Journal of York County Heritage September 2022

Prime Hops for Sale’: Pre-Prohibition Brewing in York

By Rich Wagner


Champion Map of York, Pennsylvania and Surrounding Area. Champion Map Corp., Charlotte, NC, 1979.


It is somewhat surprising that it took forty years for York borough to have a licensed brewing establishment. That is not to say no brewing was taking place. Beer was a dietary staple, and for the most part, brewing was just another domestic chore like baking. It could simply involve boiling up a mixture of water and molasses with a few herbs and spices thrown in, then cooling and fermenting it in a crock for a few days. Beer provided families with a nourishing beverage, and boiling eliminated some bacterial hazards associated with water. While wine and cider may have been easier to make, and distilling required special equipment, there was probably a considerable amount of home brewing of one type or another taking place during York’s early years.


As York grew, so did its businesses, including breweries. Here is a look at York-area breweries that were established in the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Some hyped their products in newspaper advertisements, some broke blue laws, and some had to make significant adjustments when Prohibition took effect.



1. Barnitz, Barnitz & Bros.


In 1780, John George Carl Barnitz established what was likely York’s first brewery at Beaver and Main (now Market) streets, and Daniel Barnitz started the first brewery in Hanover. The family [JM3] is credited with founding Baltimore’s first brewery in 1748. By the early nineteenth century, they had breweries in Hagerstown, Maryland, Lancaster, and Chambersburg, and by midcentury had breweries in Harrisburg, Carlisle, and Westminster, Maryland. Two of those survived into the twentieth century under different owners: Fink in Harrisburg (1934) and Globe in Baltimore (1963).1


This description of Daniel Barnitz’s brewery in Hanover listed in the 1820 U.S. Non-Resident Census provides a view of a typical brewery of the day: “This establishment has been erected about forty years since and its average annual sale has been about 400 barrels more or less,” which sold for $5 to $7 per barrel. The brewery had $4,000 in capital invested and consumed 1,000 bushels of “Barley, Wheat, etc.” worth $1 per bushel. The only machinery listed was “one Dry Kiln” and “one Bailer, Barrels, and tubs of all sizes.” It employed three men with annual payroll of $200 to $300 with other expenses being around $700.2


Miller, Lewis. “Barnitz Brewery.” Painting. York County History Center.


Lewis Miller’s painting of the Barnitz brewery offers a rare glimpse of a “pre-industrial” brewery. We see a substantial structure with two buildings made of stone and a chimney, and it depicts a rather common practice of the day of brewers selling yeast to the public for baking. At the conclusion of fermentation, eight or ten times the volume of yeast than was originally pitched into the fermenting tub is produced, making yeast a profitable byproduct.


At least two other people had short-lived brewing and malting businesses on South Beaver Street and were probably operating out of the Barnitz brewery. On January 2, 1827, Jacob Hahn advertised in the York Gazette: “Distillers are notified that they can have a bushel of malt for a bushel of rye at the brewery of the subscriber …. Nothing will be charged in addition to the rye for malting.” Lewis Kurtz advertised that he “established a New Brewery of German Beer and Yeast of the best quality and taste at Wholesale and Retail.” 3



2. Welsh; Barnitz & Eichelberger; Kurtz, Nes & Son; Eichelberger Bros.


Samuel Welsh’s brewery was on the north side of Main Street (now Market Street) east of the bridge. It is uncertain exactly when he went into business, but his brewery is mentioned in the newspaper accounts of the great flood of 1817, which reveal that both his brick brewery and Barnitz’s stone brewery were destroyed.4 They both were rebuilt, but it is unclear how long Welsh remained in business.


Barnitz & Eichelberger established itself in Welsh’s brewery around 1842.5 In 1850, William Henry Kurtz, William Nes and Alexander Hamilton Nes (nephew of Eichelberger) purchased the brewery, the firm being Kurtz, Nes & Son, which advertised “brewers of malt liquors and malsters of rye and barley. They have on hand a supply of rye malt for distillers. The highest prices will be paid for barley and rye” 6 and “Wanted! 50,000 bushels of rye and barley … prime hops for sale.” 7


Barley from the field must be malted before it can be used in brewing. This involves wetting the barley and then spreading it out on the floor to germinate. Workers would turn the malt with wooden shovels, then at just the right time, the barleycorns would be placed in a kiln to dry. While there were maltsters that supplied the trade, most early breweries had their own malthouses, purchased barley from local farmers, and, in some cases, sold malt as well as beer.


