the KEG Spring 2019

The Ortlieb Dynasty

By Rich Wagner

You may remember my article “Ortliebs, Brewers by Birth Since 1869” the title borrowed from their advertising slogan (Winter 2005). The family came to hear my presentation on the subject at Yards Brewing Co. the same year. I had met Joe Ortlieb over the years but after the presentation he would call me up about once or twice a year and we would have lunch and talk about “the beer business.” One time, I took him to see Trupert Ortlieb’s farm house on Knapp Road outside of Lansdale (Fall 2009). Much of the story pieced together in this article was greatly enhanced through our conversations. Joe Ortlieb died last year and I will miss our yearly get-togethers.

PHOTO 01 CAPTION Joe at Trupert’s farmhouse built in 1901 which sat on his 40 acre farm on Knapp Rd. outside of Lansdale.

PHOTO 02 CAPTION Lunch at Yards Brewing summer 2016 (left to right): Bill Schmidt, son of the owner of F & S in Shamokin, Joe Ortlieb, Yards’ owner Tom Kehoe and Rich Wagner.

PHOTO 03 CAPTION Portrait of Trupert Ortlieb in the bank in his home town in Bavaria. When given bank tours, school children would see Trupert’s portrait and hear the story of how he saved his money in the bank before setting out to make his fortune and become a successful brewery owner in America. (Family Collection)

PHOTO 04 CAPTION Trupert Ortlieb did two stints in the Civil War, then started a weiss beer brewery at 3rd & Thompson streets in Philadelphia. (Wagner Collection)

Joe was the last family member to own Ortlieb’s brewery when he sold the brands to Schmidt’s and closed the plant in 1981, a decision he regretted “before the ink on the contract was dry.” Ironically, his brewery shared the same fate as the rest who couldn’t compete as the “Big Three” captured virtually the entire beer market in the second half of the last century. It was doubly painful for Joe since he had spent a great deal of money upgrading the plant to make it more efficient.

PHOTO 05 CAPTION Joe rolled out McSorley’s Cream Ale, Sean O’Shaughnessey’s Stout and Coqui Malt Liquor, “bucking the trend” towards “lite beer.” (Brewers Digest October 1979)

PHOTO 05_0 CAPTION In a similar vein the brewery lampooned national brands advertised as “dry” back in the 1950s and 1960s.

He formed Braumeister, Ltd. and did some contract brewing with The Lion, Inc. in Wilkes-Barre, rolling out an all malt beer called “Trupert,” in honor of his grandfather, a Civil War veteran and founder of the family brewery. He also marketed Øtto’s Oat Bran Beer when everything “oats” was heart-healthy back in the eighties.

Joe came of age in the 1950s and became part of the team of family members who ran the brewery. His namesake, “Uncle Joe” was the eldest living brother and president. In addition to managing their Philadelphia brewery, members of the Ortlieb family purchased or became financially interested in a number of regional breweries in Eastern Pennsylvania. Their motivation was not to grow their own brand, as was the case with their cross-town rival Schmidt with plants in Norristown and Cleveland; rather, they provided a cash infusion with the hope of changing the fortunes of a local brewery and reap a share the profits.

Brewery Syndication

In the U.S., the E. Anheuser Brewing Association is probably the earliest and best known example of a syndicate of regional plants with their own territories, tied through a corporation, one which would grow to be the nation’s largest brewer with a dozen or so plants throughout the country. Bob Kay has written about the British Syndicate buying up breweries here in the states in the nineteenth century, and I’ve written about some of Pennsylvania’s “combines” which emerged around the turn of the last century, the largest being the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. (21 branches) and Independent Brewing Co. of Pittsburgh (15 branches) and Pennsylvania Central Brewing Co. (12 branches) in Scranton. Today, Artisinal Brewing Ventures, a holding company formed in 2016, currently serves Victory Brewing Co. of Pennsylvania, Southern Tier and Blue Point of New York taking care of management, advertising and purchasing for the three.

When prohibition became the law of the land, Reading’s “Beer Baron” Max Hassel and his associates created a network of regional breweries from Eastern Pennsylvania to Northern New Jersey. When things got too hot they could turn the taps off at one location and supply urban centers by opening the taps at another branch fifty miles away. Unfortunately that ended badly for everyone involved, except perhaps a few that emerged unscathed with bundles of cash without being murdered or sent to prison.

