American Breweriana Journal November/December 2021 Issue #234
Brewing in York, Pennsylvania
By Rich Wagner
Helb’s Keystone Brewery
Have you ever dreamed of having your own brewery? It’s a common affliction among homebrewers, not to mention breweriana collectors, and anybody else who wants an unlimited supply of “free beer.” Back in the day, Theodore R. Helb had no such worries. He grew up in Shrewsbury Station where his father, Frederick, had a successful tannery that financed an impressive business and real estate portfolio. In 1867 he built a lager beer brewery capable of turning out 800 barrels a year and set Theodore on a path to a profession. Three years later the son went to Baltimore and served an apprenticeship at Jacob Seeger’s brewery. Around the same time, his father added a 500-barrel brandy distillery next to the brewery. Shortly after returning to the family business, Theodore departed for York where his father financed the purchase of what would become the city’s most successful brewery.
It was located at the northwest corner of King & Queen streets. Adam Schlegel operated a brewery saloon there from 1863-69, producing about 300 barrels a year. The ad for his estate sale in 1869 described the property containing “…a large two-story brick and frame brewery with vault beneath, fermenting cellar with tubs, 48 hogsheads (roughly two barrels capacity), 190 eighthel kegs and 70 quarter kegs.” Andrew Staab purchased it and four years later sold it to Frederick Helb.
001 Ad. York Gazette November 1, 1870.
Keystone Brewery is what Frederick called his brewery in Shrewsbury Station and that’s what he named the one in York. Theodore managed the brewery and in 1877 built a 30-foot tall brick ice house behind the brewery with two stone vaults beneath enabling year-round brewing, bringing production up to 1,000 barrels a year. In 1880 the original brewery was replaced with a larger three-story plant.
002 Theodore Helb’s Keystone Brewery. The Western Brewer June 1886.
003 Theodore Helb. The Western Brewer June 1886.
In 1883 Frederick Helb sold the brewery to his son for $12,592 and the following year Theodore installed a 9-ton De La Vergne refrigerating machine. Around the same time, he purchased Ulrich’s Spring Garden Brewery on E. Market near Columbia Ave., for four years. His brother Julius C. Helb later adapted it for his bottling works.
004 J.C. Helb Bottling Works, formerly Spring Garden Brewery. 1908 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map.
005 J.C. Helb bottle. (Wagner Collection)
By the end of the decade, he replaced his old stock house and installed nine Pfaudler glass-lined steel beer storage tanks to further enhance the quality of his product. In 1892 two artesian wells were drilled expected to supply 40,000 gallons of water per day.
Helb contracted for a modern brewery with Philadelphia brewery architect and engineer, A.C. Wagner in 1896. In addition, he purchased a hotel adjacent to the brewery and remodeled it and added a large stable. The brewery stable was converted to an office. Two years later an additional 600-foot artesian well was drilled to increase the water supply.
006 Helb’s Keystone Brewery. (One Hundred Years of Brewing)
007 Letterhead. (Handy Collection)
In 1902 he built a new office and enlarged and improved the refrigerating plant. The following year he replaced the old office building with a modern five-story refrigerated stock house outfitted with 28 Pfaudler glass-lined steel tanks, increasing the plant’s capacity to 75,000 barrels. In the spring of 1905, it was reported that the brewery purchased a 10-h.p. electric truck capable of hauling an 8,000 lb. load.
In the decade before prohibition the Keystone brewery was turning out around 25,000 barrels annually. With his brewery running like a well-oiled machine, Helb took to wintering with his wife in Palm Beach, Florida.
008 Ad. “Helbo.” York Dispatch July 11, 1901.
The brewery announced that they would be producing “Helbo,” a cereal beverage, to conform with the prohibition laws. Helb marketed “Special Brew,” “A Health Brew,” which the Dispatch claimed was cutting into “Pop” sales at ten cents a bottle.
Helb purchased the historic Hivner House, razed it and built a modern bottling plant on the property. In 1921 the brewery added an ice plant capable of producing 40-50 tons per day. Helb told a Dispatch reporter, “There is this advantage in engaging in the ice manufacturing business: Prohibition can’t put one out of business.”
Theodore did not live to see repeal. He died in Florida in February 1929. The following month the brewery discontinued the manufacture of near beer, which of course, necessitated making real beer in the process. The only way to legally dispose of what they had in stock was to dump it and throngs of people gathered with buckets and jars to scoop it up as the beer made its way through the gutter towards the sewer. The Keystone brewery survived the remainder of prohibition selling ice.