Their business was described as having a brewery and three malthouses, which consumed 200 to 250 bushels of grain per day and produced seventy-five to 100 barrels of ale and porter per week. Principal markets for rye and barley malt, ale and porter were to the South: Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina.8


Eichelberger Bros. succeeded Kurtz & Nes in 1856 as brewers of porter, ale and beer, and advertised that all those with kegs from their predecessors should return them at once, adding that they paid the highest cash price for barley.9 One ad read: “York Beer Ahead. It is now decided that the beer made at Eichelberger’s York Brewery is superior in Quality to any in the market. Persons who have tried it testify to the truth of this assertion. Persons who are judges are asked to give it a trial and encourage home industry.”10 Edward Eichelberger was the final brewery owner from 1870 to 1875, after which the company continued as a malting business.


IMAGE: 1908 Sanborn Map, Sheet 18.



3. Nes


A historical sketch written in 1876 described the drawing for lots when York was created in 1741. The third lot drawn was described as being next to where “Nes’ old brewery stood, [on] North George street, between the rail road and the bridge, east side.”11 This does not tell us when the brewery was built, but it certainly could date to the eighteenth century, possibly predating the Barnitz brewery. It is possible that it started out as an estate or home brewery rather than a commercial enterprise.


William Nes was born in 1761 and became a prominent resident involved in real estate, civic, and political affairs. Sometimes referred to as William Nes Sr., he was not the same William Nes previously described. His estate advertised: “Valuable Brewery For Sale,” a 30-by-90-foot brick building that had been constructed “without regard to expenses.” 12 It was fully equipped and had been in business for many years.


Little more is known about the brewery, other than an ad placed in the York Gazette on August 16, 1836, by Christopher Sieffarth saying that he had for sale at his brewery “near the chicken bridge,” fifty barrels of ale, forty barrels of wheat beer, and thirty barrels of strong beer. 13 He appears to have been leasing the brewery because the family again advertised the property for sale in September 1840.


4. Schlegel/Pfeiffer, Staadt, Helb


Abraham Pfeiffer came to America from Bavaria at age twenty-nine, with considerably more life experience than many immigrants who arrived as adolescents recently apprenticed in a trade. He spent a year in Baltimore before coming to York, where he obtained a restaurant license in 1855.14 Two years later, Abraham got a brewers license, thus eliminating the middle man and increasing the profits on beer sold in his restaurant.15 He produced around 300 barrels a year.15


Andrew Schlegel owned the property and rented it to Pfeiffer. In 1859, they went halves on a property in Spring Garden Township with the intention of building a lager beer brewery.16


Lager beer had come to America in the 1840s. It was made with a different type of yeast, which fermented the beer at a lower temperature than beer brewed with top fermenting ale yeast. It also needed to be “lagered,” or stored, at a low temperature in a vault or icehouse where it “ripened” for several months, giving it a smoother flavor. What started as a beverage favored by German Americans became a national beverage in the decade after the Civil War and changed the nature and scale of the brewing industry in this country.17


In 1861, Schlegel sold his share of the Spring Garden property to Pfeiffer for $1 and took over the brewery saloon business on the northwest corner of King and Queen streets for the next six years.18


The ad for Schlegel’s estate sale described the property as containing a house and brewery, both of brick: the house containing a large bar and finished basement, and a lager beer brewery fronting King Street with vaults beneath and a stock of forty-eight hogsheads (54 gallons), 190 one-eighth kegs, and seventy one-fourth kegs. 19


Andrew Staab purchased the property and advertised that he had “commenced brewing the fine Lager Beer, for which this establishment enjoys an excellent reputation.”20 He sent a keg to the editors of the Gazette, who wrote on December 14, 1869: “The ‘devil’ got into it before we did, and they, together with the larger imps went through it before we had a chance at it-‘to keep it from getting flat,’ they said. They pronounced it first-class, and they ought to know.”21


