American Breweriana Journal May/June 2010

The Beers, Breweries and Breweriana of Bethlehem, PA

By Rich Wagner


The city of Bethlehem started out in 1741 as a Moravian settlement in Eastern Pennsylvania on the Lehigh River near the mouth of the Monocacy Creek. It is probably best known for Bethlehem Steel, Lehigh University and Moravian College, and while the blast furnaces have given way to slot machines, the city possesses a rich brewing heritage that has been preserved by many breweriana collectors in the Lehigh Valley.

Moravian Breweries

The Moravians began by importing beer from Philadelphia and New York, but in 1747 they established a colony in Christiansbrunn (now Christian Springs) about twelve miles upstream on the Monocacy Creek where they built a brewery, malt house and distillery. In 1755 production was just under 200 barrels of beer and 20 barrels of whiskey. Bethlehem’s Crown Inn, later named the Sun Inn, served these products.

After the Revolutionary War the region was flooded with an abundant supply of cheap whiskey and spirits. The Aufzeher Collegium (the colony’s ruling body) saw beer as a way to stave off the effects of  “demon rum” and in 1781, authorized the construction of a brewery. They brought in the brewmaster from Christian Springs, who dispensed “the first frothy product of the vat” to the waiting public in January 1783.

Johann David Schoepf, a Hessian doctor came through town and pronounced the product “excellent.” Schoepf noted the brewer told him that “oats make better beer than any other American grain.” He was impressed with the efficiency of the new brewery. In his diary he described how water was pumped from the Lehigh River to the brew house and wrote: “…The kettle is put high enough that the boiling water can be distributed through troughs over the malt, and is from thence with the aid of a hand pump, conducted back again to the kettle where it is mixed with the hops,” adding that at the completion of the boil, wort was transferred through long pipes to the kűhlschiff (coolship) then down to the vats in the fermenting cellar.

Meanwhile the situation at Christian Springs was deteriorating. Although its products had gained a wide reputation, the young men running the brewery and distillery had difficulty keeping up with demand. The Aufzeher Collegium ruled that there was too much drinking on the job and closed it down in 1796.

Sebastian Goundt learned the brewing trade in Europe and emigrated to a Moravian community in North Carolina in the 1790s. He intended to start a brewery but the area proved unsatisfactory. He moved to Bethlehem where he became known as John Sebastian Goundie and in 1803 he became brewmaster. In 1811 due to pollution from the Moravian tannery he persuaded them to build another brewery on the bank of the Monocacy Creek near the dam of the mill race near his house. He conducted the brewery there until 1819. It became known as the Monocacy Brewery and continued as such until around 1850 when it was run as a distillery.

Uhl’s Brewery

There are no records of other breweries in Bethlehem until mid-century, when, as the story goes, a Prussian artist named Gustave Grunewald convinced a saloon owner to start a brewery in the field next to his house so he and his friends wouldn’t have to walk so far to get a beer! John Schilling left the bar business, erected a brewery, and brewed the city’s first lager beer. In those days brewing was limited to the colder months and beer was lagered in vaults refrigerated with ice. Schilling’s initial output was 1,500 barrels of beer which was more than enough to supply Grunewald and his friends who spent their summer evenings under a grape arbor next to the brewery. Word of Schilling’s lager quickly spread to the rest of the community.

In 1870 Matthias Uhl purchased the brewery and John Schilling opened another saloon. Uhl improved the beer garden with rivvel soup (potato soup with dumplings) that was said to be a meal in itself. The brewery was improved and enlarged to 20,000 barrel capacity. Uhl’s Celebragted Lager Beer, Porter, Bock Beer and Vienna Export Beer were met with acclaim throughout the Lehigh Valley. An early advertisement described Uhl’s beer as “a tonic that will build and tone up the blood so that persons afflicted may go through the long hard winter without any ill effect. With just a sufficient amount of alcohol, it is enough to stimulate the tired body and helps it to recuperate.”