PHOTO 06 CAPTION The Ortlieb brewery was under guard so when Yeggs (safecrackers) were pounding “an anvil chorus” on a safe in the brewery saloon next door police did not respond, lest it be a diversion to permit the removal of beer from the brewery. (Evening Bulletin October 30, 1925)

That may have been the case for the Ortlieb family, who were selling “high powered” beer during prohibition. When the Feds turned up the heat the brothers took their Packard aboard an ocean liner and toured Europe until they got the “all clear” sign from home saying all was forgiven and repeal was imminent. They sold the car and returned in a German Dirigible. Joe recalled his uncles complaining about the no smoking policy aboard the hydrogen-filled craft.

When beer came back some breweries were well positioned to resume producing beer, most notably those which had been operating during prohibition. Others had been sold off and possibly adapted to reuses or left abandoned. Still others competed for a limited amount of investment capital to upgrade and modernize old plants. So there were a lot of openings and a lot of closings coming out of prohibition. Later, the effects of wartime rationing exacerbated problems facing an already vulnerable brewing industry, particularly small brewers, many in Pennsylvania.

PHOTO 07 CAPTION Standing in front of the new bottling house are Henry T. (son of Henry F.), his father “Uncle Albert,” “Uncle Bill” (Joe’s dad), and “Uncle Joe.”

PHOTO 08 CAPTION The bottling house was added to the list of historically significant properties and was totally renovated and is now headquarters for KirstenTimberlake a leading architectural firm which specializes in developing brownfield properties.

The Henry F. Ortlieb Brewing Co. was formed when Trupert retired and made his eldest son head of the firm. They were probably brewing 10,000 barrels a year if that. In 1914 they built a modern 50,000 barrel plant that served them well during prohibition. Their post- WWII building program added new brew, stock and ware houses culminating with a new “million bottle a day” bottling house in 1949.

By the 1950s the large Midwest shipping breweries followed post-war demographics, building networks of regional breweries to serve growing suburban populations. Television advertising probably did more to elevate the stature of national brands, not only for beer but for commodities in general, removing whatever local support small regional manufacturers might have had and decimating their trade. By mid-century packaged beer accounted for 75% of beer sales as opposed to the 1930s when draught beer held that share.

Building a Dynasty

One story Joe would invariably tell me was his ride to Dubois. He had just joined the company and it was one of his first assignments. The family was interested in the Dubois Budweiser brand and sent Joe to check it out, along with his “rich uncle” Nathaniel F. “Nate” Cooper. I don’t know if the “uncle” part was a figure of speech or whether he was related through marriage, but Joe said the man was aggressive and perceived as obnoxious by more than a few people. To illustrate Joe said of the ride, “He smoked a big cigar and when he was finished with the newspaper he would just throw it out the window, but I have to say he taught me everything about the money side of the beer business.”

When they went in to talk with Mr. Hahne, the owner of Dubois Brewing Co., Nate stepped out for a minute and Hahne said, “Mr. Ortlieb,” which astounded the young Joe, who was in his twenties, “I wouldn’t hesitate to sell my brewery to your family but I would never sell to Nate Cooper.” I’m not sure how Nate fit into the Ortlieb family business but he apparently was the “bag-man” supplying cash for brewery purchases, and he and Joe developed a side line of selling off equipment from the many breweries going out of business.

PHOTO 09 CAPTION Recent view of the Cooper brewery in York, PA does not look much different than a drawing of the plant that appeared in Brewers News August 20, 1936.

PHOTO 09_0 Letterhead view of Cooper brewery, Manayunk, Philadelphia. (Handy Collection)

Nathaniel F. Cooper came to Philadelphia after trying to resurrect the bankrupt York Brewing Co. as Cooper from 1935-36. He purchased the Liebert & Obert Brewery in Manayunk in 1938, running it for ten years. According to Joe, at some point the Ortlieb family had an interest in the Cooper’s brewery which may be when they connected. Cooper Beer was the flagship and Nate introduced Namar Premium Beer with the slogan “The Name is Namar.” Cooper beer was distributed in a dozen states.