In 1873, Frederick Helb purchased the property, which he re-flagged as Helb’s Keystone Brewery. His son Theodore R. Helb ran it and was producing 1,000 barrels a year by the end of the decade. In 1880, he added a three-story brew house and in 1883 his father sold him the brewery for $12,592.22 The following year, he installed a refrigerating machine.23


He replaced the old plant in 1897 and had A.C. Wagner, Philadelphia brewery architect and engineer, erect a modern five-story brewery, storage house and machine houses, bringing production up to 30,000 barrels a year.24 In 1902, Helb built a new office and enlarged his refrigerating plant. The following year, the old office and two dwellings were razed and replaced with a five-story refrigerated storage building, which brought the capacity of the plant to 75,000 barrels a year.30


During Prohibition, the brewery sold ice and marketed a cereal beverage called “Helbo,” which contained less than one half of 1 percent alcohol. When Theodore Helb died in 1929, the company stopped producing cereal beverages and just sold ice.26 The brewery reopened after the repeal of Prohibition and lasted until 1950.27


IMAGE: Helb’s Keystone Brewery operated for about eighty years. During Prohibition, it sold cereal beverages and ice.28


5. Webel


Augustus Webel was an immigrant from Bavaria who operated a brewery in Lancaster before coming to York in the early 1850s.29 Like Pfeiffer, he started out with a beer house, located at 31 South George Street, for a couple of years before getting a brewing license in 1855.30


He established the Mount Vernon Beer Garden in 1867 at 242 West College Avenue, at the park where the Worth Infantry Band31 had its parade ground and armory.32 He built a house to serve as residence and saloon and dug a beer vault, 100-by-20 feet into solid rock. Such man-made caves could be cool enough as to not require ice. He continued brewing at South George Street and carted kegs of beer to the vault to supply the garden.33 Having a beer garden adjacent to vaults was, and still is, common in Bavaria, where patrons enjoy “Keller Bier” straight from the cellar.


6. Pfeiffer’s Second Brewery


IMAGE: 1876 Atlas of York County, PA.


IMAGE: An embossed Pfeiffer beer bottle is shown. Abraham Pfeiffer’s brewery in Violet Hill, Spring Garden Township, operated from 1861 to 1887. Mundis Collection.


In 1861, Pfeiffer moved his business to Violet Hill in Spring Garden Township, on two wooded acres along Tyler Run near the tollgate of the Baltimore Turnpike. He built two brick dwellings, brewery and vault, a frame saloon and barn.34 Tyler Run had been dammed to form ponds for a mill and harvesting ice to fill two adjacent icehouses. 36 It was a perfect location for a resort and lager beer brewery.


But it was vulnerable to the forces of nature. On one occasion, flooding demolished the brewery, liberating its contents to the current. Some of the hogsheads, barrels, and tubs were recovered downstream, but the damage amounted to thousands of dollars.36 After he died in 1880, his wife, Elizabeth, ran the business for seven more years.37


Interestingly enough, the brewery remained intact, albeit idle, and in 1912, thieves were apprehended trying to steal the brass and copper fixtures for their scrap value.38


7. Fornoff, Free, Ulrich, Helb


Peter Fornoff started out in the hotel and tavern business. He also found Spring Garden Township a favorable location for a brewery resort and established a brewery and tavern there in 1870 that was described as “two story brew house with large vaults, large framed storage house ….” 39 Each “cell” of a vault was approximately 20-by-40 feet with arched ceiling rising to 15 feet. Vaults could be arranged in a series, separated by thick stone walls with a doorway.