Anna Uhl became the owner when her husband died in 1887. Marcus C. Fetter, executor of the estate, managed the brewery and her son-in-law, J.W. Detrixhe, became secretary and treasurer. A 20-ton ice machine was added and in 1898 a modern plant was built increasing yearly output to 30,000 barrels.

The firm became the Beth-Uhl Brewing Company after repeal when a $75,000 bottling shop was added. Products included Beth-Uhl Beer, Uhl’s Beer, Ale and Porter and Tannhäuser Beer. Dibb’s Beer came out in 1941 as the brewery’s ast-gasp effort to re-brand their product in the post prohibition marketplace. Unfortunately the company did not survive a decade after repeal. They reorganized as the Arlington Brewing Company with the intention of marketing Major Brew, a cereal beverage, but went out of business in 1942. While labels for this product exist, local collectors maintain that the brand was never actually manufactured.

Uhl’s olf brewery saloon, now called the Old Brewery Tavern, has some artifacts from the old brewery on display and stands in front of the brewery which is used as a warehouse.

Rennig’s Lehigh Mountain Brewery

The Moravians sold off their land south of the Lehigh River in the 1840s and the area became known as South Bethlehem. The 1850s saw the discovery of zinc, the completion of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and the arrival of many immigrants. One of these was George Rennig, who emigrated with his parents and siblings from Bavaria in 1859. In the early 1860s he purchased a property on Lehigh Mountain containing a spring-fed creek and built South Bethlehem’s first brewery, complete with a hotel and several barns. The hotel became a favorite resort with a “Trinkhalle” and beer garden and produced 900 barrels in 1878.

As it turned out, the adjacent 75-acre parcel of land was developed as Lehigh University and a well-trod path developed from Packer Hall on campus to “Die Alte Brauerie.” Students conducted club meetings in one of the back rooms of the hotel and in the 1880s a group formed a dramatic society called “The Mustard and Cheese,” named for the snacks they enjoyed with their beer. They performed a “Melo-Drama” and “A Romantic Extravaganza” at the Sun Inn the following year.

South Bethlehem was an industrial town and in addition to students there were locals who came to the hotel to let off some steam. The South Bethlehem News reported in the spring of 1892: There was a dance at the Lehigh Mountain Brewery last night. No fight occurred. Said an old habitué, “It was the first time I ever seen it going off without their being a scrap.”

Unfortunately the following year an economic depression hit the country and Rennig’s wife, Christiana, in whose name the hotel was registered, approached the University to see if they would purchase the property. By 1912 the old hotel was in use as a dormitory which the students affectionately called “Die Alte Brauerei.”

Widman’s Brewery

Benz & Fenner started South Bethlehem’s second brewery in 1880 but disso0lved the partnership three years later. Edward Benz and Carl Eckert moved across town to John Sebastian Goundie’s “Old Monocacy Brewery” where there were vaults capable of storing 4,000 barrels of beer. After a devastating fire two years later, they built a large modern plant having a 40-barrel batch size. Over the next two years they installed five, 65-barrel cedar tanks and six 76-barrel hogsheads brining their output to 7,000 barrels per year.

Jacob Widman, a former partner in Lieberman’s Eagle Brewery in Allentown, purchased the brewery in 1888. In 1892 he added 600 barrels worth of storage space and, by the turn of the century, Widman had a capacity of 25,000 barrels.

In 1907 a bottling house was added to package: Widman’s Extra Bohemian Lager Beer and Bohemian Beer and Porter. When beer came back in 1933 brand included : Widman’s Lager Beer, Beer, Ale and Porter; Ferraro’s Beer, Ale and Porter; Old Fashioned Beer, Ale and Porter and Royal Beer.

Charlie Lieberman was the grandson of the founder of Lieberman’s Eagle Brewery and began his brewing career shortly after repeal. He wrote an article “Remembering the Gold Old Days… and Some of the Bad Ones: for Brewer’ Digest (April 1983) wherein he paints quite a picture of this establishment. His tenure there must have been brief however, because the brewery went out of business in 1935 due to deteriorating equipment and high overhead.