009-012 Labels (beercoast.com)
With the return of legal beer, Helb’s estate leased the brewery to Theodore’s nephew, G. Curtis Helb, son of Julius C. Helb, bottler and agent for Pabst beer. He retained the brewmaster and plant manager and refitted the plant where necessary. He also hired as many former employees as possible. Ad in the York Dispatch August 3, 1934:
“Credit Where Credit is Due. A brewer of a famous Western beer remarked after drinking a bottle of Helb’s Lager Beer, “Well, this is one of the best products I have ever tasted.” All we ask is a trial order. Our beer is made by a real German brewmaster in a 100% union brewery and beside it’s a local product. Order a case today or try a bottle at your favorite tap room, hotel or restaurant. Helb’s Keystone Brewery. Phone 2205.”
G. Curtis Helb purchased the brewery from Theodore’s heirs in 1944 for $55,000. Five years later he announced his retirement and sold the brewery for an undisclosed amount to Robert Bechaud, of Willliamsport, Pennsylvania. The new owner’s family were brewers for multiple generations, Bechaud graduated from brewing school in 1934 and apprenticed at the Blatz brewery then got a job with Schlitz. He then worked for the Atlantic Co. of Atlanta Georgia before he ended up as brewmaster and general manager of the Flock brewery in Williamsport. Bechaud announced plans to increase the capacity of the Keystone brewery from 75,000 to 100,000 barrels, but only ran the brewery for six months before closing it.
013 Ad. York Dispatch February 10, 1939.
014 Ad. Helb’s brewery for sale. American Brewer October 1951.
In February 1951 the York Gazette & Daily announced G. Curtis Helb foreclosed on a $107,000 mortgage and the brewery was to be sold at sheriff’s sale. Baltimore businessmen Moses H. Goodman and Joseph Katz purchased it for $86,000, a little more than what the property was assessed at for tax purposes and advertised it for sale or rent. But by the end of the year the equipment was sold demolition began in January 1952.
York Brewing Co.
In November 1892, The Western Brewer reported that a number of capitalists from Lebanon, Pennsylvania had purchased land in York with the intention of building a modern brewery. As it turned out, one of these was George Ehrhorn, who had been a partner in the Lebanon Brewing Co. for a decade. Together with H. Joseph Wolters, his brewmaster (and son of a wealthy Philadelphia brewer) and Robert E. Kabisch, slated to be business manager, the York Brewing Co., Ltd. erected a four-story, 30,000-barrel brewing plant for $60,000 and had their beer on the market April 1, 1893.
015 Pre-prohibition plant of the York B.C.
016 Embossed bottle. (Podeyn Collection)
017 Embossed bottle. (Wagner Collection)
By the end of the year, Ehrhorn removed himself from the partnership and moved back to Lebanon and took over the Iron City brewery. The new proprietor was Karl E. Katz, an experienced brewer who had been in a partnership known as Reichard, Weaver & Katz in Wilkes-Barre.
After undertaking an extensive building program, including local architect H.E. Yessler’s new five-story brew house and other improvements, the York Daily (August 22, 1901) reported that:
“York B.C., A Model Establishment in Every Respect. …One of the best breweries in the State is that of the York B.C. …Leading experts and physicians have pronounced this beer to be pure and healthful, of mild tonic properties, nourishing, invigorating and stimulating. It is the ideal beer for family use. An air of neatness, order and cleanliness pervades the entire establishment which is a model one in every respect and a credit to York. This brewery is a practical illustration of untiring zeal and energy, and every known appliance for the successful brewing of a pure standard quality of beer is used, and that the York B.C. have been highly successful is evinced by the large increase of their annual production and sales.
The proprietor, Mr. Karl E. Katz is familiar with every detail of the business to which he devotes his personal attention and supervision. …also the owner of the largest and finest stock farm in the county, in which he keeps over 400 head of cattle. He bears the reputation of being an expert judge of horses, and some of the finest studs in the county are to be found in his stables. His stock farms, like his brewery, are admirably arranged and are a credit to his business sagacity and executive ability. Mr. Katz stands in the foremost rank of the public spirited and enterprising citizens of York, and is always ready to advance the welfare and prosperity of the city in any way, in his power.”