PHOTO 10 CAPTION Label: Cooper’s Bohemian Beer from York, PA. (Handy Collection)

PHOTO 11 CAPTION Label: Cooper’s Bohemian Beer from Philadelphia, PA. (Handy Collection)

PHOTO 12 CAPTION Label: Cooper’s Extra Dry Beer, Flock Brewery in Williamsport. (Handy Collection)

PHOTO 13 CAPTION Cooper brewmaster Anton Keis with 7oz. painted label bottles of Namar Premium Beer and Ale. (American Brewer January 1941)

PHOTO 14 CAPTION Namar cans in “HandyPack.” (American Brewer October 1948)

At the end of fiscal 1947 Cooper had a profit of $228,000, a seven fold increase over 1946. This amounted to roughly 95 cents per share of common stock. Nathaniel F. Cooper stated that sales were limited only by their production capacity. However, in 1949 during the prime beer season (April-October), Cooper sold 63,000 barrels: 14,000 barrels less than the same period in 1948. Around this time a power struggle between AFL and CIO for representing brewery workers prompted protracted strikes in Pennsylvania and New York which further eroded local loyalty as big Midwestern shipping breweries filled the void and may have entered into Cooper’s drop in sales.

With a lean winter in sight, Nate announced that production would be moved to the Flock brewery in Williamsport and the warehouse of the brewery would become a distribution point. The company offered to buy up stockholders’ shares using money from the sale of portions of the plant and those who did not sell had their shares transferred directly to the newly formed Cooper Distributing Co.

Around this same time the Robert F. Graupner & Associates, representing Harrisburg brewing interests purchased a controlling share of Flock stock which was then sold to “Philadelphia businessmen.” Both Flocks and Graupner went out of business in 1951 and it’s a near certainty that Joe and Nate picked the carcasses clean, selling off equipment and scrap.

Ortlieb/Cooper Interests

In 1950 the Ortliebs and Cooper purchased a controlling interest in the Eagle brewery in Catasauqua, which they held for five years. So while Eagle’s annual 100,000 barrel yearly capacity did not add to that of Ortlieb Brewing Co., the Ortliebs and Nate Cooper were getting a share of Eagle’s profits.

PHOTO 17 CAPTION Hornung brewery at 22nd & Clearfield Sts., Philadelphia. (American Brewer)

PHOTO 18 CAPTION Erlanger billboard. (Philadelphia City Archives)

Joe remembered selling off the equipment at Hornung (1951) and Erlanger (1953) which was just a block west of Ortlieb’s. He thought they might have brewed for a short time at the Erlanger plant but definitely got the brand. In the 1960s when he saw Schlitz introduce Erlanger Beer he got on the phone to Billy Smulowitz at The Lion, Inc. in Wilkes-Barre to say, “I thought that was my label,” to which Billy replied, “I just traded it to Schlitz for three carloads of malt.”

PHOTO 19 CAPTION Sunshine brewery. (Uncle Ernie Oest)

PHOTO ?? CAPTION Can with Muhlheim B.C., Shenandoah. (Handy Collection)

PHOTO 20 CAPTION Sunshine Room, Malt Beverage Distributors of PA Convention. (Tap & Tavern March 28, 1955)

The Ortliebs and Cooper purchased the Sunshine brewery in Reading and ran it from 1951-1966. The brewery had just completed a $300,000 modernization program that included a completely new brew and bottling houses. They are credited with re-branding Sunshine with a new image and advertising. Sunshine was producing around 125,000 barrels a year in the mid-1950s. Out in Western Pennsylvania, Fort Pitt Brewing Co. was reorganized to permit diversification, branching into other products. In April 1957 Nathaniel F. Cooper was appointed president of the Fort Pitt Brewing Division of Fort Pitt Industries, Inc.

Reading businessman Leo Israel Bloom replaced Nate Cooper as president in April of 1966, and we hear nothing more about Ortlieb at Sunshine, we can conclude they sold their shares and turned their attention north to two breweries in the coal region. Bloom and his associates sold beer for less than it cost to produce and sucked every penny they could out of a dying business while they stood on the oxygen hose.

PHOTO 21 CAPTION Kaier brewery. (Letterhead)

PHOTO 22 CAPTION Fuhrmann & Schmidt brewery. (Company pamphlet)

Cooper and the Ortliebs purchased the Kaier brewery in Mahanoy City and the Fuhrmann & Schmidt in Shamokin, both having annual capacities of 100,000 barrels or so. In both cases the breweries continued producing their own brands. They closed the Kaier plant after two years and made the brand in Shamokin, then Philadelphia. In 1972 they sold F & S to a holding company owned by James D. Verrastro who ran it into the ground over a three year period.

