American Breweriana Journal November/December 2023


William Moeller, Brewmaster - In No Uncertain Terms


By Rich Wagner


I began locating extinct Pennsylvania breweries in 1980 and when not canvassing the state during summer vacations, concentrated my efforts on sites near home. I found the Boyertown brewery building early on and spoke with the guy in the camera shop next door. He said Bill Moeller was a local resident whose father had started Boyertown Brewing Co. after repeal and said Bill was brewmaster at Ortlieb’s.


PHOTO 01 Ortlieb’s pamphlet c. 1970s. (Fink Collection)


In 1983 I started homebrewing, and like many in the hobby, considered myself somewhat of an expert. Around that time a friend from college took me for the “nickel tour” around his old stomping grounds in Pennsylvania Dutch country. It was still early when we arrived at the Fleetwood Hotel and the place was empty but a few minutes later a dapper silver-haired guy with a thin moustache wearing a short sleeved white shirt and tie came in and asked the bartender, “How’s the Schmidt’s selling?” “Schmidt’s?” I blurted out, “that gives you the sh….” Facing me with nostrils flared he exclaimed, “That’s Schlitz!” and launched into a diatribe about young people who didn’t know anything about beer, continuing “…Schmidt’s is a world class product superior to the national brands…” at which point he turned, abruptly and left. The bartender looked at us and said, “He’s the brewmaster!” My friend said, “Let’s get out of here!” I told him we should finish our beer and we did.


Back home, I had begun frequenting Charlie Brem’s homebrew shop and in the summer of 1985, we tuned into a radio interview with Jeffrey Ware about his plans to open Dock Street brewery in Philadelphia. Ware explained that Dock Street would be a high-end gourmet product unlike the stereotypic “Joe Sixpack” brands.  Schmidt’s brewmaster William Moeller pointed out that Schmidt’s was quite capable of making any kind of beer imaginable, and invited listeners to call the brewery and schedule a tour. And that’s exactly what Charlie and I did.


Only later did we find out that Bill was already consulting with Dock Street, formulating their contract beers and would ultimately be involved in setting up their brewpub in 1991.


PHOTO 02 Moeller explains the “hot break” to Charlie Brem. (Wagner July 1985)


We arrived at the impressive 1930s office building where several brewers were busy at their desks. Bill Moeller came to meet us and I thought he looked familiar. He took us over to the brew house and stopped in the locker room, sat down to put some rubbers on his shoes. He looked up and said, “Remember me?” There was a flash of recognition and it dawned on me that this was the brewmaster I had triggered at the Fleetwood Hotel! My mouth went dry. I didn’t say anything and he got up and began the tour.


It was awesome, walking up the marble steps to the brew house which resembled an opera house; Italian marble tiled walls, decorative plaster moldings adorning the mezzanine balconies overlooking three 750-bbl. stainless steel kettles churning away. A brewer was adding hops from a large tub to a kettle, inside of which was a large can of hop extract impaled on an opener that allowed the oil to drip gradually into the boiling wort. Juxtaposed on the scene was a modern control room: brewers with computers in an air-conditioned space overlooking the brewing floor.


We went upstairs and saw the giant hot liquor tanks, mash mixer and lauter tub, but Bill positively beamed when he showed us the mash filter in the next room. He explained that lautering the beer was usually the “logjam” in the process because it took so long to strain the wort from the mash. Using the filter, wort was pumped, rather relying on gravity which accelerated the process. Having both methods available was an advantage when managing a dozen brews a day.


Next it was off to the “new ale cellar.” After prohibition Schmidt’s spent a decade expanding and modernizing the plant. At the time it was common to have separate fermenting cellars for ale and lager beer to keep the yeast strains pure. The new cellar was a four-story building located behind the brew house from which wort, destined to become ale, was sent, fermented, aged and stored.


The moment we stepped inside we were overwhelmed by the pungent aroma of yeast in a cellar filled with open wooden tanks. This was Bill’s bailiwick: McSorley’s Cream Ale! He brewed it at Ortlieb’s and when Schmidt’s acquired their brands, he brewed it for them. Some of the tanks had recently been emptied and were waiting to be cleaned. There was a ladder on one and I asked Bill if I could take my camera up and photograph the interior of the tank and he said, “Go ahead!” The wooden tank was probably fifteen feet tall and upon reaching the top of the ladder I saw the attemperating coils. There was also a funnel apparatus I had only seen in books that drained foam from the surface, away from the beer.


