Mid-Atlantic Brewing News December 2007/January 2008

Beer & Pretzels in Berks County, PA

By Rich Wagner

The rebirth of the Reading beer brand certainly strikes a cord with me -- it’s like seeing an old friend! I remember as a kid going camping with neighbors and having my friend’s dad wax prolific on how “you always drink the local beers” as he bought a sixpack of Reading Premium to take back to camp. Small regional brewers had been on the wane for decades and such local delights were becoming fewer and further between for beer lovers.

In the early eighties I got a copy of Beer Drinkers Guide to the Bars of Reading written by “Suds and Dregs,” two teachers who chronicled their bar tours by rating each stop and who became celebrities when they appeared on the Johnny Carson show. And when I was in Reading to research the history of brewing in the region at the Berks County Historical Society, I used Suds & Dregs’ book to explore the city’s beer culture.

At the museum, what impressed me was how much information they had on the subject of local beer and brewing. Their collection included scrapbooks of newspaper clippings that had been put together by individuals fifty to a hundred years earlier with lots of history from the local press. The other thing I found impressive was how far back in time the brewing tradition was rooted.

I stayed with a friend in Reading and he put me up in a room with a typewriter so I could transcribe my barely legible handwritten notes from the museum library. At the end of the day we’d retrace Suds and Dregs’ steps and tour the bars of Reading, soaking up the rich heritage each corner tappie had to offer.

The Reading brewery went out of business in 1976, a clipping of that sad day was among the items in the “beer” folder at the museum. In my travels about town one guy started telling me about all the advertising, what we call breweriana today, that got thrown out by the truckload. He gave me a large poster for Reading Premium Beer – “The Modern Beer For Friendly People” -- that contained about seventy or eighty “thumbnails” of all the employees at the brewery! He would point to this one or that one on the poster and tell me about the person and what they were doing today: “He’s got an appliance store downtown, or a bar, this one’s a judge, …” I’ve had that poster hanging in my office ever since and actually feel like I know those people! At the top of the hill overlooking the site where the Reading Brewing Co. once stood was a bar called “Stu’s Keg” and Stu himself reached into the takeout cooler and gave me the last two Reading Bicentennial cans of beer which were six or seven years out of date!

Another college friend had introduced me to the history and traditions of the region early on. His dad was a “dumper,” someone who explores old privy’s and dumps to find bottles, sort of an amateur archeologist, and I remember him showing me the bottle collection he had amassed over the years. He had an impressive display of really old brewery bottles from Reading. He had done some research of his own and compiled quite a list of breweries. He was particularly proud of a bottle he had from the Lauer brewery and took me to the town of Womelsdorf where he showed me the Lauer family’s original brewery there. He told me his mother had worked in the building when he was a kid, when it was used as a cigar box factory.

Reading was home to several craft breweries, one of which survives as Legacy Brewing Co. Scott Baver’s Pretzel City Brewing Co. became the city’s only production brewery for a few years. Scott Baver is with Legacy now and recently introduced Reading Premium Beer in that beautiful retro package that brings back fond memories among the locals who can’t seem to get enough of it.

Which brings me to the “Beer and Pretzels in Berks” exhibit at the Berks County Historical Society. Through the efforts of museum staff and local collectors, an impressive array of breweriana and “pretzelania” are on display through March. As I was preparing my “Breweries of Reading” presentation for the opening of the exhibit I started thinking about all the Pennsylvania breweries that are and were along the Schuylkill River, from America’s oldest in Pottsville, to Iron Hill’s latest opening in Phoenixville, to Philadelphia’s Manayunk Brewery and Restaurant at the terminus of the Schuylkill canal.

Here is a link to my Flickr album.


A Few of the Breweries of Reading

Barbey’s brewery became Sunshine Brewing Co. in 1951. “Sunny” was a popular brand until 1970.

Henry Eckert established a brewery on 4th St. between Chestnut & Franklin in 1763 which closed as Jacob Bright’s brewery in 1826.

The Deppen brewery at 341 N. 3rd St. closed in 1937 and is currently vacant.

George Lauer established his brewery at 3rd & Chestnut Sts. in 1826. His son Frederick would lead the brewery and help establish the United States Brewers Association which dedicated a statue of his likeness in City Park upon his death. The Lauer brewery lasted until 1920.

The Reading Brewing Co. at 9th & Laurel was in business from 1886 until 1976 when the brands were sold to Schmidt’s of Philadelphia.

The Stocker brewery was established in 1891 on North Eleventh St. and went out of business as the Jaeger brewery in 1943.