Mid-Atlantic Brewing News April/May 2008

Repeal in Philadelphia: What We Drank Back in the Day

 By Rich Wagner

There have been a number of changes in Philadelphia’s breweries of late, and fortunately in this case, their numbers are increasing. But imagine the dawn of repeal when over a dozen breweries emerged from prohibition with the sound of a whistle on midnight April 7, 1933. Even though the first beer that flowed had to be 3.2% alcohol by weight, it was a far cry better than “near beer” and certainly better than what passed as real beer during prohibition (or worse yet, homebrew).

Prior to prohibition there were three brewers producing over 200,000 barrels. At the dawn of repeal, only Schmidt’s could make that claim and Brewerytown, which had been responsible for half the city’s beer production was a ghost town! And Schmidt's was the second largest brewer in the state behind Duquesne in Pittsburgh. Sixteen Philadelphia brewers made just over one million barrels in 1934 just half of the city’s production in 1910. Not only did local brewers have competition from the nation’s shipping breweries, there were a host of regional brewers in Pennsylvania and surrounding states. It took until 1943 for the nation's per capita beer consumption to reach pre-prohibition levels.

There were two publications of the Pennsylvania Liquor Industry that provided me with insights into beer and brewing in the post prohibition period: Tap & Tavern and The Observer. Both are available on microfilm at the Free Library and I methodically went through every issue from 1935 to 1965. A picture of advertising strategies emerged and it was quite interesting to see the evolution of advertising over that time period. There were ads for radio and television shows sponsored by local breweries. Reports of expansions, gossip, the brewers’ bowling league results, and lots of coverage of new product rollouts and point of sale items.

The beer can was introduced in 1935 and this changed the way beer was sold. The glass manufacturers responded by making a short twelve ounce package called the “steinie” to compete. Schmidt’s pioneered both packages and had a huge quart can market. Their “Silver Noggins” harkened back to the name for the pewter steins once used to serve ale. They also had the worlds largest steinie bottle (50 feet tall and 22 feet wide) on the Philadelphia side of the Delaware River (now Ben Franklin) Bridge. It was piped in neon and viewed by 130,000 drivers daily.

Esslinger was the first to introduce canned beer to the city and they were the first of the local brewers to proclaim their product “premium beer,” a term which was in vogue to increase the price, and cover the cost of shipping for the nation’s largest brewers. Esslinger introduced the Parti Quiz Can. Each can had a number of “answers” printed on it and bar patrons could make up questions and make a game of it just like the Trivial Pursuit game!

Liebert & Obert debuted the “half-gallon, ten glass bottle” of unpasteurized beer and became the city’s first brewer to introduce the no-deposit bottle for their Old Bohemian Beer. They became well known for their Namar brand.

Gretz advertised that their beer was kraeusened, or carbonated naturally, the old fashioned way. They did a good family trade in sixtels and unpasteurized picnic jugs. The “old-time” theme was illustrated with their logo which was a derby-clad, mustachioed gent “rushing the growler” (a pail of beer) riding a big-wheel bike, followed by his dog. The family has resurrected the logo on their Gretz Distributing trucks. In the age of television, Gretz Brewing sponsored many sporting events and even hosted a show called “Gretz Cavalcade of Girls.”

Hornung won prize in Atlantic City at the New Jersey Licensed Beverage Association Convention in 1934 for their White Bock Brand. They were also famous for their Londonderry Ale and Hornung Beer. Among other advertising campaigns, they sponsored a “Miss Hornung Competition” on WFIL TV.

The Gruenwald brewery was the only new brewery in the city after repeal. One of the old brewing families started a new company. They converted portions of an Electric Company building and added new construction. This brewery actually became Esslinger’s Plant #2 where they brewed all of their ale products including porter, stout, half and half, brown and pale ales.

Philadelphia Brewing Company was famous for their Philadelphia Old Stock (P.O.S.) brands and came out with an all malt brand called 1880 Premium Old Stock Dry Lager made with Czech hops.

Erlanger Pilsner was a big hit, especially in the “pony deluxe” seven ounce package. They introduced Perone, America’s first “Italian-style lager beer” and spent a considerable amount of time and money developing Golden Brew.

Weisbrod & Hess was famous for their Rheingold Beer and Shakespeare Ale. They spent a quarter of a million dollars upgrading, especially new packaging equipment. They introduced “Certified Beer” which was certified by a noted medical and chemical laboratory for its purity, digestibility and quality! Licensees received their own “certificates” signed by the management and brewmaster for display in their taverns.

It took just over half a century but each brewery fell, like a row of dominoes, until the last one fell in 1987. When Schmidt’s closed a chapter ended in Philadelphia brewing history. And while I celebrate the return of beer making to the city, I often wish it were possible to quaff a Wolf’s Head Dark or a Betz’s Cream Ale and taste what beer was like back in the day.