: ECBA’s Tray Collector is a regular feature of the American Breweriana Journal. It showcases pics of all known trays from various cities and states.


This article was culled from other articles by the author. The Schmidt’s property has been developed and is home to a large supermarket. There is lots of new housing in the area and even a brewpub.