District Philadelphia History
America's First Lager -
History Of Brewing In The Neighborhood

Philadelphia's brewing history goes back nearly to the founding of the city. On William Penn's first visit he described "an able man" who set up a bake and brew house to supply people with beer up and down the river. William Frampton was brewing on Dock Creek as early as 1682. Beer was a basic commodity, more healthful than the water and English brewers came to predominate the industry. All the beer made at this time was of the Ale variety. Ale being made with a top fermenting yeast.

For 160 years Philadelphia ales became world renowned and rivaled or surpassed those made in England. Yeast was a curious substance that the Brit's called "Godisgood." Brewers were unsure if it was animal mineral or vegetable but what was obvious was that when "pitched" in brewers wort, something magical occurred. The wort changed character and began churning and foaming with activity for awhile until everything subsided, and the result was "beer."

During the nineteenth century a new type of yeast emerged in Bavaria called Lager Beer Yeast. This yeast was active at the bottom of the fermenter and worked at much cooler temperatures. The resulting beer was aged in caves or cellars and emerged with a much different character than ale. It was cleaner tasting and the flavor not as "rough" as the warm fermented ales. Bavarian brewers began brewing with this yeast and their beer became quite popular with the public.

With immigration to the U.S.A. it was only a matter of time until someone tried to bring this yeast to the new world and revolutionize American beer making. Scientists would find out later that yeast was in fact alive, and so early attempts to bring yeast to this country probably failed, as the journey was too long for the yeast to survive. When Clipper ships were developed and began sailing between the U.S.A. and Europe, the voyage was shortened sufficiently for the yeast to survive the trip.

So it was in 1840 that a Bavarian Brewmaster named John Wagner, risked punishment by removing the coveted lager yeast from Bavaria and brought it to America where he intended to start a new life and a new way of brewing in this country. He brewed the nation's first lager beer right here "on St. John Street, near Poplar" in a "home brewery," a small structure behind the house with a cellar for aging the beer. He produced batches of eight thirty-one gallon barrels, on a scale similar to that of brewpubs of today.

Charles Wolf was a sugar refiner at Crown and Vine Streets. An employee named George Manger obtained a sample of Wagner's yeast and brewed lager beer at a somewhat larger facility at Second and New Streets. He served the beer to appreciative German immigrants who relished the lager beer of their homeland. By 1844, Mr. Wolf's refinery burnt down and he went into the brewing and distilling business with Charles Engel at 352 Dillwyn St. The brewery became a resort for Philadelphia German's who frequently drank the brewery dry.

In order to keep up with the demand, Engel & Wolf set up a large brewery at Fountain Green on the bank of the Schuykill River near the spot where a statue of General Grant stands on Kelly Drive. Here they excavated huge lagering vaults and cut ice in winter and became the nation's first large scale manufacturer of lager beer.

Other German's began brewing in this neighborhood as lager beer became popular in the City. Because of the need to ferment and age the beer in the cold, some brewers began trucking their wort in oxcarts three miles up Girard Avenue near Engel & Wolf's brewery where they would build or rent space in existing caves or vaults.

As the brewers sought to expand many moved to the area where they had built and rented vaults in the neighborhood between 30th and 33rd Sts. and between Girard Ave. and Oxford St. Around a dozen breweries evolved there with a half dozen nearby and the section became known as Brewerytown. They became some of the nation's largest lager beer makers and shipped Philadelphia lager beer across the country and around the world.

With advances in artificial refrigeration the need to dig caves and cut ice was no longer necessary and the section where John Wagner brewed the nation’s first lager beer and the adjacent section called Kensington both became home to a number of huge, "modern" lager beer manufacturies. To the north, at 2nd and Girard, Schmidt's brewery evolved as Pennsylvania's largest, and Philadelphia's last great beer producer. To the South, the John F. Betz brewery at Fourth and Callowhill was one of the nation's largest breweries until it closed as a result of Prohibition.

On this street, the Ortlieb brewery was founded by Civil War veteran Trupert Ortlieb, and was the second to the last Philadelphia brewery to close in 1981. Philip Gucke's International brewery was mid-block and was torn down to create the parking lot you see today. Just above Spring Garden Street was the brewery of Binder, Biederbeck und Schmidheiser. There were at least twenty smaller breweries in and around this neighborhood in the hey-day of lager beer making.

We've spoken only of lager beer production in the City of Philadelphia. Other immigrants brought lager beer yeast from Germany and this same type of story is told in many parts of the country. Other east coast cities began producing lager beer and as westward expansion took place lager beer predominated American's taste in beer. But lest forget, it all got it's start right here, where we stand today, the birthplace of lager beer making in America.

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