When a visiting fire company and cornet band came to York for the firemen’s parade, the Laurel Fire Company treated the guests to a “handsome collation” at the brewery, after which they toured the city.40


The retreat became renowned for offering a free concert and lunch. The York Daily described one of these events:: “A jolly time was had at Fornoff’s lunch on Saturday evening. The following articles were made away with on that occasion: 40 pounds of schweinefleisch; 7 bushels of kartoffelen; 32 pounds of blood pudding; 27 pounds schwarienmagen; 3 bushels sauerkraut; 1 bushel schwebein; 28 kegs beer. Cash taken in $249.”41 Fornoff advertised that the following week, his free concert and sauerkraut lunch would have “Double the quantity of eatables and drinkables mentioned in the communication of Tuesday last …. Come one, come all! Everything in abundance.”42


Like many other tavern owners, Fornoff violated Sunday sales laws. Once, he was convicted of selling liquor on election day and sentenced to thirty days in the county jail with a fine of $25 and court costs. In 1872, he was refused a license.43


In 1874, John Free purchased the brewery at sheriff’s sale from Johanna and Peter Fornoff.44 He hired William Ulrich as brewer, advertising: “The undersigned would respectfully inform his customers and the public generally, that to-day he will have for sale his superior Summer Lager Beer, which is guaranteed to be equal to any beer sold in York. Customers will be accommodated, and all beer delivered to their place of business. Also, on tap at the ‘Old Fornoff Brewery’. Give this beer a trial and you will pronounce it equal to any other now sold in York.” 45


Ulrich bought the brewery from Free for $11,00046 and advertised: “F.W. Ulrich, Spring Garden Brewery, East Market St. The Beer brewed at this Brewery is the Genuine Lager, Brewed only in winter, from Hops and Barley Malt, no artificial compound being used. Connected with the Brewery is a Summer Garden and Hotel, where can be obtained at all times a fresh glass of Lager, Choice Liquors and Cigars. Refreshments also at the Bar.”47


Two years later, Theodore Helb purchased the brewery and owned it for four years. Later, his brother Julius C. Helb, bought the brewery and retrofitted it for his bottling business.48 The plant was described as the most complete bottling establishment in the city and, of course, became a primary bottler for Helb’s Keystone beer.


York was home to many bottlers, a trade that did not require nearly the capital investment as brewing. Bottlers purchased kegs of beer from which to fill the bottles. Some brewers avoided this labor-intensive process and relied on bottlers for a packaged product.


IMAGE: Ad. F.W. Ulrich, Spring Garden Brewery. York Daily October 8, 1882.


IMAGE: 1887 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Sheet 6 “John Frey’s Brewery.”


IMAGE: Caption. Fornoff’s Brewery on East Market Street in York was built in 1870. It was later purchased by Theodore Helb. Breweries Folder, York County History Center. Xerox copy, image of Fornoff’s brewery.



8. Webel’s Second Brewery


In 1871, Webel moved his brewery to the beer garden. He advertised: “Don’t Forget Webel’s Private Entertainment Every Saturday Night! None but parties of respectability are admitted.”49


A newspaper described Rescue Fire Company’s first parade in 1872: “The parade was headed by eight heavy pioneers, each tipping the scales at over 200 pounds, and each carrying a large broad axe, including Augustus Webel,” who stated at the end of the parade, ‘All hands, band and all, down to the brewery’. They required no second bidding, and away they marched with the band, and the fronts that were assumed at the brewery were a caution.”50


Another ad touted Webel’s lager: “Come and see the great live American eagle at Mt. Vernon Park, and try the good ice cold Summer Lager Beer out of the vault which will convince you that it cannot be surpassed by any Beer in this town no exception even not by the great so-called Mohamed Beer.”51


Webel defied the law by selling beer on Sundays and on at least one occasion was cited for selling liquor to minors, offenses that were frequently dismissed. Sunday sales may have escaped the notice of the law, but temperance crusaders were quite vigilant in reporting violations. Possibly as a result, Webel got out of the brewing trade, sold the Mount Vernon property in 1876 and devoted himself to his hotel interests.52

The property was purchased by John Busser, a soap-maker, who adapted the brewery for his business and lived in the house.53 In 1879, local philanthropist Samuel Small purchased the property, made improvements to the house, and donated the property to create York Hospital and Dispensary.54 The hospital added a number of buildings before moving to larger quarters in 1930. Webel’s original structure burned down in the 1950s.55


IMAGE: Caption. Augustus Webel and his wife Elizabeth are shown at their home at 412 South Duke Street in York around 1890. York County History Center Image, A278-8-8P 37278.008.008.



