Zymurgy Winter 1985
The Brewing History of Pittsburgh
A Microcosm of the United States Brewing Industry
By Rich Dochter and Rich Wagner
Pittsburgh is probably America's premier example of a mill town. Situated at a vital river junction, Pittsburgh was first a military stronghold and then a focal point of America's advance westward beyond the Appalachian Mountains. As the country grew in the early 19th century, Pittsburgh again was at the right spot to combine natural resources and transportation. Heavy industrial buildings soon were built on the banks of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which form the westward-flowing Ohio River at their confluence.
Over the years, immigrants from central and eastern Europe flocked to Pittsburgh to man the furnaces and dig the coal that fueled them, forming the core of the city's population. The endless steel mills and the rich ethnic heritage combined to make Pittsburgh one of the real strong points of America's amazing success in the 19th and 20th centuries.
However, from today's vantage point, we see mills closing, neighborhoods changing and economic disaster for entire communities, We witness a shift in the nation's economic and industrial focus. The terms "displaced labor supply" and "sunbelt migration" are used to illustrate the current problems of this great industrial giant To appreciate the texture of this fascinating city, to learn of its past, and perhaps catch a glimpse of its future, we will examine the breweries that once provided workers needed refreshment from the heat of a blast furnace or dusty coal mine.
Brewing has been a substantial enterprise in Pittsburgh for 190 years. Let us attempt to understand the essentials of its development. The flow of industrial technology, immigration, business organization, transportation, labor relations, the impact of advertising and "bigness" as a trend in the brewing industry are all amply illustrated in an examination of Pittsburgh's brewing heritage.
Strong Marketing Position
The Pittsburgh Brewing Co., producer of Iron City Beer, is a smartly managed regional brewery that has been able to resist the competition of the huge national breweries by maintaining a very strong position in its local marketing area. Through the introduction of specialty beers-Iron City Golden Lager, Iron City Dark Lager, I.C. Light as well as commemorative cans designed with collectors in mind, the brewery projects an image of producing "Pittsburgh's beer." The buildings are well maintained and present a view of an old-style brewing complex.
The Oberbrau Haus tourist attraction features an older, carefully-restored portion of the brewery that retails Pittsburgh Brewing Co. breweriana to the public. Prearranged group tours are treated to samplings of products, and guests are encouraged to walk around the hall and inspect the displayed breweriana. However, visiting a working brewery is not the only point of interest, for here we are put in touch with the roots of Pittsburgh's brewing industry. The Pittsburgh Brewing Co. was formed in 1899 when 21 area brewers consolidated their production, marketing and management in order to improve efficiency and cut expenses.
Pittsburgh's Earliest Brewers
The Virginia Gazette reports that two brewers were operating at Fort Pitt between 1765 and 1780 to supply the needs of the British military in the area.
The first commercial brewery seems to have been founded in 1795 following the turmoil of the Revolutionary War and the subsequent Whiskey Rebellion. Peter Shiras, a Scotsman who had emigrated to America in 1765, arrived in Pittsburgh in 1795. With Robert Smith as partner, Shiras purchased the ruined site of Fort Pitt with the intent of producing ale and porter for the population of about 800 to 1,000 and the westward travelers.
In 1798 James O'Hara and John Reed began operating a brewery and distillery on the other side of the Monongahela River in the McKeesport area. O'Hara ran the brewery and is remembered as an important merchant, industrialist and procuring agent for the military in the Three Rivers area. The Pittsburgh Mercury recorded the operation of this business, known as the Point Brewery in 1803.
By this time, Pittsburgh had grown to a population of 1,500 souls and the Louisiana Purchase opened the river trade all the way to New Orleans, allowing the brewery to prosper. In 1806 the Point Brewery's price list included porter at $7.90 per barrel, strong beer at $6 per barrel and middling beer at $3.50 per barrel. By 1815 Shiras had been joined by three other brewers: John Gorman, Joseph Kinley, and the partnership of George Lewis and Andrew Scott.
The four breweries operating separately produced 10,000 barrels annually and consumed 25,000 bushels of grain, supplying a population of 9,000 as well the western trade. In 1818 they were joined by Joseph Wainwright, who built e largest contemporary brewery in town a 36th and Charlotte Streets. Wainwright was already an industrialist of note, having wool, grain and food oil mills in operation around Pittsburgh. His first product was English common beer, and he later introduced a strong English ale. The owner incorporated as the Wainwright Brewing Co. in 1878.
Early 19th Century Taste Trends
The brewers we've discussed all produced ale, porter and common beers in the English tradition. Cultured with top fermenting yeast, the beverage was ready for consumption, at room temperature, shortly after it was brewed. Although many workers in the area had come from Germany, production methods for the most part were modeled after English breweries.
