Philadelphia Inquirer September 25, 1987

Old Brews; History of Philadelphia Beer-Making is Traced in Exhibit

By Murray Dubin


It's a mystery of history and beer.

Beer, as we know it today was introduced to America by a former Bavarian brewmaster named John Wagner in Philadelphia in 1840. But no one knows how Wagner solved the yeast problem that had prevented American brewmasters from making lager beer. No one else had.

Wagner, George Esslinger, Fred Poth, Christian Schmidt and other local brewmasters of the past will be recalled today as the German Society opens its newest exhibit, "Brewed in Philadelphia- A 19th Century View."

The free exhibit is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at the German Society, 611 Spring Garden St. It closes Nov. 22.

As a native-born German, Barbara Lang, the society program director, is proud to be placing German contributions to America before a wide audience. At an exhibit preview and beer tasting on Thursday, the only thing curious about her behavior was that she was one of the few in attendance not drinking the free beer.

She admitted, a little sheepishly, that she doesn't like the taste of beer, but that has not hindered her from becoming knowledgeable on the subject.

"Everyone drinks lager beer, but they don't think about it." She said. "It has only been in this country for 140 years."

Although beer made Milwaukee famous, it was Philadelphia that was the first beer capital of America. Even before independence, there was beer.

But what once was called beer was really ale. Ale is beer in which the yeast ferments at the top. Lager beer- common in Germany in the 19th century, is made with the yeast fermenting on the bottom. The yeast must be kept cool.

Although many brewmasters from Germany came to Philadelphia before Wagner arrived in 1840, none could keep the yeast cool on the long trip across the ocean. Lang said.

Why they didn't cool yeast in their new land is a mystery. But they drank ale, not lager beer, in Philadelphia. "Before 1840, Germans here suffered" without their lager beer, Lang noted.

Despite their sufferings, they and other residents apparently still drank plenty of non-lager beer. In 1793, Philadelphia produced more beer than all the other seaport cities in America combined. Beer was a family drink. Dr. Benjamin Rush, Philadelphia's most famous physician, extolled its virtues.

Wagner arrived in 1840 laden with cold yeast. No one is sure how he kept it cool, Lang said, and and it is fairly certain that he did not realize the importance of keeping the yeast cold. He started a small backyard lager beer brewery at his home on St. John Street near Poplar that was immediately popular.

The beer revolution was about to begin.

The first full-scale lager beer brewery, using yeast from Wagner, opened in Northern Liberties soon after. In 1848, a revolution in Germany would bring more than 1.3 million Germans to the United States in the next twenty year. The market for lager beer was about to grow.

In Philadelphia at 32nd and Thompson Sts. in 1857, Gustavus Bergner opened one of the first breweries in an area that would soon be known as Brewerytown. In three years, there would be 1,269 breweries in the United States. More than 1,000 of them- 85 percent- would be in Pennsylvania and New York.

During the Civil War, Lang said, the North taxed the breweries $1 a barrel to help pay for the war.

"After the war, breweries moved west," she said. "That's when Milwaukee started. It had a large German population and nice ciy winters. Ice was important to keep the beer cool.

"The beer-making industry helped other industries grow in Philadelphia," Land said. "The barrel industry grew. Bottle-making. Crowns (bottle caps) were invented in Philadelphia in 1892."

By 1870, there were 246 breweries in the state, including 69 in Philadelphia.

At the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, the beer-makers exhibit in Agricultural Hall was prohibited because of pressure from the temperance movement, Lang said. So the brew-makers united and quickly built their own building. Brewers Hall, where draught beer was served free to the public.

It was one of the most popular sites at the exhibition, Lang said.

But the temperance movement continued to grow stronger, as did competition among brewers. In the early 1880's there were 97 breweries in town.

Those who drank often did so in beer gardens, a number of which were in mansions along the Schuylkill. Lemon Hill, a mansion near Boathouse Row, was once a beer garden, Lang said.

Trying to battle the growing Prohibition movement, breweries produced some beer bottles in the 1880's and 1890's with stickers asking customers to "protest to your legislators against Prohibition."

Breweries began closing. By 1909 there were 48. Four years later there were 31. By 1920, when Prohibition went into effect there were just 17.

There was a spurt of breweries reopening after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but it was never the same. In 1950, there were 407 breweries in the country, 57 in Pennsylvania and eight in the city.

This year, Schmidt's - Philadelphia's largest brewery for 35 years, closed. In 1987, there are no breweries in Philadelphia, and just eight in the state.