The End of the Dynasty

In the end Joe Ortlieb concentrated on the Philadelphia plant. He bought out interests owned by other family members and became sole owner. He invested heavily, modernizing the plant and even computerized scheduling of deliveries. Joe said they had problems with the computer overheating and were advised to air condition the office. Upon hearing this, his wife said, “You mean you’ve got air conditioning for your computer but not for me?” Joe relented and made peace at home.

PHOTO 23 CAPTION A young Henry Ortlieb developed the Bicentennial Can Series to appeal to collectors during his short tenure with the company. (Family collection)

PHOTO 24 CAPTION Bicentennial label. (Handy collection)

PHOTO 25 CAPTION Joe contract Brewed Olde English 800 for Blitz-Weinhard of Portland, OR.

Joe’s eyes would light up whenever he told me about brewing Olde English 800 under contract for Blitz Weihard: “It was all gravy; packaging Friday night with overtime for the workers all expenses paid for by Blitz.” When the contract dried up so did a big part of his business.

Ortlieb acquired the McSorley’s label, better known than the Neuweiler Cream Ale they had acquired. He rolled out “O’Shaughnassey’s Stout” attempting to develop what at the time was barely a niche market “bucking the trend towards lite beers” as one article put it. He introduced Coqui Malt Liquor, named for the sound frogs in Puerto Rico make, to appeal to Philadelphia’s growing Hispanic market. In the end, Schmidt’s bought the brand not the bricks and that was the end of Ortlieb’s dynasty. Six years later a similar fate befell Schmidt’s when Heileman acquired their brands and moved production to Baltimore, leaving Philadelphia without a brewery for the first time in over 300 years.

Comparing Two Philadelphia Brewer’s Dynasties (Yrs.)



1869-1981 Ortlieb, Philadelphia (111)

1860-1987 Schmidt, Philadelphia (127)

1935-36 Cooper, York


1938-1948 Cooper, Philadelphia (10)

1896-1920 Robert Smith, Philadelphia (24)

1949-51 Flock, Williamsport

1908-17 Peter Schemm, Philadelphia (9)

1950-55 Eagle, Catasauqua (5)

1951-66 Sunshine, Reading (15)

1954-75 Scheidt, Norristown (21)

1968 Columbia, Shenanadoah

1964-71 Schaefer, Cleveland (7)

1966-68 Kaier, Mahanoy City

1964 Pilsner, Cleveland (Brands)

1966-75 F & S Shamokin (9)

1971-84 Carling, Cleveland (13)

1973 Duquesne (brands)

1976 Reading (brands)

1977 Rheingold/Ruppert (brands)

1978 Erie(brands)

1971-84 Carling, Cleveland

SIDEBAR: PHOTO 26 CAPTION “Sunshine in the Skies” at Reading Fair. One of the most spectacular promotional stunts in the history of the Reading, Pa., Fair was achieved last month when the Sunshine Brewing Co. of that city employed a helicopter to call attention to its product. Dubbed the “Flying Beer Bottle,” the fuselage of the helicopter carried canvas strips on which were emblazoned “Sunshine Premium Beer,” while the bubble featured a huge caricature of “Sunny.” From the craft’s undercarriage was suspended an elaborate sound system which played “You Are My Sunshine” and other tunes containing “Sunshine” in the lyrics. Throughout the week-long event, the “Flying Beer Bottle” soared and dipped over the fairgrounds, at times taking on fair officials, press and radio-TV correspondents, brewery officials and many others for a ride. At the fair the brewery also maintained a “Sunshine Beer Tent,” at which a trio entertained huge crowds. Lending color to the brewery’s participation in the fair also were the “Sunshine Girls,” attired in bright costumes, who strolled through the crowds distributing huge “Sunshine” badges. The girls are pictured boarding the helicopter. Another item in the brewery’s promotion at the fair was the award of the “Sunshine Trophy” to the winner of the three-year-old futurity trot. (Modern Brewery Age October, 1954)

Note: This version of the article contains corrections to the original printed in the KEG.