We adjourned to the blending cellar where the high gravity brew was mixed with pure carbonated water to just the right gravity prior to packaging. High gravity brewing made it possible to increase output without additional tanks. Charlie and I both wondered what the high gravity McSorley’s must have tasted like!


Bill indulged us with detailed explanations to our questions. I told him about my explorations of defunct Pennsylvania breweries and he told me his father had been one of the organizers of the Boyertown brewery after repeal. He mentioned that he wrote about historic breweries and taverns in Eastern Pennsylvania for Brewers Digest in the months leading up to the Master Brewers’ Convention in Philadelphia in 1966. When I asked where I could find a copy he told me the United States Brewers Association in Washington, D.C. had a library with trade journals.


A week later, research associate Rich Dochter and I were seated in the boardroom of the U.S.B.A. surrounded by bound volumes of The Western Brewer dating back to the first issue in 1876. My immediate reaction was to suggest it would be possible to extract all Pennsylvania related information from the near century of trade journals on the shelves. Dochter’s reply was succinct: “We’re not doing that.” I thought, “Maybe we won’t be doing that, but I know I will be doing that!” [Spoiler Alert: this would become a lifelong quest]. We surveyed what was there and examined a few selected volumes in some detail, admiring the beautifully illustrated ads for brewing equipment and supplies. We took some notes and made a few copies. Matt King was our host and he said he’d find Bill’s articles. Sure enough a few days later they were in my mailbox. In his letter, Matt suggested I attend the upcoming Master Brewers Meeting in Maryland and bring along some homebrew!


PHOTO 03 American Brewer May 1966.


PHOTO 04 Commemorative tile. (Wagner Collection)


As I read through his articles, Bill was described as Assistant Master Brewer, Horlacher B.C., Allentown and stated he had attended University of Cincinnati, the United States Brewers Academy and the Wallerstein Seminars. In 1964 he received the Schwarz Laboratories Award for his series of articles on the use of gelatin as a precipitant. Hobbies included: Pennsylvania history, antique collecting, theater - acting, directing and writing - and cooking. Talk about a renaissance man! I would later find out that he apprenticed with his uncle at Drewry’s in South Bend, Indiana and was brewmaster at Reading B.C. for a number of years.


His articles went into exhaustive detail about the geography, culture and history of Eastern Pennsylvania emphasizing how important breweries and taverns were in the region’s development and discussed the “art and mystery” of brewing including the equipment and methods that were used, giving the reader a virtual tour of a colonial-era brewery! His descriptions definitely inspired my interest in William Penn’s Bake and Brew House on the Delaware River.


I maintained communication by phone and he invited me to his house. In November 1985 Rich Dochter and I were ushered into the “inner sanctum” as he called his basement office. Upon entering, the first thing that drew my attention was the Diploma from the United States Brewers Academy that hung behind his desk. [Spoiler Alert: this planted the seed of my determination to go to brewing school]. There was a framed copy of his father’s patent announcement for a sealed fermentation system, and there was a picture of him as a merchant marine during WWII.


PHOTO 05 Boyertown B.C. building, now home to a craft brewery. (Wagner 2013)


PHOTO 06 Boyertown keg. (Moeller Collection)


We started off talking about Boyertown Brewing Co. (1934-1953). His father and two others started the business. They selected the building which had been a car dealership because it had a freight elevator capable of handling the weight of automobiles. The brew house had a 60-bbl. copper kettle. There was refrigerated storage behind the adjacent Mansion House Hotel. Bill said that Boyertown was one of the first breweries to use Diatomaceous Earth filters and a closed fermentation system. His father had built the post prohibition York B.C. brewery from the ground up with many modern innovations that he employed at Boyertown.