Quotes from his article “…The Widman brewery in Bethlehem had a wooden mash-lauter combination. The brewhouse equipment was run by a steam engine (donkey engine). Belts activated the various machines when you threw in the clutch. Sometimes when I, a brewing apprentice, 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. No safety rules, no OSHA in those days.

Sacks of malt and corn flakes had to be hoised up to the top floor where they were stored. The two roll malt mill and a rectangular metal combination hop separator and coolship were also in this area along with the baudelot cooler. The strained wort ran from the metal tank over the copper pipes of the cooler and down into the open wooden fermenting vats. Yeast was pitched into the pan under the copper cooling pipes. The fermenting vats were equipped with copper attemperating coils through which brine was circulated. More than once, there was a break in the inadequate hose connecting these coils to the brine piping. The murky brine then squirted into the fermented beer.

The small cathedral-shaped manhole in the 40-barrel, horizontal wooden casks was not easy to squeeze in and out of. 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 ladder, I had to pour these finings from a bucket into a small opening on top of the bilge of the cask.

My work as a chemist consisted mainly of ebuliometer determinations, which was sometimes interrupted by emergencies such as fixing a leak in the beer line. I made my first brew there alone at night. My operations manual consisted of a few “temperatures and times” scribbled on a small piece of paper which which was soon moist and wrinkled.

Only keg beer was produced at Widman but that wasn’t unusual. During the first couple of years after repeal, keg beer was three-quarters of the country’s production. 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 whee 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. Among my duties were cranking a truck filled with spent hops; driving it to a dump under the Bethlehem bridge; and then shoveling out the soggy hops at 3 o’clock in the morning. As for the white lab coat I’d worn at Lehigh, that wasn’t needed. Knee high, black, rubber boots and a gray sweat shirt was accepted attire for a “kettle helper.”

When I conducted the Lehigh Valley Brewery Tour in 1991 Charlie became the de facto tour guide and brought first-hand accounts at most of the stops. The Widman brewery was no longer standing but there were two vaults in the side of the hill which may in fact date back to the time of John Sebastian Goundie. The vaults have since been sealed up.

South Bethlehem Brewing Company

Construction for the South Bethlehem Brewing Company started in October 1900 and the brewery opened in the spring of the following year, making it the first “modern brewery” on the south side of the Lehigh River. The property at 4th and Elm Streets was an ideal location for a brewery with access to the Reading Railroad and pure groundwater in a limestone formation just 54 feet below the surface flowing at 100 gallons per minute. The timing was right as well since the Bethlehem Steel Corporatiion was expanding to make “I-Beams” for the nation’s skyscrapers, the production of which would generate as much thirst as steel.

The company erected a new bottling house in 1907 followed by a 40-ton refrigeration unit two years later. In 1909 they added a new 10,000 barrel cellar increasing capacity to 40,000 barrels. Two years later a new brew house was built expanding capacity to 100,000 barrels per year. Their brands included Heirloom Gold Medal Beer and Supreme Light and Dark Beer, Ale, Cream Ale and Porter. South Bethlehem advertised that it brewed: “The Beer that Makes Milwaukee Jealous.”

It is said the brewery never ceased operations during prohibition and if a delivery truck ever got stuck in the mud the “high-powered beer” was unloaded and given to people in the neighborhood. The company invested $100,000 in alterations and equipment when beer came back in 1933. Post prohibition brands included Supreme Beer, Ale and Porter. Supreme Beer was available in 12 ounce and quart cone top cans for about a year in the early 1940s, making their cans prized collectables. South Bethlehem stayed in business until 1954 making them the last of the city’s breweries to go. The buildings were razed in 1966 to make way for housing.

Here is a link to a Flickr Album with pics from an exhibit on Breweries of the Lehigh Valley at the National Brewery Museum in Potosi, WI.