Zymurgy Spring 1991

The Beers and Breweries of Philadelphia

By Rich Wagner

We've all heard about the glorious "good old days," but did you ever stop to think what things were really like hundreds of years ago? If we ever got a chance to live just one day in the past, we might find, in the words of Carly Simon, that "These are the good old days." Some homebrewers may still be interested in recreating colonial beer recipes. The results will demonstrate that our taste in beer has changed dramatically in the last 300 years, and even with attention to cleanliness, these beers will not be for the timid palate.

Colonial Beer

Of course, colonists were just learning how to get along in the New World, and like pioneers, they had to make do with what was available. Beer was made from pumpkins, persimmons, cornstalks and Jerusalem artichokes. Hop substitutes and other flavorings included: wild carrot seed, coriander seed, brown sugar, horehound and wormwood. Purl was a type of beer made from Roman wormwood, roots, horseradish, dried orange peel, juniper berries and crushed seeds of Seville oranges. Porter beer could be made from the root of gentian, or strictly malt and hops when available.

"Our drink has been beer and punch, made of Rum and water. Our Beer was mostly made of Molasses which well boyld, until it makes a very tolerable drink, but note they make Mault, and Mault Drink begins to be common, especially in the Ordinaries and the Houses of the more substantial People. In our great Town there is an able Man (William Frampton), that has set up a large Brew House, in order to furnish the People with good Drink, both there and up and down the River." (William Penn: "A Further Account of the Province of Pennsylvania And Its Improvements." circa 1680's).

Recipes For Pre-Industrial Beer

Molasses Beer

"…the liquor is to be prepared, as before for Beer directed: and to every hundred of Molasses Thirty-six or Forty Gallons of Liquor is to be added. (Mary Eales: one cask, 5 pounds molasses, ½ pints of yeast), and they must be stirred well together till the whole be dissolved, and then up with it into the Copper, adding thereto three pounds of Lignum Vitae (also known as guaiacum, a tropical tree), one of dry balm, and four ounces of Nutmegs, Cloves and Cinnamon together; next clap on the blind Head, Lute fast, and digest 24 hours, when it must be left to run out into its Receiver (working tun), and as it is fit to set to Work, the yeast is to be put in, and leave it to work sufficiently, when it is to be turned up, and suffered to have Age, to mellow , and to become brisk to drink, and it will be excellent Liquor, very wholsom for Man's body." (Worlidge, London, 1704).

Later books would record what had been known and passed around through word-of-mouth: adding a little orange powder would make London Ale, and ale made from scurvy grass which was rich in Vitamin C and, according to the Complete Family Brewer (Philadelphia, 1805), "some cherry brandy thrown into the bunghole would stop (beer) from fretting."

William Harrison, 15th century (Cavicchi)

80 gallons water

8 bushels of malt

½ bushel of wheat meal

½ bushel oats

2 pounds hops

Gervase Markham, 1817

6 bushels malt

1 peck of peas

½ peck of wheat

½ peck of oats

1½ pounds hops

Shibden Hall Museum brochure, circa 1718 (Cavicchi)

63 gallons water

5 bushels of malt

6 pound hops

1 quart yeast

George Watins, 1768 (Cavicchi)

12 pails of water

5 bushels of malt

5 pounds hops

1 quart yeast

In 1788 Jeremy Belknap, Boston minister, sent his recipe for spruce beer to Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush; "the most superlatively excellent beer in the world (is made by) boiling the spruce in maple sap; I know of no other liquor in the universe that can match it."

The price of beer in Philadelphia in 1811 was as follows: Table beer $1 for small keg, $1.50 for half barrel; Middle beer, $2 per half barrel; Strong beer, $3 per half barrel; Ale, $2.33 per small keg, $3.50 per half barrel. In 1790 Farnham hops were grown in Philadelphia.

Commercial Brewing Establishments

From the time of Penn's first visit to Philadelphia, brewers were practicing their trade. Two case studies provide a glimpse at firms that had roots in colonial Philadelphia and went on to be successful industrial enterprises of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

John F. Betz & Son Inc.

Robert Hare was the son of an English porter brewer. He emigrated with ₤ 1,500 from his father and came to Philadelphia to establish a brewery that stood at the corner of Callowhill and New Market streets and was in business by the time of the Revolutionary War. Hare was aligned with those favoring independence. When British General Howe occupied the city from 1777-1778, Robert Hare fled to Virginia leaving his brewery in the hands of British and Tory sympathizers.