The beer lineup: Boyertown Lager was based on Pilsner Urquell and brewed with all imported Bohemian hops; Boyertown Ale was brewed with invert syrup in the kettle as a partial adjunct. It was modeled after an IPA, like what was being sold as American malt liquor at the time, 7% a.b.v. and was always served warm; Boyertown Sparkling Ale was lighter and they also produced Boyertown Porter and Boyertown Bock beer. They sold draft beer exclusively for three years, then added a bottling line and distribution was primarily rural Berks County and Pottstown.


I had brought along a 5-gal. keg of my homebrewed all-malt porter. I poured three cups and we toasted, and after taking a sip, Bill proclaimed it better than the leading commercial porter brewed in Pennsylvania at the time. He looked over at Rich Dochter and said, “Now watch his chest swell with pride!” which, of course it did, and it’s amazing I was able to get my head through the door on our way out!


In 1986 I did a grand tour of breweries across Canada and the U.S. and returned with lots of stories about what was happening out on the west coast and Bill was all ears. At that point, Schmidt’s days were numbered and he would be looking for new opportunities. The following year, District Philadelphia was hosting the M.B.A.A. Eastern Technical Conference in Lancaster. They asked me to give a presentation about the new breweries I’d visited. It was on the eve of my first Philadelphia Brewery Tour, but I couldn’t resist the chance to let some of the old-timers peer into the not-to-distant future.


Stoudt’s became Pennsylvania’s first “microbrewery” in 1987. Two years later Ed Stoudt had me help him create a placemat for restaurants that would glorify Pennsylvania’s prominence in the brewing industry, and of course, advertise Stoudt’s Beer. It was a map showing locations of historic breweries with production figures. It was easy for me to come up with the towns but it took a phone call to Bill Moeller for the production figures which he rattled off from the top of his head.


Bill consulted with Steve Hindy to formulate Brooklyn lager and was really excited about it. He was literally returning to his grandfather’s brewing roots in New York City a century later!


A year or so later, I was picking up some kegs for my local distributor at the Lion brewery in Wilkes-Barre and Bill was there to greet a representative from Tun Tavern, a contract beer that he formulated, to accept delivery of their first batch of beer. His expertise was in demand!


PHOTO 07 Bill formulated Dock Street beers. (Wagner Collection)


PHOTO 08 Brooklyn label submitted for Federal approval. (Wagner Collection)


I got involved with Pennsbury Manor, a reconstruction of William Penn’s country estate which included a bake and brew house. I worked with the horticulturist and set up a trellis in the herb garden and planted hops. Curator, Clare Lise Cavicchi, had been working towards developing a brewing program and had gotten a grant for the manufacture of some tubs and barrels to outfit the brew house. In the fall of 1990, I conducted the first brewing using malt extract. The following year I did several all grain brews using the wooden mash tub and fermenters, all of which resembled the equipment pictured in Bill’s Brewers Digest articles.


He told me he’d like to get a bottle of the Pennsbury brew. I complained that it was a long haul to his place. He replied, “We could use a runner… what about Klaus?” I worked with his neighbor and so Herr Klaus became the runner to transport our hooch! It was just like the old days, when Bill’s uncles were brewing for Reading Beer Baron Max Hassel during prohibition. Bill later told me he was proud to sample the first beer to be brewed at Pennsbury Manor in over three hundred years.


In 1992 the Lehigh County Historical Society hosted an exhibit featuring local collections of Lehigh Valley breweriana. In addition to the exhibit, there were activities which included my Lehigh Valley Brewery Tour and a slide show which Bill attended. As he was leaving, he introduced me to a recent brewing school grad he had brought along and said, “I thought you’d have some good stories, like Louis Neuweiler proclaiming that ‘Gott gave the wrong one brains!’ expressing frustration that his daughter was more astute than the son who was destined to head the family business. I thought, “Bill, how could I possibly have known that? That and countless other stories you undoubtedly have under your hat!”


It was around this time that I found a cooper to work with to make my own version of the equipment I had used at Pennsbury. Later, we manufactured customized wooden barrel head signs with a logo burned in the wood. Sure enough, Bill had Brooklyn Beer order a dozen, with clocks, to display the world’s time zones for their brewery taproom at the airport!