Upon his arrival in York, Katz began purchasing hotel properties. Brewers got around laws prohibiting them from having their own retail establishments through a variety of legal loopholes. The dry forces were usually the ones to take brewers to court for infractions of the law. But it did seem Katz’s hotel trade operated on the fringe of the law.
018 Ad. York Gazette December 21, 1909.
019 Standard Beer label. (beercoast.com)
020 Ad. York Gazette June 7, 1911.
In October 1909, owing to poor health, Karl E. Katz sold the brewery, but not his hotels, to: William Kuhlkopf, who had been with Keystone brewery before becoming proprietor of the Grape hotel; Daniel Dietrick, brewmaster of the Keystone brewery for nine years; Charles V. Hetzel and his brother Frederick, both from Philadelphia.
In December the new company announced improvements had been made in the brew house, bringing daily output to 30 barrels per day as well as a fully modernized bottling house for rolling out their new Standard Lager beer, ale and porter. In March, they held a gala for invited guests which included tours and samples of their new bock beer. By 1912 York Brewing Co. was producing just over 8,000 barrels a year.
Karl E. Katz died October 1, 1911 at the age of 53 after returning from a trip to Germany intended to restore his health. When the lease on the property ran out in October 1914 the company requested that the license be transferred to Katz’s widow. Dietrick left when he purchased the Monumental B.C. in Newark, Ohio, leaving William Kuhlkopf as president.
When prohibition arrived the York Manufacturing Co. purchased the city block owned by the brewery including the Hotel Victoria and several dwellings from Sophia Katz. They converted the brewery to laboratory, training and testing facility. In December 1920 William Kuhlkopf gave a farewell party to a few of his friends, and the brewery was dismantled.
021York Mfg. Co. supplied ice making and refrigerating machines to brewers and other industries throughout the world and represented a large component of the city’s industrial power house. York Agricultural and Industrial Museum. (Wagner 2007)
022 Ad. York Dispatch July 27, 1934.
023 York B.C.’s post-prohibition plant, York B.C., now All Thread Industrial Hardware. (Wagner 2021)
With the repeal of prohibition, Charles Hetzell, former treasurer of the York B.C. announced plans to build a $150,000 brewery on Norway st. along the Maryland and Pennsylvania railroad. The York Dispatch (March 5, 1934) reported that the new 25,000 barrel brewery was designed with a number of modern features including exclusive use of closed fermentation tanks, which shortened the aging time required as well as an innovative method for carbonating which streamlined the process. Hetzel said, “In order for a brewery to make money today, it is imperative to keep construction costs per barrel to a minimum. Big plants producing a small volume are not profitable because of the high cost per barrel.” The article continued:
“The plant does not at all resemble in appearance the old-time pre-prohibition brewery, either outwardly or in its interior. Externally, it is constructed of rough surface hollow tile and hollow block, with cork insulation. When it was decided to start this brewing establishment, the owner looked about for a former brewery which might be available for remodeling and renovating. But none could be found suitable to the owner’s idea of modern brewery design and operation.
It is a “two-story plus” structure: the reason for building it on this basis, rather than several stories in height, as is the usual plan of brewery construction, was the fact that a two and one-half story form of structure means a considerable saving in initial investment and building costs. Now that pumping costs are no longer an important factor in equipping a brewery and since pump efficiency has increased so much the building of tall breweries to obtain gravity flow is an expensive procedure.
Refrigerating and brewing equipment of the latest design was installed in the plant. The refrigeration equipment was furnished and installed by the York Ice Machinery corporation, the world’s largest manufacturers of refrigerating equipment.
The York equipment furnished…especially adapted for brewery installation, consisted of eight horizontal closed fermentation tanks of 121-bbl. capacity; two vertical starting tanks of 106-bbl. capacity, and 24 steel storage tanks of 100-bbl. capacity each. Also were included two York compressors, two condensers of the horizontal shell and tube type, of forged welded steel construction; one high pressure ammonia receiver, and one internal tube type wort cooler unit.
The refrigerating load is divided and operating pressures are arranged so that two machines of equal capacity are used. One machine carries the entire plant refrigerating load other than the wort cooler, while the other machine is used for wort cooling only. These machines are used interchangeably whenever occasion demands and at the same time under normal operation provide the most efficient operating conditions for such load.
