Mid-Atlantic Brewing News April/May 2007

Defending a Legend: The Truth About America's First Lager

by Rich Wagner

Rich Wagner looks on as Charlie Lieberman, representing the Master Brewers Association of the Americas, reads his poem “The Brewers Yeast” as part of the marker dedication ceremony December 1, 2001. (see www.mbaa.com District Philadelphia for more information). PHOTO by Anna Wagner.

Six years ago I wrote a story called “Tracking a Legend” in which I described my efforts to have a Pennsylvania State marker put up near the site where John Wagner brewed the nation’s first lager beer in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood. I had read that his home brewery was on Saint John St. near Poplar, but could find no Saint John St. in Philadelphia and figured I’d never know the exact location of the birth of lager brewing in this country. But twenty years ago I was photographing the old Ortlieb’s brewery at American and Poplar Sts. and saw a stone sign in the side of a house that read “Saint John St.” That was my epiphany! But the story is legend and John Wagner is like an enigma wrapped in a conundrum, so there was much work to be done.

And there were still challenges to fend off.

In my defense of the claim that John Wagner brought the first lager beer yeast to Philadelphia in 1840, I usually begin by pointing out the confusion surrounding the use of the term “lager” which in German means “to store.” By law the Germans could brew only in the cold months of the year and they would make their “lager beer” strong enough to be stored in a cave or vault for five or six months. When a bottom-fermenting yeast capable of working in the cold became known, it is my opinion that they called it lager beer yeast, since it could be used to make that style of beer. So a distinction needs to be made between beer that is “bottom-fermented” and that which has been lagered or “stored.”

In Brewed in America Stanley Baron addressed the question of why it took so long for this yeast to come to America. He suggested that it became possible only after Baltimore clipper ships could cross the Atlantic in less than a month, in order for the yeast to arrive here in a viable condition. So if time was of the essence, it seems far more likely that John Wagner brewed the first lager rather than Adam Lemp of St. Louis, to cite another contender for the honor. Wagner could have arrived in Philadelphia (already a world-class brewing center) and brewed lager beer in his brother-in-law’s “home brewery” the day after he arrived. But Lemp set up shop in St. Louis, Missouri, where the yeast would have taken considerable time to get that far inland. In addition, One Hundred Years of Brewing states that virtually no brewing, only distilling, was done in St. Louis prior to 1840. And yet recently a contract Lemp Beer proclaimed its namesake’s accomplishment as the nation’s first lager brewer in St. Louis in 1838!

Other Contenders

To further muddy the already murky waters, Maureen Ogle suggested in her recently published Ambitious Brew that the first lager beer was brewed in Alexandria, Va. in 1838. I had heard that version of the story about ten years ago and originally figured it was based on confusion surrounding the word “lager.” However, further research has determined that the first lager in Alexandria couldn’t have been prior to1858, and that someone mis-transcribed a date, something that’s very easy to do when looking at old records. Other sources say there was virtually no lager beer produced down south prior to mechanical refrigeration.

The label on Schaefer beer proclaims “America’s first lager, since 1842.” But according to One Hundred Years of Brewing, while the F. & M. Schaefer Brewing Co. got its start in 1842, it did not start brewing lager beer until 1848. In fact as part of my research I combed the entire volume and created a “First Lagers” database, and John Wagner invariably came up at the top of the list.

The people who argue against John Wagner also say that when Charles Wolf was interviewed for that chapter in One Hundred Years of Brewing he was an old man and may not have remembered the events accurately. But Edwin Freedley gives credence to the story as early as 1859 in Philadelphia and its Manufacturers. In addition, Frederick Lauer, a pioneer brewer from Reading, backs up the story in an address to the United States Brewers Association in 1877, which he helped to found. 

Finally detractors will argue that John Wagner merely had a “home brewery” in a shanty behind his house with an eight barrel kettle in an open hearth, hardly a commercial enterprise. To me that is like suggesting that the Wright brothers’ achievement is of no consequence because they never went into the airline business!

My marker application was thirty pages long and since that time I’ve collected even more sources. The story, which has withstood the test of time and passed muster with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, is that John Wagner introduced the bottom-fermenting lager beer yeast to America in 1840 in Philadelphia. 

Sidebar: The Misty Origins of Lager

Part of the mystery is exactly when lager beer yeast came into existence. Legend has it that it was Gambrinus himself and J. Burnitz Bacon quotes an appendix to “Simplicissimus” in an article entitled “Lager Beer in America” in Leslies Monthly dated August of 1882:

“A Bavarian nobleman, Count Forst, had been visiting the court of Gambrinus in Brabant, and, by his capacity for beer, had found favor in the royal eyes. When the count was about to return home, at a private audience Gambrinus said that as a parting gift he would teach him the secret of a new beer which he had lately discovered. He gave the count a manuscript describing the process, and especially impressed on him the condition that the beer must be brewed in the low temperature of Winter, must be stored for six months, and not tapped till the Spring. “In this stone flagon,” continued the King, “you will find another arcanum of the new draught. It contains a sextarius of the true and virgin barm, derived from a Penicillium under the midnight dews. This sup of barm, after fermentation, will be the mother of more, and its succession must be preserved. Hasten, then, my son, to your home, and set this living yeast to its duty, and remember, above all, the Winter-keeping of the beer.” The count hastened home to establish a brewery at Munich, and obeying the directions of the King, bequeathed the secret to his descendants. It is well known that by the time of the Thirty Years’ War, or about 1650, lager beer had become a common beverage in Germany.

Addendum 02-25-18:

Check out tantalizing new research by Tod Von Mechow.

Related Articles

Wagner, Rich. “Philadelphia's Long Lost Lagers.” Ale Street News. April/May 2007.

Wagner, Rich. “Engel & Wolf: Die Erste Lagerbier Brauerei in Amerika.” ABA Breweriana Journal. January/February 2008.

Wagner, Rich. “Brewery Vaults I Have Known and Loved... and Some I've Only Heard About.” American Breweriana Journal March/April 2020