All About Beer Magazine May 2003

Old Breweries, New Beer Leading the Charge for Urban Renewal

By Greg Kitsock

America is dotted with the corpses of old breweries. You might have passed them while driving through some forgotten inner-city neighborhood: brick-and- morter behemoths, four to five stories high, sometimes with gaps in the wall where copper brewkettles and other objects of value were extracted.

In neighborhoods like Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhein, Philadelphia's Brewerytown, Baltimore's Brewers Hill and Boston's Roxbury and Jamaica Plains, these early lager plants were once part of the city's economic backbone. Some were almost self-sufficient communities, encompassing brewhouse, stockhouse, power plant, administrative offices, stable, bottling plant, and Bierstube, where thirsty workers could down a few on the house after a hard day's shift.

The mass consolidation of mid-century drove most out of business. The buildings, according to Pennsylvania brewery historian Rich Wagner, became "white elephants"; too expensive to develop, too much trouble to tear down.

In time, the real estate beneath the brewery might become valuable enough, or the building become enough of a public nuisance, to summon the wrecker's ball. Wagner, who along with his research partner Rich Dochter has been documenting brewing history and organizing brewery tours since 1980, has seen this happen too often. Last year, Schmidt's of Philadelphia, a once-powerful regional capable of turning out over 3 million barrels a year, bit the dust. "It's a vacant lot ready to become something else," says Wagner. "There's talk of building artists' lofts."

Sometimes, these old brewery complexes can be turned into showcases. The Jax brewery in New Orleans became an upscale shopping center. The Stegmaier plant in Wilkes-Barre, PA, one of the architectural gems of the Northeast, was saved from destruction by preservationists and breweriana collectors and now houses a post office distribution center and federal office space.

"If you can go into a place that used to be a brewery and make it a brewery again, that's icing on the cake," adds Wagner.

A few urban homesteaders have done just that.

Pennsylvania Pioneers

Among the most successful is Tom Pastorius of Pittsburgh, PA. Tom's ancestor, Franz Pastorius, brought the first boatload of German settlers to the New World in 1683, and founded the city of Germantown. Tom, a pioneer in his own right, brought authentic German brewing back to Pittsburgh, transforming a decaying group of nineteenth-century edifices into a prosperous brewery/restaurant/beer garden.

Pastorius began contract-brewing his Pennsylvania Pilsner (later shortened to Penn Pilsner) at Pittsburgh Brewing Co. in the mid-1980's. A non-compete clause in his contract, however, prohibited him from selling locally. That gave him an added incentive to find a site for his Penn Brewery. Feeling that an old brewery building would add "charm and authenticity" to his business, he scanned a 1902 business directory, photocopied the brewery listings and went hunting.

The directory led him to the Eberhardt and Ober Brewery on Pittsburgh's North Side, at the corner of Troy Hill Rd. and Vinial St. The firm was founded in 1852 by C. Eberhardt, who is said to have been the first in town to use steam power. In 1899, Eberhardt and Ober merged with 19 other breweries in and around the city to form the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. The plant continued to turn out its E & O and Dutch Club brands until 1952.

Pastorius purchased the five remaining buildings for $170,000 and began renovating them in 1987, installing his restaurant/brewery in what used to be the keg-filling area of the old brewery. The complex back then wasn't exactly postcard material; windows were broken, a courtyard was strewn with old tires, ivy was prying apart the bricks. But the foundatiion was solid. "These building's are massive," observed Pastorius. "The floors in the brewhouse are three feet thick." He acknowledges, however, that there is a down side: "When you're installing new equipment, you have to drill through those walls and floors."

"I used to think of them looking like castles," says Wagner of old breweries. The German immigrants who founded these companies, he adds, "intended to build buildings that would last hundreds of years and become their legacies."

The neighborhood around the brewery, nicknamed "Deutschtown" after the ethnic make-up of the residents, hasn't undergone a Cinderella transformation, but the signsw of gentrification are apparent. A local developer, notes Pastorius is sinking $80 million into turning some of the original Heinz buildings nearby into condominiums.

More important for the brewery, however, was the opening of two new sports stadiums about 12 blocks away: PNC Park, home turf of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Heinz Field, where the Pittsburgh Steelers play. Penn beers have a major presence in both parks. In addition, five new bars have opened along the route to the stadiums, all of which serve Pastorius' beer. "You can drink your way down there and back again," he laughs.

Prime Philadelphia Sites

On the opposite side of the state, in Philadelphia, Tom Kehoe and Bill Barton of Yards Brewing Co. had outgrown two facilities and were desperately searching for a third. As Barton recalls, he was driving through one of the city's "edgier" neighborhoods when his wife spotted an old building with the words "Bottling Department" written on the façade. Barton and Kehoh contacted Wagner, and learned that the structure once housed the Weisbrod & Hess Oriental Brewery (closed in 1938). The partners were able to acquire the property- which was serving as a warehouse for supermarket equipment- "for next to nothing," says Barton.

The complex consists of three buildings arranged in a U-shape surrounding a cobblestone courtyard. "Renovation took us 14 months, seven days a week," says Barton. Finally in April, 2002, they fired up their 25 barrel brewhouse, which sits on the second floor of a building that once served as bottling plant and cooperage. There is no brewpub attached, although Yards does have a 3,000 square foot tasting room with a makeshift bar and pool table.

Weisbrod & Hess was founded in 1880 by two German immigrants, George Weisbrod and Christian Hess, who originally intended to brew just enough beer for their saloon on Germantown Avenue. In time, their brewery turned out about 300,000 barrels a year. Barton, by comparison, would be happy to expand production to 10,000 barrels a year of his ESA (Extra Special Ale), Entire Porter and other brands.

While builiding a ramp to the loading dock, Barton and Kehoe discovered a hidden underground room not listed on the blueprints for the brewery. It measures 20 by 40 feet and is equipped with finished walls and piping. Barton thinks it was used for illicit activities during Prohibition when Weisbrod & Hess was supposed to be manufacturing soda pop.

Yards' new home sits in a neighborhood called Kensington, which was once a major hub of the U.S. textile industry. "it's still kind of a tough neighborhood," admits Barton. "Kids here like to do graffiti. There are burned-out cars and illegal dumping. We've lit up the outside of the building like a baseball field at night."

But it's improving, he adds, and he gives credit to a civic group called the New Kensington Community Redevelopment Corporation. The organizatioin has tried to improve the quality of life by planting trees and shrubbery, petitioning the city to remove trash and abandoned autos and rolling out the red carpet for newcomers. "We feel much more a part of the community here than we did (at our former location) in Roxborough," says Barton…

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