The enclosed type of double pipe wort cooler was chosen because of the brewery proximity to other industrial plants and railroads and so the same equipment may be used for other purposes. The ammonia sections of the wort cooler are float controlled, gravity fed and are arranged for several purposes – wort cooling, intermediate cooling (fermentation to storage) and for cooling when racking. This arrangement is accomplished by the use of sanitary pipe connections terminating at one point and making it only necessary to connect in the headers or pumps required. By these means any pumping and cooling operation may be achieved from one point without the need of connecting cumbersome brewers hose.
This type of wort cooler was also chosen so that there will be no possibility of the wort taking up outside odors and contaminations. Air for aeration of the wort is provided from the compressed air equipment including filters and a means of positively sterilizing that part of the air used for wort aeration.
The spray pond on the roof is used for the cooling of condenser water and also for cooling water circulated through the water sections of the wort cooler. This means a considerable saving in water consumption under the circumstances simplifies the operation and is cheaper than using city water for this purpose.
The efficient arrangement of the fermenting and storage rooms permits every foot of these spaces to be easily scrubbed and cleaned. There are no odors in the York B.C. resulting from accumulation of refuse in inaccessible places. The keynote of the whole arrangement is sanitation and ease of transferring beer through the various processes required. Brewery sanitation had seldom been developed to the degree found in this plant – chiefly by the use of paint, accessibility to equipment and cleaning facilities.”
Hetzel declared bankruptcy in March 1936. The following month Nathaniel F. Cooper, was reported to be the owner of Cooper B.C. (formerly Liebert & Obert) in Philadelphia, purchased the property and equipment for $36,500. Maurice J. Cooper was controller. They spent $50,000 on improvements which included adding a floor to the bottling house and new equipment that included: a yeast propagating unit, new fermenting tanks, gas-collecting tanks, filter and a pasteurizer. The plant was to have 50 union workers. A Dispatch reporter toured the plant and noted:
“Every pipe used in the plant is of solid copper, to guard the finished product from contamination that would result through the use of other metal. Mr. Cooper said it is the only brewery in America which is equipped with all copper piping. A new yeast propagation tank is lined with stainless steel. Every tank in which beer is stored is lined with glass. A fully-equipped laboratory is at the disposal of the brewmaster. It is with this equipment that all beer and its ingredients are tested. Every piece of machinery in the plant is scientifically controlled. …With the aid of improved machinery, no hand will touch the bottles after they reach the washer. They will be washed automatically, automatically filled, capped and labeled. The company plans to bottle pints, stubs and full quart bottles.”
024 Ad. York Dispatch October 13, 1936.
025 Sign. (Watt Collection)
026 Tray. (Ziegler Collection)
027 Label, Cooper’s Old Bohemian, York. (beercoast.com)
028 Label, Cooper’s Old Bohemian, Philadelphia. (beercoast.com)
In August ads proclaimed: “Cooper’s Beer. Scientifically Brewed in America’s Most Modern Brewery.” In February 1938 the property was sold to M.O. Robinson, a York beer distributor and the equipment was removed by York B.C.
William T. Burton, secretary of the Pennsylvania Brewers’ Association analyzed Pennsylvania’s brewing scene in an article published in Tap & Tavern in February 1953.
"The brewer, large or small, who aggressively, maintains firm price and consistently produces a good product, will prosper against the stiffest competition," and Burton pointed out that despite all the closures of the past decade, beer production in Pennsylvania had stayed level with the rest of the nation. He said that fifteen years ago 14 Philadelphia breweries produced 1.5M barrels while currently 6 were producing 3M barrels.
“All the drama and publicity, unfortunately belong to the brewers who pass out of the picture. Too little attention is paid to the brewers who start on a small scale and build gradually, who consolidate their gains and keep moving forward. We have plenty of prime examples of this right here in Pennsylvania. The prospering brewers are reaping the fruits of aggressive merchandising campaigns. The failures, with some notable exceptions, paid the price of indifference.” He noted that 16 Pennsylvania breweries had gone out of business in the past decade, but added that, “The trade hasn't seen a single brewer go out of business involuntarily who produced a good product, held firm to his prices and punched hard with his sales and merchandising forces.”
A lot has changed since York’s post prohibition breweries tried to stay in business. Fortunately, a new generation of brewers have continued the city’s rich brewing tradition.