As the British domination of the area diminished and America responded to its peculiar circumstances, the importance of beer as a common beverage lagged behind distilled spirits. Vast distances, poor transport, abundant corn and Americans' taste for cheap whiskey and rum all contributed to the fact that literally thousands of distilleries sprang up in western Pennsylvania. Although the educated elite,
The government and many churches deplored the effects of whiskey or spirits, as the industry developed and thrived as the brewing industry fell into the doldrums, According to Matthew Casey, a Philadelphia writer. Pittsburgh brewing production dropped from a dollar value of $91,000 1815 to $35,000 in 1819.
The brewing industry did not disappear. A few new breweries were formed and production increased, but by no means kept up with the overall growth of the United States.
In the 1840s several factors emerged exerting great influence and reversing the decline in the importance of brewing in the Pittsburgh area. German immigration, heavy and increasing industrialization, improved rail and canal transportation and the introduction of speedy clipper ships all combined to reshape the brewing industry by facilitating the introduction of lager beer. Lager is a sparkling, refreshing, low alcohol beverage that is brewed with a bottom-fermenting yeast. In addition, it is lagered, or stored for several months at low temperatures to produce a mellow and cold aged beer.
This was the beverage of choice in Germany, where it was perfected in the early 19th century. George Heroncourt, a Cincinnati brewer, recorded in his diary that German-Americans were not impressed by the English-style beer and ale that was available in the United States. Many of the German immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s were wealthy families fleeing political turmoil and were seeking a niche in America's expanding industry. Lager yeast survived the voyage from Germany in clipper ships and entered the American brewing picture around 1842 when it appeared in Philadelphia.
The date the first lager beer was brewed in Pittsburgh is a matter of conjecture with at least three brewers laying claim to the feat. According to Theodore F. Straub, writing in 1902, his father, John N. Straub, brewed lager beer in January or February of 1849 at his brewery in Allegheny City from yeast purchased in Philadelphia and shipped by canal boat. The Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1911 recorded that the first lager in Pittsburgh was produced by Fred Krauss in 1850 at his brewery on Fifth Avenue at Robinson Street.
Other sources claim this distinction should be given to the Frauenheim and Vilsak, the founders of what was to become the Iron City Brewery and later the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. Regardless of who can lay claim to being the first to introduce the product to Pittsburgh, it is a fact that lager beer-that sparkling beverage that tasted so good after a day in the mill or mine but still allowed the worker to function-came to dominate the local market over the next 20 years.
Technology of Early Lager
The Eberhardt and Ober Brewery was founded in 1852 by Conrad Eberhardt in a section of Pittsburgh that was once called Allegheny City. The operation is a veritable case study in the effect of lager beer production on the design and construction of breweries in the mid- to late-19th century.
Lager brewing is much more complex than ale brewing. Different methods required the erection of mammoth plant complexes. The remnants of many still stand. Low temperature requirements necessitated massive excavation and construction of huge "vaults" where beer could be fermented and stored. Eberhardt and Ober had three rock vaults capable of housing 5,000 barrels of lager beer and an ice house that held 2,000 tons of ice. Six miles away on Pine Creek the brewery owned ice ponds and a 6,000-ton capacity ice house. They were the first brewers in Pittsburgh to use steam power production. They had two steam boilers that powered two engines and heated the brew kettle. Even with these innovations, in 1880 the brewery required 15 employees to staff the four-story malt house, the two-story brew house and to produce 14,000 barrels of beer annually.
Equipment installations required the huge complex to produce relatively small quantities of lager beer. Therefore, the growing demand and the availability of cheap grain prompted tremendous expansion in the number of brewing firms in the 1870s and 1880s.
Brewing Technology Improves
Across the Allegheny River south of Eberhardt and Ober at 24th and Smallman Streets was the site of the Phoenix Brewery. In 1845, Wood and Hughes founded an ale and porter brewery on this spot. The brewery operated under a variety of proprietors until Joseph Spencer and James McKay purchased it in 1862.
They began to produce lager beer and built the company into a substantial enterprise with three buildings covering a total of two-and-one-half acres. Annual sales reached an impressive S160,000 in 1880, with a market stretching into Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Maryland. Their 70 employee produced 200 barrels daily, and the weekly payroll was a staggering $842.
By the time William Tann, a renowned citizen and large-scale bottler, purchased the company in 1890 and incorporated the business as the Phoenix Brewing Co., mechanical refrigeration was impacting the industry. A variety of machines to produce artificial ice or o refrigerate entire rooms were developed and adapted to the brewing industry by the last quarter of the 19th century. This technological development freed the brewer from dependence on natural ice and the whims of mother nature. Refrigerating machines allowed an increase in production, but increased the mechanical complexities of the brewing, fermenting and aging processes.