PHOTO 09 Bill addressed changes in laws that would affect the brewing industry. (E.C.B.A. the KEG, Fall 1994)


In the summer of 1994, my Philadelphia Brewery Tour was part of the E.C.B.A. Convention and Bill was the keynote speaker. I was planning a career change and was on my way to Siebel Institute in Chicago to earn my Diploma in Brewing Technology. While there I wrote an article about brewing at Pennsbury which made it into Brewers Digest. Moeller sent me a congratulatory letter which only further encouraged me.


By 1995 new breweries were starting to open in Philadelphia and I worked a couple of summers on the bottling line at Independence Brewing Co. I retired from teaching and worked at Independence for two more years.


PHOTO 10 Bill Moeller, brewmaster for Brooklyn Beer with the author at a Stoudt’s beer festival in 1995.


When Henry Ortlieb resurrected the old Ortlieb bottling house in 1997 as “Poor Henry’s” brewpub and production brewery, Bill was involved. I dropped by during the installation of both a 7-barrel brewery to serve the restaurant and a 50-barrel production plant. I was aghast! Here was one of Philadelphia’s last breweries to die, being reincarnated! Sure enough, Bill was “back at Ortlieb’s” involved in laying out the plant. A few years later I would find myself as a day laborer on the bottling line. When Bill arrived, the brewers referred to him as “Il Duce.” On his way out, he looked at me packing cases and commented that he’d never have recognized me. With a case under his arm, he admonished, “You didn’t see that,” and was on his way. It was obviously in the spirit of quality control!


In 1998 he was involved in setting up a brewery in the old Sunnybrook Ballroom in Pottstown which was famous from the big band days when it attracted trainloads of Philadelphians. The wooden dance floor was intact and the walls were covered with autographed photographs from all the bands that performed there. I can’t help but think Bill had a hand in getting investors to select the location. I had become a member of M.B.A.A. and when I asked if he’d be at the next meeting he emphatically replied, “I don’t have time for meetings, I’m building a brewery!”


I spent ten years as Secretary and Membership Chair for District Philadelphia and was uniquely positioned, having gotten to know many of the old-time members whose ranks were thinning, as well as new craft brewers who I encouraged to get involved. Each time I would send out meeting announcements, Bill was one of the few members who got theirs via snail mail. I was honored to have that connection, however tenuous, with the brewmaster who had mentored me into the profession.


PHOTO 11 Tour during Schmidt’s Alumni luncheon at Victory Brewing Co. Brewmasters Fred Ehmann and Bill Moeller with Brian Hollinger of Victory. (Wagner 2006)


Dock Street had run the gamut with two different locations during Philadelphia’s craft beer bubble at the turn of this century and had gone dormant. Rosemarie Certo resurrected their contract brands and in February 2007 opened a brewpub in a former firehouse which had served as a farmers’ market for a number of years in West Philadelphia. I attended the opening in my role as writer for Ale Street News and was happy to see Bill and he was happy to see Dock Street’s resurgence.


Sometime after that we had a phone conversation and Bill was telling me about a book recently published by a friend and former editor of the Reading Eagle about “Beer Baron” Max Hassel. Bill said he was embarking on a world-wide cruise and would be incommunicado for quite some time.


I had gotten to know Joe Ortlieb and we would get together for lunch once or twice a year and catch up on “the beer business” at a local brewpub. In the summer of 2016, we were joined by Bill Moeller. When the subject of colonial brewing came up, Bill referred to “Richie’s days at Pennsbury.” I showed them a Flickr book I’d put together illustrating just how I brewed “the old-fashioned way” and told them about kraeusening a lager I had brewed in a wooden keg. When Joe asked about how much new beer I added, I quoted the 1940s version of Practical Brewer, which recommended 10-15%. I told them I added 12%, to which Bill replied “we added 10% at Ortlieb’s.” I was humbled, talking to these veterans of the brewing industry. It was the last time I saw Bill. He had moved to a senior community and invited me to attend one of the beer dinners he regularly hosted there!


William Michael Moeller died last year, at the age of 95. The fourth-generation brewer was indefatigable in his support of the brewing industry and was instrumental in ushering in the craft brewing renaissance that continues to this day.


PHOTO 12 Online obituary photo. (Griffiths Funeral Homes).