Ale Street News April/May 2007

Philadelphia’s Long Lost Lagers

By Rich Wagner

My high school German teacher, “Frau Schmidt,” was always coming up with reasons why college-bound students (me) should take more semesters of foreign language. She convinced me that since I was a science major, German was the language to take, and since my surname was German, I might even learn something about my heritage. Little did I know how valuable this would turn out to be in my studies of beer and brewing! Just about every step of the brewing process has a German name and the list of brewers themselves sounds like a chorus from the old campfire song “John, Jacob, Jingleheimer Schmidt.” And that goes for the names of their products as well. So get ready to exercise your German pronunciations as you read the names in this article!

The Philadelphia Business Directory for 1876 contained well over 2,000 listings for Lager Beer Saloons, many of which were like today’s brewpubs, with the beer being made on premise. The city would seem to have been awash in lager beer.

There was a brewery saloon on just about every corner in Brewerytown. Arnholt & Schaefer made Braun Beer, Wiener Export and one called GERMALT Beer. Bergner & Engel’s Tannhaeuser Lager Beer (5.65% abv) won the Grand Prize at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, in Paris and Brussels in 1888, Paris again in 1889, World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and in Antwerp in 1894. Talk about a gold medal beer! Their Culmbacher Lager Beer was also a favorite. Poth brewed Tivoli, Poth’s Extra and Special Pilsener brands. Henry Rothacker’s Lion Brewery had an Extra and Asmanshaeuser brands. Weger Brothers brewed Bavarian Beer, Erlanger (Light) and Hohenschwangau Export (Dark).

The Louis Bergdoll Brewing Co. was famous for its Protoweiner and Old Style Lager Beers. Peter Schemm claimed his Standard (light and dark) to be “Philadelphia’s Standard for fifty years!”

Across town in Northern Liberties, Binder Biederbeck & Schmidheiser made Tubinger, Tafel Beer and Kitzinger Export. Philip Gucke’s International Brewing Co. had a Golden Export Lager Beer and Ortlieb’s was famous for their Victor Beer.

In Kensington were Fred Feil’s Favorite Light, Exquisite Dark, Stuttgarter and Lager Beer, while Theodore Finkenauer sold Elmer Export (light) and Genuine Old Lager (dark). Philip Hildenbrand made Cannstatter (light) and White Bear (dark) Lagers. William Heimgaertner was brewer of Spaeth’s Beer; John Rieger made Ellwanger Export, while Joseph Straubmueller produced Ulmer Doppel (Dark), Sunshine (Light) and Special Brew. Weisbrod & Hess was one of several brewers with a Rheingold Lager, a name taken from the plot in a Wagnerian opera. They rounded out their lineup with Kulmbacher, Pilsner, Bohemian Export, Franciskaner, and Wiener Export Beers.

John Fritsch’s Frankford Lager Beer Brewery brewed Globe and Victoria Export Lager Beers and right next door John Grauch sold Ermine Extra Fine Export Beer.

There was a pocket of a half dozen or so breweries in the neighborhood where Temple University now stands and Class & Nachod was famous for its Black Eagle Pilsener Beer; Excelsior Brewing Co. for its Edelweis, and Nichterlein with Thüringer Export. Around the corner Charles Wolter’s Prospect Brewery made Budweis and Bohemian Export Lager.

Broad Street’s Germania Brewery had an opera house attached where patrons were sure to find Vienna (pale) and Munich (dark) Lagers. Up the street John Roehm’s brewery made Salvator, Ulmer and Roehm’s Lager Beer. Next door to that was Charles Schwerdfeger’s Golden Eagle Brewery which brewed a beer called Pelusium. Nearby, Lorenz Amrhein’s Independent Brewing Co. made Olympia (light) Bürgermeister (dark) and Majestic Lager Beers.

Jacob Hornung’s Heimshimer was named for his hometown in Bavaria, and the label of his White Bock Beer actually contained a portrait of the brewery’s pet goat.

One can only imagine what it must have been like back in the day when German was encroaching on English as the language of choice and Lager Beer Saloons and “Bier Gartens” dotted the landscape of American cities. I was recently contacted by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and they are planning to bring some of these memories to life with a recreation of John Schneider’s Saloon at 97 Orchard St., in New York’s “Kleindeutschland” (Little Germany) neighborhood, which was actually the fifth largest German-speaking city in the world! The saloon operated from 1864-1888 and their exhibit will interpret the German immigrant community and illustrate how the saloon served as a center of daily life as well as a place for family outings, political organizing, German language newspapers, and money lending. If things go according to plan, visitors will actually be able to visit a nineteenth century German saloon and enjoy a frothing seidel of lager beer!

I am indebted to countless breweriana collectors who have provided the information in this story.