Brewers, in general, often were enthusiastic innovators when it came to new machinery and labor saving gadgets. Technological improvements of the time included steam heat, steam power equipment, mechanical refrigeration, improved metal fabrication and finishing. These developments prompted an updating of Pittsburgh's breweries in the 1880s and 1890s and provided even more supporting industries. Selecting quality machinery became a competitive edge in determining the success or failure of a brewery. Those who did not keep pace, or fitted themselves with inferior or inappropriate contraptions, were doomed to failure. In this respect the Phoenix plant was successful, as it continued as a branch of the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. until 1920.
Labor in a 19th Century Brewery
The Keystone Brewing Co. in Millvale was constructed from the ground up beginning in 1885. It prospered and production reached 38,000 barrels by 1887 and 60,000 barrels by 1895. The Keystone Brewing Co. also participated in the 1899 merger that formed the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. and operated as a branch under the direction of Fred Brunig until 1920. A bottle shop was added that was considered to be speedy and efficient in the days when most beer was bottled by hand.
Mount Oliver is a separate municipality surrounded by Pittsburgh. At 409 Brownsville Road the Hilltop Brewery was constructed at the beginning of the 20th century. It also joined the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. consolidation and remained open as a branch until 1920.
What were the working conditions of the time for the numerous brewers, maltsters, drivers, stablemen, coopers, mechanics, laborers and clerks employed by the breweries? In the early days breweries were largely family operations, and any outside laborers had a tendency to become "quasi-family members." For many, the work was seasonal, brewing only in the winter months and finding other factory work during the warmer seasons. To train skilled workers brewers generally apprenticed their sons to another brewer for periods that ranged from two to seven years.
But as the industry grew, wage employees became more numerous and sporadic labor unrest dates from the 1840s. Long hours and seven-day weeks were common. The work was arduous and conditions frequently were less than safe, but the brewery worker generally enjoyed a slightly higher wage and better working conditions than comparable workers in other trades.
By 1886, local efforts across the eastern United States coalesced into the formation of the National Union of Brewers of the U.S. and a contract was signed with the management organization, the U.S. Brewers Association. The contract provided for 10-hour day, six-day week, and a $60 to $72 monthly wage. The brewing industry became a strong union industry and by 1910 almost 100 percent unionized.
In 19"!1 Eberhardt and Ober division of the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. was paying plant engineers $25, brewers $21 and drivers $17 to $19 weekly.
So it would appear that all those smiling, beer drinking employees in old photographs were somewhat better off than the average industrial worker, but still were involved in a demanding occupation.
Henry Schmelz's Brewery in the West Side section of Pittsburgh operated a small brewery from 1874 to 1890 and supplied the neighborhood with lager beer. He produced 276 barrels in 1878, 301 in 1879, and only about 1,000 when the brewery closed in 1890. East along the Monongahela, at 2600 Josephine Street, the former Washington Brewery stands as an apartment house. Although a bit larger than Schmelz's, it was another "hole in the wall," a small scale lager beer operation, probably supplying a neighborhood market. It dates back to 1865 when Henry Wilhelm began brewing on the site, and by 1878 produced 2,200 barrels of beer. Wilhelm moved to Pittsburgh in 1856, engaging himself as a cooper until he started brewing. The Washington Brewery joined the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. merger and was closed. In any case, these two breweries are representative of the mam· small concerns that closed in the 1890i.
As the growth in demand slowed and the capacity of the larger breweries expanded through improved methods of production, the neighborhood brewer was forced out of business. To illustrate, in 1880 no Pittsburgh brewer produced 20,000 barrels in one year. By 1905 few, if any. produced less.
Consolidation Forms Modern Industry
The old Duquesne Brewery at the corner of 22nd and Mary Streets produced beer until 1972 when lagging sales and a complex labor situation caused the company to fold. The $10-million brew house opened in 1950 and increased the brewery's capacity to 2 million barrels per year, making it the city's largest until its demise. Since closure, the brewery building has been reused by a variety of light manufacturing firms, private craftsmen and artists. Consider the origins of this impressive plant. In March 1899 a group of south-side businessmen formed the Duquesne Brewing Co. and had their lager on the market by July 1900. They appear to have sensed the favorable prospects for a large operation using the latest equipment. The first year they sold a total of 96,000 barrels and the following year sold 125.000 barrels. The most modern bottling machinery and mechanical refrigerators available were installed.
1905 the directors of Duquesne, Lutz Brewing Co., and 15 small brewers combined to form the Independent Brewing Co. of Pittsburgh. This move was similar to the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. merger in 1899, but in this instance only two of the brewers were major manufacturers. The tendency toward consolidation was spurred by the slowdown in growth of demand, benefits of streamlined management, technical advances increasing capacity for the well-equipped brewer.
advantages in mass purchasing and the beginnings of "hard-sell" advertising.
