Philadelphia Daily News June 28, 1991

Never Tell This Guy Philly Was a Busch League Town

By Ron Avery


The man knows facts that no other person in the universe would know. He knows George Washington's beverage of choice was a porter made by Philadelphia brewer Robert Hare. George had the dark brown beer shipped to Mount Vernon.


He knows that in 1865 Andreas Erdrich bought the Bridesburg Brewery from Lorenz Amrhein, who established the business in 1850. He knows the locations of 400 breweries that once operated in Pennsylvania. He has visited every site.


Meet Richard Wagner, by day a mild-mannered suburban high school science teacher and by night Pennsylvania beer historian extraordinaire. There are a lot of people who collect beer cans or beer advertisements. But Wagner, 39, of Hatboro, and his partner Rich Dochter of Lock haven, collect information on Pennsylvania breweries.


The whole thing started innocently in 1980, when the two old college buddies, driving a 1953 Buick, decided to take a camping vacation with the goal of visiting Pennsylvania's eight working breweries. "We wanted to do some tasting," Wagner says. "But as we drove around, we started to talk to people and they'd say this building or that building was an old brewery. "And I said jokingly, 'Let's visit every old brewery in the state' ... Well that started it all," Wagner says over a glass of beer in one of Philadelphia's new brew pubs. "It took us eight years, but we visited and researched all 400. About 200 were still standing in some form. Those we photographed."


Today, Wagner and Dochter have collected enough information on Pennsylvania's breweries to write the definitive book on the subject- and someday they might do it. The pair have written magazine articles, led bus tours of dead breweries in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Wilkes-Barre, and created old brewery T-shirts and wall posters. Scientists putting the same time and effort into medical research could discover a cure for cancer.


Example: The only known copy of a book of brewery designs by 19th-century Philadelphia architect Otto Wolf was in Montreal. So Wagner went to Montreal to look at the book. While this passion for local brew history seems a bit extreme, Wagner's prodigious research has illuminated an important, mostly overlooked aspect of Philadelphia history.


The Quaker City for two centuries was the beer capital of America and one of the world's great beer cities. "In 1790, they were shipping Philadelphia porter to Calcutta. It was the best stuff around. Comparing British porter to Philadelphia porter was an insult," he says.


Mention Milwaukee and a sour look of disdain crosses Wagner's face. "Milwaukee was nothing until after Prohibition. In 1886, the government published the names of every brewery in the country. Philadelphia was the largest section in the book. There were maybe a dozen breweries in Milwaukee and more than a hundred in Philadelphia.


"I don't understand it," he says, "Everyone knows Milwaukee and no one remembers Brewerytown." In the 19th century, this tiny pocket of North Philadelphia had a dozen breweries within a seven block area- the greatest concentration of beermaking in the nation. The huge Bergner and Engel Brewery stretched over 10 acres and had a mile of railroad track and its own locomotive.


It was the largest brewery in America in the late 1870's, but soon fell to second place behind Busch of St. Louis. Parts of it are still standing. Also standing in old Brewerytown is the F.A. Poth brewery. The Louis Bergdoll plant at 29th and Parrish streets, designed by Otto Wolf, is now an apartment complex.


Philadelphia is littered with the remains of old breweries. There are 17 on Wagner's tour. In the Northern Liberties/Fishtown area are the hulks of Schmidt's, William Gretz, Henry Ortlieb, John Jacob Wolf and Proto breweries. Esslinger still stands at Ridge Ave. and Callowhill St. The huge Hohenadel brewery is crumbling by the railroad tracks in East Falls. At 12th St. and Montgomery Ave., the old Class & Nachod brewery is now a maintenance warehouse for Temple University.


Besides all the brewing in Philadelphia, a key event in American beermaking took place here in 1840. Wagner gets excited just telling the tale. "In 1840, John Wagner brought lager beer yeast from Germany to Philadelphia. It had never survived the long ship journey before. The rest is history. Within 10 years, everyone was making lager."


No, the Wagner's aren't related. But thanks to John Wagner, practically all American beer today is lager beer- sparkling, pale, golden. Goes great with Philadelphia soft pretzels.