Northeast Times (Philadelphia) October 25, 1989

Keeping the City's Brewing History Alive

By Jim Albert

Rich Wagner (l) and Rich Dochter (r), with brewery tour participants across the street.

This picture did not appear in the original article.


At the turn of the century, before Prohibition, Philadelphia beer was touted as some of the finest in the country.

Sure in the last couple of decades, names like Schmidt's and Ortlieb's haven't whistled past the taste buds of fine-beer connoisseurs, compared to the beer made by many of their European and American counterparts.

But in 1909, at least 50 breweries were operating in the city. Philadelphia beer was shipped to nearly all corners of the nation, with names like Esslinger, Continental, Philadelphia Old Stock (known as P.O.S.), Baltz, Hohenadel, and of course, Schmidt's and Ortlieb's.

During colonial days, Philadelphia beer was applauded as ale that was as fine as any being porudced in England. It was the ultimate compliment to the industry in that day, and still is today.

"The reputation of Philadelphia ale has but strengthened with the lapse of years; and, at the present time, the malt liquors made in Philadelphia take precedence in every market in the Union," wrote Edwin T. Freedley in a 1858 handbook on Philadelphia manufacturing industries.

"The qualities for which they are distinguished are purity, brilliancy of color, richness of flavor, and non-liability to deterioration in warm countries, qualities that result in part because of the peculiar characteristics of the Schuylkill water," Freedley wrote.

With the sale of Christian Schmidt & Sons B.C. to the G. Heileman brewers of Wisconsin, and the subsequent closing of Schmidt's Philadelphia plant at 2nd St. & Girard Ave., in the spring of 1987, the city was without a brewery for the first time since William Penn was around.

It was all started by the founding father of Pennsylvania. Penn erected the Pioneer Brew House at his home in Pennsbury, near Bristol, Bucks County in 1683.

From the very beginning, Philadelphia was frequently mentioned in the same breath as malt and hops.

The monopolization of the "mom and pop" breweries has played the largest role in the doom of Philadelphia's beer-making industry, says Rich Wagner, a Pennsylvania beer historian. Earlier in the century, Prohibition was a factor in the breweries demise as well.

Wagner is on a historical mission to keep Philadelphia's brewing tradition alive.

He will hold his third Philadelphia Brewery Tour on November 4. The popular bus excursion, which costs $25 and starts at 10 A.M. from the Home Sweet Homebrew shop at 2008 Sansom St., will visit more than a dozen former brewery establishments.

Combined with the planned opening of a "brew-pub," a bar that will brew the beer it sells, the city's brewing traditioin is being kept alive.

Wagner has researched more than 400 sites in Pennsylvania that were involved in brewing at one time or another. About half of the sites, he said., still have buildings in place. But that changes from day to day, as even the Schmidt's building is due for demolition.

Brewing beer was so big in Philadelphia at the turn of the century that a place known then as Brewerytown, between 30th and 33rd Sts. And Girard Ave. and Oxford St. had nothing but eleven breweries in a seven-block radius.

"At the turn of the century, Bergner & Engel, then at 32nd & Thompson Sts., was the second-largest brewer in the country, producing a quarter-million barrels a year," said Wagner. "They had a refrigerated train line running from Maine to Florida alone."

Schmidt's is on Wagner's tour, along with Ortlieb's which is now the Orlieb's Jazz Haus, and the F.A. Poth & Sons brewery at 31st & Jefferson Sts. in the old Brewerytown section.

Wagner is planning a tour stop for lunch at the Jazz Haus which is located at the location of the old Ortlieb's brewery in the 800 block of North Third St.

Meanwhile, with a little bit of luck, the newest wave in brewing will start the beer taps in time for the Christmas holiday. It's called the Samuel Adams Brew House, which will open soon in the Sansom Street Oyster House at 1516 Sansom St. The venture is owned by David Mink, owner of the Oyster House, and Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company.

Wagner is crossing his fingers that microbreweries like the Samuel Adams Brew House will ignite a trend that catches on in cities across the country.

According to Wagner, the Samuel Adams pub will be the third microbrewery to open in Pennsylvania. The others now operate in Pittsburgh and in Adamstown, Lancaster County.

If Stoudt's brewery in Adamstown is any indicator, the Samuel Adams Brew House can look forward to profitable times.

"There has been a trend towards bigness," Wagner explained, "Just fifty years ago, there was a DeSoto and a Hudson and all kins of car manufacturers; now thtere's GM and Chrysler, or whatever.

"The best-case scenario would be a microbrewery or three in every town," Wagner continued. "It's happening on the west coast. What? Do we have a different customer here? Are people more trendy out west? If it takes five years for trends to get from one coast to another, we should see them all in just a matter of time."

As Wagner sees it, the microbrewer is emerging as an alternative to mass production and the light-beer phenomenon of the 1980's. The home-brew of the microbreweries is typically a thicker, richer ale that's long on taste and calories. Since his visit to California three years ago, Wagner said, the number of microbreweries has doubled there.

Wagner noted the example of a British group that grew irritated by the constant influx of light beers. They called themselves the Campaign for Real Ale, and they voiced their concerns loudly enough to persuade British brewers to make traditional beers.

He senses the need for such a movement here.

"When does the tail start wagging the do? Sooner or later, the consumers will tell the beer companies what they want," he reasoned. "The most famous beer is the one that offends the fewest. But there's a reversal of trends taking place. Today, though, the microbreweries only account for one percent of the nation's beer production."