Consolidation offered the small brewer the opportunity to have a share in a large corporation rather than going broke in his small brewery. Both the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. and the Independent Brewing Co. of Pittsburgh closed some branches soon after consolidation, with Pittsburgh Brewing Co. having 14 and Independent Brewing Co. having 11 branches in operation until Prohibition. This style of merging was occurring statewide from Erie to Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia. The Home Brewing Co. at Eighth Street and the Railroad in the Braddock section, operated as a branch of the Independent Brewing Co., opened briefly after Prohibition as the General Braddock Brewing Co. It is an excellent example of a "mill gate brewery."
20th Century Competition
The former Fort Pitt Brewery stands at the corner of 16th and Mary Streets in Sharpsburg. The outstanding feature of this brewery and of the Derby Brewing Co. is that they both were founded in the 20th century. These companies were modern attempts to broaden competition in the industry. They had the advantage of not being burdened by obsolete buildings and equipment, but results were mixed as the trend was still toward consolidation in the brewing business.
Fort Pitt opened after Prohibition, but by 1937 was still losing money-$97,000 on 82,000 barrels. However, fortune smiled and Fort Pitt was briefly the top brewer in the city. They produced 1.2 million barrels, employed 800 workers and earned $2 million in profits in 1950. But fierce competition regionally and nationally combined with steel, coal and brewery strikes in 1952 to send Fort Pitt into the red. By 1954 they had lost $924,000 and by 1958 were in receivership. Fortunately the beautiful art deco-style buildings have been preserved and reused by a light metal fabrication firm.
The Hazelwood Brewing Co. at 5011 Lytle St. in the Glenwood section of Pittsburgh was organized in 1909 and had an annual capacity of 100,000 barrels. Their labels included Hazlewood Old Style Beer and Old Coach Ale. During Prohibition, they had a near-beer license and rumor has it that some of the real beer slipped out. At any rate, they were very quick to market their product in 1933 when Prohibition came to an end. They provided employment for about 50 workers until the brewery closed in 1939 as a result of problems between stockholders and management.
You can visualize the many effects this drift over the years had on the economy and on the society of Pittsburgh. You can imagine the tremendous energy it took the enterprising people of Pittsburgh to establish these industrial giants. In brewing we have seen German families stake their fortunes on a chance to succeed in America by catering to the developing taste for the lager beer of their homeland. A goodly number of these families were so successful that in their lives, their brewery buildings and their advertising, we can see just what an immigrant thought success in America meant.
The economic and scientific developments affecting each other over the course of time in the Pittsburgh brewing industry are most striking to us. The ale breweries lost ground as taste and price favored distilled products. Improvements in technology and scientific developments made lager beer an attractive alternative to hard liquor. Consequently the industry boomed in the 1870s and 1880s and breweries proliferated. The trend continued as science and technology made large-volume breweries possible, creating an over capacity and driving small operations out of business. When Prohibition descended in 1920, it must have seemed like an invasion from Mars to the brewery workers and the communities in Pittsburgh for whom beer was one of the basics of life.
After all this traveling, thinking and several glasses of beer, our minds are clouded by visions of bygone breweries and beers, but one thing is certain. We now have a much better sense of Pittsburgh and its breweries than before the tour.
American Brewer; "Pittsburgh: History of Beer and a market." Part I, 6/60, Part II, 7/60.
Arno Press; Beer: Its History and Economic Value as a National Beverage, 1880 (Arno Press 1972).
Arno Press; 100 Years of Brewing: A Supplement to the Western Brewer. H.S. Rich & Co. Chicago, Ill. 1903 (Arno Press 1974). Brown, Stanley; The History of Beer and Ale in the U.S. Little, Brown & Co. Boston, Mass. 1962.
Edwards, Richard; Industries of Pittsburgh . (1879-80).
Friedrich & Bull; Register of U.S. Breweries 1876-1976. Holly Press, Stamford, Conn. 1976.
Greater Pittsburgh; "The New Fort Pitt: Beer, Overcoats and Music." 12/19/52. Pittsburgh City Directory; 1866-67, 1878-79, 1894, 1909, 1935, 1937.
Swetnam, George; Pittsburgh Press, "Two Centuries of Suds." 11/18/73.
Rich Wagner (Hatboro) and Rich Dochter (Lock Haven) have contributed articles to zymurgy on Pennsylvania's breweries in Vol. 6, No. 2 (Lauer's Brewery, Reading) Vol. 7, No. 1 (Bube's Brewery, Lancaster) and Vol. 5, No. 2 (American Breweries We Once Knew).