Philadelphia Daily News November 10, 1996

Mixing Beer and History, This Tour has Taste on Tap

By Nita Lelyveld


In the cold, blustery gray of yesterday morning, when the wind was blowing hard and bed seemed especially warm, only about a dozen people lined up outside the Atwater Kent Museum to board a bumpy bus for a daylong historical tour. Getting to the museum by 9:30 a.m. after all, took a special kind of dedication. A foamy, yeasty kind.


Among the old and young, male and female, beer was the bond between bleary-eyed busmates on the museum's annual "Brewing in the Quaker City" tour. The common ground was a love of lager, a love of porter, a love of pale ales and Scotch ales and stout. And, as the morning progressed, a great- and growing- thirst.


It was a thirst that developed during the early hours of the day, as the bus stopped and started, and the group climbed on and off, admiring abandoned buildings that used to be breweries, and remembering a golden age in the mid-to late 19th century when Philadelphia housed dozens of breweries and was known as one of the nation's great beer-producing cities.


And it was a thirst only made more fierce by standing shivering on city pavements, staring at once-great buildings and imagining the long-gone wooden vats once within them that long since had stopped bubbling with brew. So it only made sense that when the first sip came- at the just-about-respectable time of just before noon- it stretched out a while, to the next sip and the next sip and the next sip. And naturally, the sip after that.


It came in old Brewerytown, a seven-square-block section of North Philadelphia that housed nearly a dozen breweries in the late 19th century, but where most traces of that lucrative and alcoholic past have since been wiped away. Warehouses. Empty spaces. No local beer. Not even a bar with imported stuff.


At least that's what it seemed like when the group visited The Brewery, a luxurious red-brick condominium building at 29th and Parrish Streets created out of the old Bergdoll & Psotta brewery. The past seemed pretty well buried by the Gulf station on Girard Avenue believed to be the site where Robert Smith brewed India pale ale in the 1890's. It seemed like slim pickings as tour-goers stopped on Glenwood Avenue to run their fingers ove the old logo on the corner of the F.A. Poth brewery, which last brewed beer in 1920.


And then, as tour-goers rubbed gloved fingers together and huddled a little closer, a man stepped out from somewhere inside the enormous red-brick Poth warehouse and invited all in from the cold. His name was Jim Cancro, and he was the answer to tour-goers' dreams. Because right in the building where Poth beer was brewed, Cancro and a group of investors- including some Poth descendants- are busy putting the Brewery back into Brewerytown. They've started a beer business under the name of Red Bell, which brewed its first beers this June.


So instead of letting tour-goers imagine where beer was once made, where fermentation once took place, where the wagons once came in and out with the barrels, Cancro could show the group the real thing: shiny stainless-steel vats where the brewing process actually was underway. He slit open sacks of English pale barley and let tour-goers crunch some in their mouths. It released a flavor very much like Grape Nuts.


He explained how different types of barley for different beers were crushed and steeped in hot water undergoing a process called mashing in which starches became sugars. He explained how the liquid produced- called wort- is then boiled, and hops are added to enhance flavor and smell. He showed the vats where the mixture was then cooled, so fermentation- with yeast- could begin.


And when he opened up vats where the beers were lagering- or being fermented at cool temperatures- to let tour-goers taste. And taste and taste. First came the keg of Philadelphia Original Lager. Then a sample from the vat of American Pale Ale. A touch of Vienna Lager. A nip of the potent Scotch Ale...


An hour later, the group was still there, tasting and talking and growing more and more convivial. Among them was Ernie Schuyler, a curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences, who said he started drinking beer early in his marriage when his wife- by developing a "slurred-word index," weaned him quickly off the hard stuff. He became a beer fanatic only in recent years, with the nationwide explosion of beer expertise and microbreweries. "There's something about a really fine beer that's good for the morale," Schuyler said.


There were Howard and Alice Rosenthal, a Center City couple who hated beers until they tasted a microbrewed version on a trip to Baltimore. "It was nothing like drinking a Budweiser. There was no turning back," said Howard Rosenthal. And there was 23-year-old Jason Clark, a beer-loving Temple architecture student whose thesis happens to be on how to make a modern brewery in Brewerytown, connecting the present in a meaningful way to the past. For him, Red Bell was close to Mecca.


And so it was, too, for tour guides Rich Wagner, a Wissahickon School District science teacher, and Rich Dochter, who runs a Head Start program in Lock Haven- college buddies, who had developed a passion for beer history after they took a trip around Pennsylvania in 1980 to tour the state's remaining breweries. They grew just as fascinated by the defunct ones (their architecture and local lore) and started doing research. They've been giving tours and talks ever since.


But never in more than a decade of tour-giving had they actually sampled beer in Brewerytown. "Imagine even thinking that one day we would," Wagner said to Dochter, laughing, as he pulled his day-glo orange Schmidt's hat low on his brow, tugged his red Schmidt's sweatshirt back over his khaki Ortlieb's work shirt, and headed back on the bus.


After all there was still another tour, lunch and more samples to be had at the Manayunk Brewing Co., a newly opened brew pub under the Manayunk Farmer's Market. A view of the old Schmidt's brewery at Second and Girard. A stop by Ortlieb's at Third and Poplar. Beer to sip. Beer to remember. Beer to discuss.


And only a few more hours left of the suddenly too-short eight-hour annual tour.