9. York Brewing Company


IMAGE: Caption. German immigrant Karl E. Katz was a veteran brewer by the time he bought his own brewery in York in 1893. York County History Center. Breweries Folder, Image, Brewery of Karl Katz.



By the 1890s, Helb’s Keystone brewery was the only brewery left in the city. Lebanon capitalists George Ehrhorn, who had established the Lebanon Brewing Company, his brewer, H. Joseph Wolters, and business manager Robert E. Kabisch saw an opportunity to compete with Helb and built a 30,000-barrel brewery for $60,000.56 The plant was refrigerated with a 30-ton machine from York Manufacturing Company. The brewhouse was equipped with an eighty-barrel kettle ready to churn out Culmbacher and York Export beer. 57


York Brewing Co. held a gala opening in April 1893,58 but sales did not meet their expectations and the property went up for sheriff’s sale the following year.59 Philip Frank, a maltster from Lancaster County, purchased the property and held it briefly60 before selling it to Karl E. Katz for $20,000. Katz came from Wilkes-Barre, where he had been a partner in the Reichard, Weaver & Katz brewery. The German immigrant came to this country at age twenty-three and had worked in breweries in Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey; New York City; Albany, New York; and Cincinnati. 61


Upon his arrival in York, Katz began buying up a number of hotel properties, sometimes in his wife’s name in order to skirt the law, and added a hotel next to the brewery. He made improvements to the plant, and his beer found favor in the marketplace.62


In 1897, local architect H.E. Yessler prepared plans for a modern five-story brewing plant.63 Two years later, he added a four-story building to house machinery used to run the brewery as well as a three-story bottling house, a new stable, and other alterations.64 At the conclusion of his tour of the plant, a reporter wrote, “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.”65 Workers at the plant organized as a chapter of the Central Union of United Brewery Workingmen.66


In 1909, he sold the brewery to William Kuhlkopf and Daniel Dietrich of York and Chas. V. and Frederick Hetzel of Philadelphia. Dietrich had been brewmaster at Helb’s Keystone brewery for nine years.67 Katz went to Germany to improve his health and, shortly after his return, died in October 1911.68


During Prohibition, York Manufacturing Company purchased the property from Katz’s widow and converted it to an educational and testing facility.69 After repeal a reorganized York Brewing Company built a new brewery, but it only remained in business from 1934-1938.


Brewing returns to York


Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933, and two breweries came back after repeal. Helb was the most successful, lasting until 1953. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the national craft brewing renaissance came to York with the opening of the city’s first brewpub, followed by eleven more with various levels of success.70 What is interesting is that the new crop of breweries, while technologically more sophisticated, have started small as brewery restaurants, just like the city’s earliest breweries.




1 Dale Van Wieren. American Breweries III Mid-Atlantic Edition. 15, 31, 72, 88, 99, 177.


2 Barnitz Brewery, 1820 U.S. Non-Resident Census. National Archives, Mid-Atlantic Branch.


3 “New Brewery.” Gazette, October 8, 1833.


4 “Dreadful Inundation.” Gazette, August 14, 1817.


5 Hartman, Don, Ed. Bottles and Jugs With a York Pennsylvania Perspective. Fred Rosenmiller Publishing. York, PA 1998. p. 54.


6 “Porter & Ale and Beer Brewery, and Malting Establishment.” Gazette September 19, 1848.


7 “Wanted! 50,000 Bushels Rye and Barley.” Gazette, October 2, 1855.


8 “The York Brewery.” Gazette, November 20 1855.


9 “Eichelberger Bros., Successors to Kurtz & Nes.” Gazette, October 28, 1856.


10 “York Beer Ahead.” York Daily, February 3, 1875.


11 The Historical Sketch, and Account of the Centennial Celebration at York, Pennsylvania, 27.


12 “Valuable Brewery For Sale.” Gazette, July 22, 1828.


13 “Ale and Beer.” Gazette, August 16, 1836.


14 “Beer Houses, Eating Houses, Oyster Cellars, etc.” Gazette, April 17, 1855.


15 “Retailers.” Gazette, April 21, 1857.


