Mid-Atlantic Brewing News April/May 2012
When Beer Returned to Philly
By Rich Wagner
Editor's note: April 6 marks the 79th anniversary of “New Beer's Eve,” when the Volstead Act was amended to relegalize 3.2 beer – not full-strength, but enough to deliver a buzz. Beer historian Rich Wagner recalls the hubbub that preceded the return of real beer to Philadelphia.
Imagine trying to be a law abiding citizen during the so-called dry years in Philadelphia. Even before prohibition went into effect, the government had dropped the legal limit of alcohol in beer to 2.75% alcohol by weight (3.4% a.b.v.) due to war rationing. Beer drinkers felt assured that when prohibition arrived at least “war beer” would remain legal. But then the other shoe fell and it was determined that “cereal beverages” could contain no more than one half of one per cent alcohol. And so it began. It wasn’t hard to get “high voltage beer” but it wasn’t legal and near beer never developed much of a following. After enduring a decade of brewers getting fined, padlocked and threatened with jail terms the stock market crashed! For those facing financial ruin, there wasn’t even a (legal) beer to cry in! So when Roosevelt was elected, in large measure due to his promise to bring beer back, there was a great deal of eager anticipation for the return of suds.
Industry groups reported on the impact the return of beer would bring to the nation’s economy. The United States Brewers Association estimated the nation’s brewers would spend $400 million. Philadelphia breweries were expected to spend $2.5 million in capital expenditures. Starting with increased tax revenues, there were also agricultural products and which needed to be processed and delivered. Equipment manufacturers supplied the industry with a vast array of products from brewing kettles and tanks to boilers and refrigeration equipment. Brewers needed piping, valves, hoses, barrels, bottles, caps, labels and the glue used to apply them. Many were outfitting their delivery departments with fleets of new trucks. And of course all this activity created the jobs that the unemployed were clamoring for. Technological innovations had greatly reduced the time required for beer to age and automated bottling equipment made equipment from pre-Prohibition days all but obsolete.
In the months and weeks leading to the repeal of the 18th amendment, reporters were canvassing the city’s brewers to find out exactly how much beer they had on hand to reassure the thirsty that there would be plenty to go around at the stroke of midnight on April 6, 1933. One early report in November 1932 estimated that 35 breweries in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey had a million and a half gallons of real beer on hand. Six breweries in the city accounted for about 20% of the total. Another report claimed the city’s brewers had enough beer to fill seven billion pint glasses.
In March, Evening Bulletin reporter Laura Lee reported on her sojourn to breweries around the city. Edward A. Schmidt had already been inundated with 150 men seeking interviews:drivers, salesmen, boiler makers, pipe-fitters, brewers and bottlers, all willing to do anything. “This is a wonderful thing the President has done,” he said, "I've always been a Republican, but I'm for Roosevelt now,” adding that the Schmidt brewery would be capable of supplying 3,000 barrels of beer per day at a moment’s notice. At the Esslinger brewery she was told they were planning to double the work force and had 10,000 barrels of beer in stock. The president of the firm added that the two $20,000 de-alcoholizing machines in the brewery would soon be “worth about a dime.” And as brewers began stockpiling beer, the same federal agents who for the past thirteen years had been padlocking breweries and sewering their “high-powered beer,” were busy checking to make sure that beer in the tanks did not contain more than 3.2% alcohol (4% a.b.v.). In Norristown the president of the Adam Scheidt brewery said they had been ready “since Christmas” and some reports claimed they had more beer on hand than all the breweries in the city combined. The consensus among brewers was that a case of beer would sell for around $2.00 with a 75¢ deposit on the case and a half barrel of beer would be $8.50 with a $5.00 keg deposit. But few foresaw the return of the nickel beer at the tap room. Salesmen were dispatched throughout the neighborhoods to take orders for beer.
A week prior to the return of beer Evening Bulletin reporter Mac Parker polled city brewers and found Ortlieb was ready to dispense light and dark beer “iced and ready to go.” Kegs with thick wooden staves could keep beer cold for six hours. Schmidt said they were ready to ship beer with an opener in every case. South Philadelphia’s Trainer brewery had a large supply of light lager and Esslinger was releasing its King Pin Pilsner and King Pin Dark. Philadelphia Brewing Company was also ready to supply the thirsty with its Manz Beer. The John Jacob Wolf brewery had Wolf’s Light, Dark and Porter and Hornung had 700 barrels of White Bock Light and Dark and Porter ready to go. Much of the beer was destined for southern states. This did not take into account the half dozen or so brewers that would be back in business in the weeks and months that followed.
Over 1,200 retail establishments and 300 wholesalers had Federal permits to sell beer but there were no regulations forthcoming from Harrisburg or the city meaning that initial sales of beer would be virtually unrestricted. On the evening of April 6, 1933 people gathered at the breweries to celebrate. All that tension and anticipation was released just before the stroke of midnight when the heavens opened up unleashing a torrential downpour of rain and hail commemorating a truly wet victory for the return of legal beer.
Philadelphia Breweries During Prohibition is a 200 page file containing newspaper accounts of the day. It is available as a PDF file or disc at http://pabreweryhistorians.tripod.com.
Photos by Rich Wagner:
Caption. Pretzel with Mug of Beer proclaiming “We Want” was a metal fixture that could be affixed to a bumper or license plate. (Ziegler Collection)
Caption. License plate sign: “Beer - Less Taxes, More Jobs.” (Cartin Collection)
Wagner, Rich. “Repeal in Philadelphia: What We Drank Back in the Day.” Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. April/May 2008.
Wagner, Rich. “Philadelphia Breweries After Repeal... And Then There Were None (With Apologies to Agatha Christie).” American Breweriana Journal. Sept./Oct. 2006.
Wagner, Rich. “Max Hassel, the 'Beer Baron' of Reading, PA.” E.C.B.A. the KEG, Winter 2019.
Wagner, Rich. “Brewing Industry in Post Prohibition America, 1935-1985.” National Brewery Museum Commemorative Edition. American Breweriana Association. July 2008.