Robert Hare and J. Warren are said to be the first two brewers to introduce porter brewing to the United States. On July 20, 1788, George Washington wrote to Clement Biddle, importer and merchant, "I beg you will send me a gross of Mr. Hare's best bottled porter if the price is not much enhanced by the copious draughts you took of it at the late procession." A year later Hare was a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention and in 1795 he was made Speaker of the Senate.

In 1789 George Washington presented his "Buy American" policy by stating he would drink only porter made in America. The porter Washington was drinking was that made by Robert Hare and shipped to Mount Vernon.

In 1804 the establishment became known as the Gaul Brewery and was operated by Frederick Gaul, an experienced German brewer from Frankfurt-on Main who emigrated to America prior to the Revolution.

John F. Betz came to Philadelphia in 1867 from New York, where he had been brewing for fourteen years. He took a job at the Gaul Brewery until purchasing it in 1880. Prior to Betz's ownership, only ale and porter were brewed. Betz commenced brewing lager beer as well. John F. Betz became very active in the real estate market in the city. One of his other concerns was a beer garden at Riverside above the Wissahickon Creek on the Schuylkill River. He put in a line of little steamboats to carry his patrons up the river from Fairmount Dam. Betz produced an IPA of 6.5 % a.b.v. and an East India Pale Ale at 7.5% a.b.v. Betz's half-and-half was a mixture of two-year old ale and stout, and Betz's Best was a lager that was said to rival Bavarian imports. The Betz brewery reopened after Prohibition and remained in business until 1939.

Robert Smith

Another brewer who withstood the test of time was Robert Smith. What was to become Robert Smith's Ale Brewery had its humble beginnings in 1774 when Joseph Potts established a brewery at Fifth and Minor Streets in Philadelphia. During the British occupation of the city, the brewery was seized and used as a barracks.

In 1786 Henry Pepper purchased Potts' brewery and operated it quite successfully. His wealth and philanthropy were demonstrated when he provided the clock and bell in the tower of Independence Hall. Upon his death in 1898 he donated large sums of money to many charitable and cultural institutions of the city. His son George headed the brewery and directed it successfully before leasing the establishment to Robert Smith.

In 1837 Smith came to America after having served an apprenticeship with the Bass Brewery in Burton-on-Trent, England. He began brewing on St. John Street near the Delaware River. He became acquainted with Pepper and Sickel and in 1845 purchased their brewery.

The Robert Smith India Pale Ale Brewing Company was incorporated in 1887 and moved to a new plant at 38th and Girard (right across the Schuylkill River from "Brewerytown"). It operated until Prohibition as the oldest brewery in continuous operation in America. In 1891 Robert Smith was described as a "hale and hearty" 84-year-old who was still running the brewery. He died two years later and the business was reorganized as the Robert Smith Ale Brewing Co. owned by Schmidt's Brewery of Philadelphia. The Smith brewery produced mainly ales and stouts. Production figures for the turn of the century are: 1902: 53,521 bbl.; 1905: 61,910 bbl.; 1907: 64,400 bbl. Brands included Tiger Head Ale, XXX Stout, Porter, IPA, Old Mystery, Imperial Burton and English Pale.

Lager Beer Comes to the New World

In 1840, John Wagner brewed America's first lager beer in a small home brewery on St. John Street, near Poplar St. He produced no more than about 500 barrels a year but was able to keep his lager beer saloon going nearby on Front Street. In fact, if his saloon was like most of the day, the German immigrants quickly drained the supply of lager, encouraging brewers to build ever larger breweries. One such establishment began renting lager beer vaults over in Brewerytown to meet the demand.

In 1849 Charles Engel and Charles Wolf purchased a property called Fountain Green on the banks of the Schuylkill River. They excavated the site and built underground vaults. Their brewery was the city's and the nation's first large-scale lager beer brewery. Unfortunately, in 1868 Engel & Wolf's brewery was demolished as part of the city's effort to remove all industry from the Schuylkill River above the Fairmount Water Works. Charles Wolf retired and Engel formed a partnership with Gustavus Bergner who had built a brewery at 32nd and Thompson streets in 1857. The location of this establishment was just up and over the banks of the Schuylkill River in what would become one of the world's largest brewing centers. Brewerytown, as it came to be known, was a ten block industrial neighborhood consisting almost exclusively of breweries (there was a keg factory and eventually a bottling equipment manufacturer). Surrounding Brewerytown were another half dozen or so breweries, including Robert Smith's across the river.

