Mid-Atlantic Brewing News June/July 2012

Book Reviews

Philadelphia Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Cradle of Liberty

By Martin Morse Wooster

A few years ago the editors of The History Press, a small publisher in Charleston, SC, came up with a smart idea. They realized that America's older cities had rich brewing traditions that were inadequately documented, and decided to fill the gap by commissioning a series of local brewing histories. So far I've seen books on Indiana, Milwaukee, and Charleston, among other places, and a volume on Baltimore has been commissioned. (Garrett Peck's Prohibition in Washington, D.C. Is also part of this series).

These books have helped fill a need and The History Press should be commended for hiring Rich Wagner to produce the first modern history of Philadelphia brewing. Wagner, a frequent Mid-Atlantic Brewing News contributor, has been writing about Philadelphia breweries for nearly 30 years and also is an authority on colonial brewing techniques. He has also self-published two histories of Philadelphia breweries. As a result Philadelphia Beer is not likely to be surpassed as an authoritative, concise history of brewing in Philadelphia.

The reader should, however, note two limitations to Wagner's methods. First, he is more interested in business history than social history. You'll get a definitive account of what breweries existed in Philadelphia and where they were located. But Wagner isn't interested in taverns; if you want to read about such great Philadelphia watering holes as the Tun Tavern or the City Tavern, you should read Christine Sismondo's America Walks Into a Bar.

Nor is he interested in local efforts to restrict the sale of alcohol or what Philadelphians thought of all the breweries within city limits.

Wagner also comes out of the breweriana movement, so he has a little bit to say about every brewery that ever existed in Philadelphia. There's also a very good section of color photos and engravings of old breweries and breweriana. But because he has a lot of breweries to cover in a relatively small space (the History Press regional beer histories seem to be limited to 144 pages), we don't learn that much about defunct breweries that existed before Prohibition.

Philadelphia's brewing story is a lot like other cities. There was an active colonial tradition, and, in 1840, Philadelphia's John Wagner, was apparently, the first American to brew a lager. The nineteenth century prompted so many breweries that one district of the city was dubbed Brewerytown.

After prohbition, 11 Philadelphia breweries survived (17 Philadelphia breweries came back after repeal), but by 1980 only two were left: Ortlieb's and C. Schmidt and Sons. Henry A. Ortlieb sold his brewery to Schmidt in 1981 and bitterly regretted it. (When Henry T. Ortlieb died, his nephew Joe Ortlieb became president. He sold the brand to Schmidt's. Henry T. Ortlieb tried to get back into brewing with the Poor Henry's brand in the 1990s, but didn't make it. (Henry T.'s son, Henry A. introduced Poor Henry's).

Schmidt nearly was sold to Heileman in 1965 (1975) and nearly bought Pabst in 1982, deals that might have preserved the brewery. The company was headed by Billy “the Beer Baron” Pflaumer, who in 1986 was convicted of tax evasion for some trucking companies he owned. Pflaumer remained in charge of the brewery despite his conviction, which meant he could only do business during a daily 15-minute phone call from prison. A year after Pflaumer went to jail, Schmidt sold its brands to Heileman and closed its doors leaving Philadelphia without a brewery for the first time since the eighteenth (seventeenth) century.

Two years later, brewing returned to Philadelphia with the birth of the Samuel Adams Brew House (which is now Nodding Head). Dock Street was a brewpub that was so successful in Philadelphia that in 1996 it opened a branch in Washington, DC, which folded after three months.

Craft brewing brought some high fliers to Philadelphia. None flew higher than Red Bell, which opened one brewpub and at various times announced it was going to open a second brewpub, build a giant museum in Brewerytown, and take over Pittsburgh Brewing or The Lion. Beer lovers were highly suspicious when Red Bell founder Jim Bell announced in a 1996 Philadelphia Inquirer interview that when it was hot he liked to drink Juicy Juice, saying, “I'll take that any day over a beer, even a Red Bell.”

The shakeout of the late 1990s killed off a lot of Philadelphia craft breweries, including Red Bell, Independence, Gravity and Dock Street (which came back first as a contract brewer and then as a second brewpub) (Poor Henry's). Yards, Nodding Head, and Manayunk survived to be joined by Philadelphia, Triumph, Earth Bread and Brewery (and Iron Hill).

Anyone interested in the history of Philadelphia brewing will find Philadelphia Beer an enjoyable book.

Note corrections to names and dates are highlighted in red.