Ale Street News December 2012/January 2013

Book Reviews: Philadelphia Beer By Rich Wagner, The History Press

By Kevin Trayner

Author Rich Wagner takes his beer history pretty seriously, and you would be hard pressed to find someone that could speak with greater authority on Philadelphia beer history. Wagner is famous locally for his colonial era brewing demos, in authentic colonial garb, using a 17th century brewing setup he had built for him.

Philly's rich beer culture, which makes it one of the best beer towns in modern times, is perhaps surpassed by an even richer history. Breweries were being built from the late 17th century, the first being a 15-bbl. brewery along the Delaware in the area known as Dock Creek (Old City today). At its peak in the late 1800s, Philadelphia had nearly 100 breweries.

The book is divided into seven chapters which cover colonial brewing ale breweries, lagers, brewing neighborhoods, Prohibition, Post-Prohibition, and modern craft brewing as well. These chapters contain a surprising amount of depth.

Wagner paints a colorful, vivacious portrait of Philly's various brewing eras. One can almost picture colonial advertisements of Philly beer, perhaps featuring founding father John Adams' telling quote: “I drink no cider, but feast on Philadelphia beer.”

The familiar names in Philadelphia brewing industry pop up of course - Esslinger, Erlanger, Schmidt's, Ortlieb's, Wolf - but there are so many others. For example, you may be familiar with Philly's claim for brewing America's first lager, but did you know that Robert Hare, son of an English Porter brewer likely brewed the first Porter in the colonies, and that Philadelphia Porter was described as “little, if any inferior to that of London?”

Or that Bergner & Engel, the second largest brewery in the nation at the time, brewed better lager than the Germans – beating them for the grand prize at 1878 Paris Exhibition? Did you dream that Philly could have once been home to 15 Weiss bier breweries?

How can a beer enthusiast's heart not be moved by tales of fabled “Brewerytown” with its dozens of breweries, malting houses, and vast subterranean vaults and storehouses, where one newsman described how “the rich aroma of malted grain hung like a fog, making the very air as nutritious as vaporized bread.”

This is a richly illustrated work also, with full color pics of breweriana, adverts, architectural drawings, schematics, historical artifacts, people, and more – the iconic Esslinger “bellhop,” the ad for Puritan Special – a “Cereal” beverage (.005%) made by C. Schmidt & Sons during Prohibition, Erlanger's cone top cans.

This is a must read for history buffs for obvious reasons, and a juicy read for beer lovers as well. Wagner doesn't just dust off the cobwebs here, but breaks a lot of new ground, and tells a great story as well – a loving, fact-filled account of Philly's beer history from colonial era to modern times.