Mid-Atlantic Brewing News June/July 2000


By Rich Wagner, assistant brewer at Manayunk Brewing Company in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Brewery Historian.

Hot on the trail! Never mind that the trail has no scent, or that the quarry–the man who brewed the first lager beer in America–is an elusive, legendary figure like Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed. I’ve been on this trail for twenty years, trying to dig up Pennsylvania’s brewing history the way Columbo wears down his suspects. My life on the trail has become a quest, an obsession some might liken to a Quixotic mania. But I persist.

I acquired a copy of One Hundred Years of Brewing (Chicago, 1903) shortly after starting my research. This volume was published as a supplement to The Western Brewer and Journal of the Malt and Hop Trades. As I looked for references to Pennsylvania breweries, I discovered the section on how a Bavarian brewmaster named John Wagner (no relation that I know of) arrived in Philadelphia in 1840 with a sample of the lager beer yeast being used in Germany at the time. He set up a small "home brewery" on St. John Street near Poplar, and brewed in an eight-barrel kettle to make this country’s first bottom-fermented beer.

A sugar refiner named Charles Wolf got a sample of the yeast and started Engel & Wolf Brewing Co., the first large-scale lager beer brewery in the nation. As for Wagner, nobody knows what became of him.

Lager is the German word for "store" and originally referred to beer which was stored in caves or ice houses from the time it was brewed in fall and winter until it was consumed in the summer. But the word lager also refers to a bottom-fermenting yeast that is active at low temperatures (Saccharomyces uvarum). Prior to the utilization of this type of yeast, all beer was made with a top-fermenting ale yeast which works best at warmer temperatures (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). The story of America’s first lager beer begins with the importation of this new type of yeast, which produced a style of beer that had become popular in Bavaria.

Another valuable reference work, American Breweries (Trumbull, CT, 1984), was the key to locating sites of old Philadelphia breweries. I started to verify addresses in 1985. I kept track of any standing brewery buildings and crossed off locations that contained no such structures. Researching brewing history in Philadelphia was a huge undertaking due to the city’s long history and its proliferation of breweries. Fortunately, Philadelphia is blessed with lots of libraries and historical societies. As I drove around the decaying industrial neighborhoods, I began to see why this city was once called the "Workshop of the World." After consulting city atlases I would visit as many locations as possible and document what was there. Of the hundred or so addresses I checked, about two dozen contained remnants of brewery buildings. All this reconnaissance work became the basis for my first Philadelphia brewery tour two years later.

The Wagner story stuck in my mind, but it wasn’t until I went to the Free Library’s map room that I found St. John Street was now called American Street. When I went to American and Poplar Streets, I found the abandoned building that was once the bottling house of the Henry F. Ortlieb Brewing Co. (operated 1859-1981). This block was home to several breweries listed in American Breweries. I had hit paydirt! A house on the northeast corner of the intersection even had a marble marker in the wall that said St. John Street.

But where exactly was the birthplace of lager beer in America? American Breweries lists John Wagner’s address as 455 St. John. Today, however, Poplar crosses American Street in the 800 block. So much for paydirt. I went to the Philadelphia Historical Commission where I spoke to several people and got permission to use their library. It seems the city had to standardize the street numbering system around 1857. Unfortunately, there is no map that shows how the old system compared to the new one. Ortlieb’s bottling house is located at 845 N. American Street. In both cases, the addresses are on the "odd" side of the street. It wouldn’t be totally out-of-line to assume that the 400 block of St. John became the 800 block of American.

The day after Thanksgiving in 1989 I went to City Hall to do a title search to see if that would provide the necessary cross-reference to the address change. Half a day’s search left me empty-handed. I searched for a map that would give me a clue but no luck. Was this the dead end to my trail? Had John Wagner eluded me? Was there no way to locate his home brewery on St. John Street? I persevered.

As my research continued, each time I read of a lager beer "first" in the literature, I always paid attention to the date. I have never seen a date prior to 1840 (or 1841 or 1842, depending on who’s telling the story), when lager beer yeast was introduced to Philadelphia. In fact, I combed the contents of One Hundred Years of Brewing and created a database of all lager beer startups in the nation. When the file was arranged chronologically, John Wagner came up at the top of the list.

I became so obsessed that I actually compiled all my research and applied to the state for a city marker at the Ortlieb’s building to commemorate the site of America’s first lager beer. That was three years ago and I’m still at it. It seems that whenever there is the question of "first," historians are reluctant to commit to such a bold proclamation. As a result, my first two proposals were shot down with the assertion that I needed more documentation.

So in the "never say die" spirit of the serious researcher, I have been spurred on to amass even more sources. My application is now close to thirty pages long and contains anecdotal records of nineteenth-century brewers, business journals and city directories of the day, current academic dissertations and books that relate this version of the story, and the database created from One Hundred Years of Brewing. Regardless of what really happened and when, the story of John Wagner has always been told, and continues to be related.

The best part is that when Henry Ortlieb opened Poor Henry’s brewpub in the old bottling house, he installed an eight-barrel brewhouse that might as well be a shrine to John Wagner’s home brewery … there’ll never be another brewery closer to where America’s first lager was brewed!

About the only thing I haven’t tracked down (give me time) is which ship Wagner took to get here and when he landed. Then again, I suppose I could scour the court records of the trial of his brother-in-law, who served two years in prison for stealing some of the smuggled yeast.

Many brewers subsequently came to this country bearing this new kind of yeast. Lager beer caught on with Americans, giving rise to the brewing industry that we know today. It’s nice to know that it all got its start in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia.

This is a dusty trail and I’ve developed a powerful thirst! Let’s raise a glass of cold lager beer to posterity. Prosit!

Rich Wagner is assistant brewer at Manayunk Brewing Co, in Philadelphia and an avid historian of Pennsylvania brewery history. For more on Philadelphia breweries, visit http://pabreweryhistorians.tripod.com.

UPDATE 02-25-18: Check out tantalizing new research by Tod Von Mechow.