Mid-Atlantic Brewing News June/July 2001

Brewerytown, Philadelphia – The Grand Daddy of 'Em All!

By Rich Wagner

I've been to the Brewery District in Columbus, Ohio, and Brewers' Alley in Brooklyn. I've seen the breweries of Milwaukee's "big four." I've even been through the bowels of the Eagle in St. Louis and have lived to tell, but I've never heard of a city besides Philadelphia that had a section known as Brewerytown!

Brewerytown started out in what was then Philadelphia's northwestern suburbs on the eastern shore of the Schuylkill River near the Girard Avenue bridge. Maps from 1868 show a couple of small breweries, a distillery, and several beer vaults. In the days prior to artificial refrigeration, brewers would truck their wares from the Kensington and Northern Liberties sections of the city by ox cart three miles up Girard Avenue to the vaults, where they would store the beer with ice cut from the Schuylkill River. This insured a good supply of lager beer during the peak demand in summer.

As some of these German brewers became successful, they needed room to expand. It soon became advantageous for them to build new breweries near these vaults, and the result was a brewery building boom the likes of which the city, or the world for that matter, had never seen. In the period from just prior to the Civil War to the 1880s brewers developed this ten-block industrial neighborhood until it included eleven breweries. As the trade expanded, the breweries grew, becoming more modernized with each step.

Probably the biggest technological innovation that prompted the growth of Brewerytown was the introduction of ice-making machines and, subsequently, equipment that could refrigerate entire rooms or buildings. This freed brewers from having to brew only in the cooler months of the year, and from the necessity of cutting river ice in winter. With the ever-expanding market for lager beer, mechanical refrigeration led to the construction of larger breweries capable of producing enormous quantities of beer. Although Brewerytown offered space to expand and proximity to river ice, vaults and caves, advances in refrigeration technology rendered these considerations moot. It became possible to build huge plant complexes anywhere, and brewers throughout the city and the nation did just that.

Otto Wolf was the premier brewery architect in Philadelphia. He built most of the prominent brewing establishments in the city and essentially all of Brewerytown.

From 1883 until 1905 he completed 150 projects in Philadelphia, 62 of which were in the Brewerytown section. Construction ranged from alterations and expansions of existing buildings, to new construction of brewery saloons, boiler houses, refrigerated storage buildings, malt houses and brew houses. Think of the number of construction jobs alone that this growth produced. During this time of brewery expansion, the rest of Philadelphia industry was also on the rise.

Philadelphia was known as the "Workshop of the World" for a very good reason. If something was manufactured, it was manufactured in Philadelphia: iron, textiles, chemicals, you name it. Many allied industries were also required to equip breweries and support the trade. Equipment manufacturers provided everything from boilers, refrigeration compressors, metal and wooden tanks, fermenters, and storage vats, as well as pumps, valves, pipes, hoses and fixtures. All of these were made in Philadelphia. There were even a keg factory and a bottling equipment manufacturer right in Brewerytown.

Horses and wagons delivered the finished product to local accounts. Brewerytown was served by the Pennsylvania Railroad, as well as by the Philadelphia and Reading lines. Raw materials were shipped in, and beer was shipped out in ice-cooled cars to the rest of the nation. Ships carried Philadelphia beer up and down the Atlantic coast, to the Caribbean, Latin America, and the rest of the world.

All this growth and economic activity gave rise to an almost exclusive German population surrounding Brewerytown. Some companies even built housing for employees. With the immigrants came their culture and customs, and the section we now know as Brewerytown extended far beyond the ten-block industrial district for which it was named.

The latter part of the nineteenth century was a time of great technological innovation. Brewers could brew year round and were able to increase production tremendously to slake the nations' growing thirst for lager beer. A new style of beer emerged called American lager beer, which was brewed with adjuncts such as corn and rice. This was a departure from the traditional German Reinheitsgebot purity law that permitted only water, malt, hops and yeast in making beer. American lager beer was light and effervescent, and it caught on outside the German and Eastern European immigrant communities.

Just about the time Brewerytown was growing and Philadelphia was brewing more beer than ever, the country began to expand westward. The development of the "wide open spaces" out west changed the notion of size and scale forever. As farmers began growing barley, corn and wheat on the prairie, and railroads began to connect all parts of the country, brewing centers began to evolve, particularly in St. Louis and Milwaukee, the size of which made Brewerytown pale in comparison.

I was in awe the first time I viewed the Pabst Brewery complex in Milwaukee. I realized it was many times larger than the ten blocks occupied by Brewerytown. It was only one of four huge plant complexes in that city (Miller, Schlitz and Blatz being the other three). But such is the nature of history and development of economies. The bar is constantly being raised. Scientific discoveries are translated into technological innovations, which in turn pave the way for increased size, efficiency, and production.

Brewerytown continued, though, and Philadelphia remained a world class producer of malt beverages until Prohibition was enacted in 1920. The brewers thought they'd be exempt from the law, since they hardly considered beer to be intoxicating, but the law allowed only "near beer" which contains less than one half of one per cent alcohol. Nonetheless, a lot of beer was brewed in Philadelphia (and the rest of Pennsylvania) during that time, but all the breweries in Brewerytown were eventually shut down and padlocked by the Federal Government. They remained idle, and none of them reopened in 1933 when Prohibition was repealed.

But the brewing industry did survive in other sections of Philadelphia, the number of breweries dwindling year by year until Schmidt's finally closed in 1987. That marked the first time in over three hundred years that Philadelphia was without a brewery. Fortunately, David Mink opened Samuel Adams Brew House, the city's first brewpub, two years later. Since then the craft brewing industry has replaced the old breweries of the city. Some have come, some have gone, and one is even located in the old Poth Brewery in Brewerytown, carrying on a proud centuries-old tradition!

Related Articles

Dochter, Rich & Wagner, Rich. "Brewerytown, U.S.A." Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine. Summer, 1991.

Wagner, Rich. "History of Brewerytown Goes Back to the 1800s." Metro. April 7, 2000.

Wagner, Rich. "The Breweries of Brewerytown and Vicinity." The Breweriana Collector (NABA). Summer, 2004.

Wagner, Rich. “Bergner & Engel – The Real Deal.” American Breweriana Journal. May/June 2008.

Wagner, Rich. “One Big Brewerytown – A Look Back on the Historic Legacy of Our Philadelphia Beer Scene.” Philly Beer Scene. June/July 2011.

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