The following account from Prohibition days in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reminisced about a lost Philadelphia tradition: "…the air was as nourishing as vaporized bread. It seeped everywhere… (and it was)… populated by brewmasters as ample in girth as the barrels among which they pursued their craft, by titanic drivers in leather aprons, by giant draft horses with backs broad enough to play pinocle on, by agile gymnasts, by musical maennerchoir and flaxen-haired backfische. It was a place for family bakeries and rich delicatessens, a neighborhood scrubbed to within an inch of its life and resounding to the guttural language of Goethe and Schiller…"

There was some mystery about the German beer gardens. They were supposed to be shut down on Sunday, but according to one yellowed newspaper clipping, the "masses prefer beer to the law, and the voice of the people is all powerful. It is a singular fact that most of the old mansions in the vicinity of the Schuylkill are being turned into beer houses… The parlors, which were once solemn with gentility, are now gleeful with song, and under the paternal oaks the Teuton sits down to sport." The industrial neighborhood gave way to the neighborhood that extended much further. It was literally a piece of Germany in Philadelphia's back yard.

The Bergner & Engel Brewing Co. was incorporated in 1879 at 32nd & Master Streets and grew to encompass twelve acres. B & E was one of the the nation's largest brewers and produced a quarter million barrels per year by the turn of the century. This brewery was surrounded by other breweries that made 50,000, 100,000 and 200,000 barrels per year. In 1879 the production of all the city's breweries was about equal to that of the Schmidt's brewery when it closed in 1987.

When Schmidt's closed, it was the first time since William Penn described that "able man" (William Frampton) in 1683 that the city had been without a brewery. The Schmidt's brewery was founded in 1860 and grew with the rise in popularity of lager beer. It was a victim of the recent "beer wars" and was producing McSorley's Cream Ale and Prior Double Dark Beer. McSorley's was the closest thing to the old Tiger Head Brand that Schmidt's acquired from Robert Smith in 1880. It was being brewed with ale yeast in open Redwood fermenters- the city's last vestigal remnant of Philadelphia's English style beers.

Ale is Back in town

After a two year hiatus, Philadelphia is back in the beer business. While it can't compete with Schmidt's production, the Samuel Adams Brew House is as fine a brewpub as you'll find anywhere in North America. It opened in 1989 to a standing-room-only crowd. The beers currently available are Ben Franklin gold (a classic "best bitter"), Poor Richard's Amber (a classic red-hued English ale with well balanced malt and hop flavors that makes it a popular choice) and George Washington's Porter (a heavy dark strong ale enhanced by a drop of honey to smooth out this potent brew that most certainly will become one of the city's favorites!).

Philadelphia Brewers: Then, Now, Tomorrow

You've seen how Philadelphia became a mecca for brewing from the very start. British ales proliferated and were made by what would be called "brewpubs" today. The waves of German immigration produced a thriving lager beer trade that lasted until very recently. They say history repeats itself. With the Samuel Adams Brew House, Philadelphia is back to one lone ale brewery. But the Dock Street Brewing Company is preparing to open with an elaborate $2 million pub brewery in the spring of 1991. What lies ahead is anybody's guess, but somehow I don't think we'll ever see the likes of Brewerytown again.

Works Cited

Bull, Don, et al. American Breweries. Bullworks, Trumbull, CT. 1984.

Cavicchi, Clare Lise. Beer Brewing at Pennsbury Manor. Pennsbury Manor, Morrisville, PA. 1987.

Cissna, William D. "A Tradition Brewing." Pennsylvania Heritage. Fall, 1985. v. XI, no. 4.

Eales, Mary. "Recipe for Philadelphia Beer." The Compleat Confectioner. London, 1742.

Finkel, Ken. "The Tall, Cold Tale of Philadelphia Beer, Froth and All." The Inquirer Magazine. July 4, 1982.

Mendte, Robert. "Shed a Tear for the Glories of Beer." Today, The Inquirer Magazine. September 22, 1974.

Moeller, William. "The Brewing Industry, Eastern Pennsylvania and Philadelphia." Brewers Digest. Sept. 1966.

One Hundred Years of Brewing. Arno Press. New York, 1974.

Wagner, Rich. Chronology of Brewing History in Philadelphia. German Society of Pennsylvania. 1987.

Worlidge, John. Dictionarium Rustioum & Urbanicum. London, 1704.

Rich Wagner has been homebrewing since 1983. He has demonstrated colonial brewing and malting techniques to historical groups (See Zymurgy, Spring 1989, Vol. 12, No. 1). Since 1980, he and associate Rich Dochter have visited more than 400 sites throughout Pennsylvania and verified over 200 brewery buildings still standing. The two have conducted group tours of these buildings and a similar tour for the city of Pittsburgh sponsored by the Landmarks Foundation.