16 “York’s Two Breweries.” York Daily, April 7, 1896.


17 Stephen H. Smith. “Pfeiffer’s Brewery in York and Spring Garden Township.” September 13, 2021.


18 Pennsylvania Historical Marker Data Base. “America’s First Lager Historical Marker.”


19 Stephen H. Smith, ibid.


20 “Valuable Dwelling Houses and Brewery at Public Sale.” Gazette, November 2, 1869.


21 “Re-Opening of the Brewery and Restaurant.” Gazette, November 23, 1869.


22 “A Treat.” Gazette, December 14, 1869.


23 “Mr. Frederick Helb, of Rail Road, Last Saturday sold the Keystone Brewery.” Glen Rock Item, September 11, 1883.


24 One Hundred Years of Brewing. 388.


25 “Theo. Helb, York, PA, A.C. Wagner plans for new brew house, beer storage building and machine house.” The Western Brewer, September 15, 1896.


26 “Bungs.” The Western Brewer, March 15, 1902,110.


27 “Theodore Helb Dies in Florida.” York Daily Record, February 5, 1929.


28 Dale Van Wieren. 178


29 “Augustus Webel Dead.” York Dispatch, December 14, 1891.


30 “Beer Houses, Eating Houses, Oyster Cellars, etc.” Gazette, April 17, 1855.


31 “Mount Vernon Park.” Gazette, June 26, 1860.


32 “Our New Benevolency.” York Dispatch April 27, 1881.


33 “Valuable Real Estate In the borough of York, Public Sale.” Gazette, October 21, 1873.


34 “Public Sale Valuable Business and Dwelling Property.” York Daily September 6, 1899, 4.


35 Stephen H. Smith.


36 “Heavy Rains and High Water.” Gazette, August 27, 1867.


37 Dale Van Wieren. 178


38 “In Aldermanic Courts Old Brewery Looted. York Dispatch, December 4, 1912.


39 “Sheriff’s Sales.” York Daily, August 14, 1874.


40 “Laying of a Corner Stone and Fireman’s Parade.” Gazette, September 27, 1870.


41 “Local Intelligence.” York Daily, February 20, 1872.


42 “New Advertisements.” York Daily, February 24, 1872.


43 “Fornoff License Refused.” Gazette, June 25, 1872.


44 “Sheriff’s Sales.” York Daily, August 14, 1874.


45 “To the Public.” York Daily May 21, 1877.


46 “Town and County Items.” Gazette, February 14, 1882.


47 “New Advertisements, Hotels.” York Daily, October 9, 1882.


48 “Will Start Up Old Brewery.” Gazette, October 6, 1903.


49 “New Advertisements, Hotels.” York Daily, October 9, 1882.


50 “Golden Jubilee Rescue Fire Co. History.” York Gazette and Daily, May 19, 1920.


51 “New Advertisements.” York Daily, January 5, 1872.


52 “License Refused.” York Dispatch January 23, 1889, 1.


53 “Obituary. John Busser.” York Dispatch, July 15, 1878.


54 “Our New Benevolency.” York Dispatch, April 27, 1881.


55 Wendi Himmelright, “Shady Oaks Apartments.” York Sunday News July 23, 2000.


56 “The new brewery of the York B.C., Ltd.” The Western Brewer, November 15, 1892, 2492.


57 “The New Brewery.” Gazette, March 30, 1893.


58 “Corks. York Brewing Co.” The Western Brewer, April 15, 1893, 822.


59 “Under the Hammer.” Gazette, June 5, 1894.


60 Hartman, ibid., 55.


61 “York’s Two Breweries.” York Daily April 7, 1896, 2.


62 Hartman, ibid. 56.


63 “Will Build New Brewery.” Gazette, December 15, 1897.


64 Gazette September 23, 1899, 1.


65 Hartman, 12.


66 “Brewers Will Organize.” Gazette, December 2, 1900.


67 “Philadelphians Secure Brewery of Karl E. Katz.” York Daily, October 5, 1909.


68 “Karl Katz Dead at York Home.” York Daily, October 2, 1911.


69 York Daily Record July 27, 1920, 6


70 Van Wieren, ibid., 178.




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