Mid-Atlantic Brewing News August/September 2011


The “Ice Age” of Brewing: Lagering Before Refrigeration


By Rich Wagner


Today, getting ice for a cold drink is as easy as pressing a button, and people wouldn’t think of buying a car without air conditioning. Air conditioned comfort is taken for granted, so it’s hard for us to imagine the days when the only respite from the heat was a shady spot near a creek, and the only ice used to keep things cold had been harvested on a frozen pond a half a year earlier.


When lager beer brewing commenced in America cold fermentation and storage of beer became de rigueur. The only way to refrigerate their cellars was to pack them with ice that formed on lakes, rivers or ponds during the winter. Nineteenth century industrial census data recorded the amount of ice a company harvested by listing the number of men, horses and how many days it took to fill its ice house.


To get an idea of how brewers managed their lagering cellars we have the recollections of Charles Wolf, whose Philadelphia firm, Engel & Wolf, claimed to be “Die Erste Lagerbier Brauerei in Amerika.” Mr. Wolf’s story begins at his sugar refinery on Vine Street. Shortly after John Wagner brewed the nation’s first lager beer in his home brewery in Philadelphia in 1840, one of Mr. Wolf’s employees, George Manger, a “practical brewer,” got some of the yeast and together with Charles Engel, another employee and boyhood friend of Mr. Wolf, brewed a batch of lager in the refinery’s “sugar pan” and stored the beer in sugar hogsheads for their friends. The popularity of his beer convinced Mr. Manger to start a brewery on New Street near Second. In 1844 Engel & Wolf established a lager beer brewery/distillery/saloon at 352 Dillwyn Street, now Orianna, between Third and Fourth below Callowhill Sts. It quickly became a popular resort for Philadelphia’s Germans who are said to have habitually drank the brewery dry! Within a year vaults were dug to lager their beer and additional space was rented from Mitchell Grindstone Works to accommodate a 3,500-barrel annual production.


Engel & Wolf continued this way for about five years before finding a more satisfactory solution to their cold storage requirements. The Schuylkill River had been dammed for the Fairmount Water Works. This “ponded” the river for five miles or so and proved to be an attraction to a variety of businesses including ice harvesting. Along with the ice houses, people rented vault space to brewers from all over the city. The location was perfect for lager beer brewing, and in 1849 Engel & Wolf purchased a property at Fountain Green. There is a statue of General Grant on horseback there today on Kelly Drive.


The company began by excavating 50,000 cubic feet of vault space that extended over 200 feet into the banks of the river 45 feet below ground level. The company boasted its source of ice was “within one hundred feet of the property.” They continued to brew on Dillwyn Street but, according to Mr. Wolf’s accounts, trucked wort by ox cart nearly four miles to the vaults where it was fermented and lagered until summer.


Edwin Freedley described Engel & Wolf’s vaults in his book Philadelphia and its Manufacturers, published in 1859 (see: workshopoftheworld.org). Seven vaults were divided into 20 by 40 foot “cells” connected with a door large enough to admit a “puncheon” (two-barrel sized cask) and a smaller opening large enough for a keg. With the first brewing made as soon as cold weather permitted, vaults were filled: three rows with large casks on the first tier, two rows of casks above these, and casks or kegs to the roof. The ice was covered with “tan,” the spent portion of tree bark used by tanneries which served as insulation. After being filled with beer and ice, the vaults were sealed and ventilated to keep the temperature below 50° F.


By 1859 Engel & Wolf had constructed a modern brewery (that included a still) above the vaults at Fountain Green, which was situated on the main line of the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad. The new brewery enabled them to produce 10,000 barrels of beer worth $60,000. Within the next ten years they had more than doubled their production. Engel & Wolf had an office in New Orleans that served a large southern market that included Texas.


In an effort to assure clean water for the Fairmount Water Works, the city expanded Fairmount Park and removed industry from the river. In 1870 the brewery at Fountain Green was acquired through eminent domain. Mr. Wolf retired and Charles Engel became partners with Gus Bergner, who had established a brewery about a half mile downstream in 1857, to form the Bergner & Engel Brewing Co.


The Centennial Exposition of 1876 featured machines capable of producing ice which drew the attention of brewers, meat packers and dairymen. Brewers with foresight and capital took advantage of this technology. Bergner & Engel, the third largest brewer in the nation at the time, was one of the first to install refrigerating machines. They purchased the Brewers Building of the Centennial and adapted it as an ice storage house.


Artificial refrigeration made it possible for brewers to brew year-round and to create ice on-demand. Along with improvements in building technology this led to the tremendous growth of America’s brewing industry in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. And while the introduction of lager beer may not have spawned the invention of refrigerating machines, their introduction was the answer to lager brewers dreams.


Check out ExplorePAHistory.com for more information.

Check out Philageohistory.org to see an 1866 industrial survey of Engel & Wolf’s brewery at Fountain Green.


Some of Philadelphia’s Earliest Lager Beer Brewers


Charles Engel & Charles Wolf, Plant 1 (352 Dillwyn St.)                1847-1858

Engel & Wolf, Plant 2, Fountain Green                                         1859-1870


Charles Psotta Brewery (56 New St)                                            1846-1847

Manger & Psotta (2nd, New & Vine Sts)                                      1848-1850

George Manger (2nd, New & Vine Sts)                                         1850-1851

George Manger & Peter Schemm  (2nd, New & Vine Sts)              1851-1855

George Manger (2nd, New & Vine Sts)                                         1855-1867


Louis Bergdoll & Peter Schemm (176 Vine St.)                             1849-1850

Bergdoll & Psotta  (176 Vine St.)                                                 1851-1857

Bergdoll & Psotta (29th & Parrish Sts.)                                        1857-1876

Louis Bergdoll B.C. (29th & Parrish Sts.)                                     1876-1920


Bergdoll & Psotta (3365 Ridge, Eveline & Frederick Sts)               1853-1857


(Louis) Hauser & (Peter) Schemm (25th & Poplar Sts.)                   1858-1868

Peter Schemm (25th & Poplar Sts.)                                              1868-1887

Peter Schemm & Son (25th & Poplar Sts.)                                    1887-1917


Gustavus Bergner (586 N. 7th St.)                                               1854-1857

Gustavus Bergner  (32nd & Thompson Sts.)                                 1857-1870

Bergner & Engel                                                                        1870-1920


Source: American Breweries II (Van Wieren 1995).