Mid-Atlantic Brewing News December 2006/January 2007

Remembering Schmidt’s: Beer as Beer Should Be

By Rich Wagner

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” (Joni Mitchell).

I remember the scene as clearly as if it happened yesterday: It was the summer of 1985 and founding H.O.P.S. member Charlie Brem and I were in his U-Brew homebrew shop across from the Roslyn train station listening to Charlie’s favorite radio personality, Irv Homer. His guests were Jeffrey Ware, who was planning to introduce a new beer to the Philadelphia market, and Bill Moeller, a fourth-generation brewmaster from Schmidt’s.

It was exciting, since back in those days the craft brew renaissance hadn’t yet hit Philadelphia but we knew it was only a matter of time. We listened intently as Jeffrey extolled the virtues of his Dock Street beer and bantered with the lifelong industry veteran who never missed an opportunity to emphasize that Schmidt’s was a first class article of beer.

We called Schmidt’s to arrange a tour and found ourselves down at Second and Girard a couple of weeks later being shown around by Bill Moeller himself. The first stop was “the new ale cellar,” part of the 1930s building program that provided for ale fermentation and storage in a separate building from lager beer production. Inside the cellar the pungent aroma of fermenting ale hit us like a ton of bricks! The room was filled with tall open wooden fermenters made of California Redwood! As we approached one with a ladder next to it, Bill said, “go ahead on up and have a look.” I scrambled up with my camera and observed the “high kraeusen,” as he called it. Charlie and I couldn’t believe that Schmidt’s was still making their McSorley’s Cream Ale this way! We felt like we had been transported back in time. There were other tanks in the process of being cleaned which revealed the attemperating coils, and Bill explained some of the finer points of maintaining wooden cooperage.

We peppered him with questions as we ascended the marble staircase to the brew house. On the brewing floor were three gleaming 750-barrel kettles churning away. As I gazed upwards taking in the mezzanine it appeared as if we were in an opera hall. Then I noticed the modern computerized control room that had been juxtaposed into the scene, where brewers looked like air traffic controllers monitoring production on the floor below. Bill then showed us the mash filter, one of many innovations that Schmidt’s had undertaken over the years to maximize efficiency and indulged our queries with a rather detailed description of the lautering process.

We saw the modern storage cellar where finished beer was monitored and blended before going into the packaging department. Schmidt’s had been an industry pioneer in high gravity brewing, and the arrangement made it possible to increase production without adding to the plant.

The tour wound up at Schmidt’s “Ideal Tavern,” a fully operational bar where tavern keepers were invited to learn the proper ways of handling their product to maximize sales. Bill was quick to point out that Schmidt’s also had training programs for their sales people to educate them on all aspects of the brewing process so they would be knowledgeable and able to answer questions and offer suggestions when making sales calls. Needless to say Charlie and I were both suitably impressed and on the way home we reviewed all we had seen and heard. We came away from the experience with an incredible amount of respect for Philadelphia’s last remaining brewery.

Of course, things didn’t last too much longer for Schmidt’s, the company fell victim to a variety of market forces that no amount of pride, skill and innovation could overcome. Ironically my first Philadelphia Brewery Tour took place on May 2, 1987, just a few weeks after the brewery closed. We started off with a walk around the Schmidt’s complex, the most recently abandoned brewery on the tour of a dozen or so that littered Philadelphia’s industrial landscape.

It would be two years before the Samuel Adams Brew House would bring brewing back to the city. In the mean time it was sad to watch the deterioration of Schmidt’s brewery over the years. I actually got a tour by one of the workers in charge of the removal of tanks and demolition in the early 1990s. He put me in touch with a guy who had gotten lots of collectables from the offices, among them a nearly complete collection of issues of The Case, Schmidt’s house organ.

I went over the collection of magazines with a fine tooth comb (1940s-1960s) and really developed an appreciation for Schmidt’s. The Case chronicled building programs, advertising campaigns and spotlighted contributions by employees. The company was truly a family operation from the top down, and I can’t tell you how many employees came from famous Philadelphia brewing families. Schmidt’s had become the twelfth largest brewery in the nation and operated branches in Norristown and Cleveland distributing beer in fourteen states.

As I dug deeper, I found even more articles including one that elaborately detailed the post-prohibition building program of the 1930s and another that showcased Schmidt’s achievements in celebrating their centennial year of 1960. Many of the innovations implemented by Schmidt’s became standards of the industry. I got to know many of the people who worked there and had an opportunity to talk with them about their experiences.

Which brings me back to Bill Moeller. I got to know Bill since that first tour of Schmidt’s in the summer of 1985. I remember telling him about all the microbreweries and brewpubs I visited out west. After leaving Schmidt’s he went on to consult with several craft breweries, including Dock Street, with which he is still involved. This summer he called me up to invite me to the “Schmidt’s Alumni” luncheon at Victory Brewing in Downingtown. It was truly awesome to meet some of the people I had only known from reading issues of The Case magazine! I felt like I knew them even though we had never met face to face! When it came time to get a picture I asked Ron Barchet what was going on in the brew house and he said, “We’re not brewing today.” I suggested we adjourn there to get a picture of the group. Bill Covaleski later said it was like a scene from “Field of Dreams.” The old timers scurried around looking in tanks and kettles, asking questions as if they had knocked out their last brew an hour before. It was, like Schmidt’s, …Bee-a-utiful!

“…They take paradise and put up a parking lot” (Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell).