Beer historian Rich Wagner has new book on Philadelphia's rich brews

PHILADELPHIA BEER/ A HEADY HISTORY OF BREWING IN THE CRADLE OF LIBERTY/RICH WAGNER
PHILADELPHIA BEER/ A HEADY HISTORY OF BREWING IN THE CRADLE OF LIBERTY/RICH WAGNER
Posted: May 25, 2012

YOU THINK WE have a pretty good beer scene now? You should’ve seen this town back in 1879.

Every neighborhood had its own brewery, and every corner had a saloon. In the preceding 30 years, more than 250 breweries had opened — many of them closing quickly, but others becoming national powers. A census by Western Brewer magazine counted an astonishing 94 breweries up and running.

The city’s population was barely half of today’s, and yet it had 12 times the number of breweries we boast of in 2012.

In his new paperback, Philadelphia Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Cradle of Liberty (History Press, $19.99), brewery historian Rich Wagner observes quite simply that the Industrial Revolution made the city "a world-class brewing center."

Indeed, it was already on the road to that lofty status by the time of the American Revolution.

When William Penn arrived in 1682, the locals were drinking homemade beer made with molasses infused with pine or sassafras. The next year, the city harvested its first barley crop and a New York slave trader named William Frampton opened the city’s first brewery at the southwest corner of Front and Walnut streets. It produced 15 barrels per batch — the same amount as the Triumph brewpub that now stands just a block north.

A couple of years later, the Tun Tavern would rise on Water Street and eventually take its place in history as the birthplace of the U.S. Marine Corps.

The beer the city drank was ale, and from Wagner’s description you get the sense that producing it was incredibly hard work.

Breweries lacked the modern conveniences of indoor plumbing, electricity or any automation beyond block and tackle. Giant open kettles were heated over raging hearths. Ice was cut from the river. Barrels were made by hand and sealed with hot pitch. Casks were stored in underground vaults carved out of solid rock and insulated with straw. The beer was delivered by horse-drawn drays.

Basic equipment like the thermometer and hydrometer wouldn’t be invented till the 1760s. Brewers knew the water was ready for mashing when it was "hot enough to bite your finger smartly."

Despite the hardship, Philadelphia’s ale earned a solid reputation throughout the colonies and beyond. Two years before the Revolutionary War, Robert Hare’s Philadelphia Porter was being described as "little if any inferior" to that of London.

The city’s ale, however, was nothing compared to its lager.

Wagner should be a familiar name to readers of this column, partly because the former highschool science teacher frequently dresses up like a Colonial brewer for hands-on brewing demonstrations.

But his longer-lasting contribution to the city’s beer scene can be found near Poplar and American streets in Northern Liberties. There stands a historic marker locating Bavarian John Wagner’s home brewery, birthplace of America’s first lager beer in 1840. It’s an important part of the nation’s history because that beer — fermented at a cool temperature for a cleaner, more refreshing flavor — would be the blueprint for Schmidt’s, Ortlieb’s, Budweiser, Coors, Miller and the rest of the big brands that would dominate the industry for the next 150 years.

Rich Wagner (no relation to John) is the guy whose research led to the erection of the marker, an achievement he modestly omits in this book.

While the author seems most comfortable tackling the phenomenal growth of lager in Philadelphia, I would have preferred more perspective.

The pages are filled with exacting detail of the scores of breweries that dotted the city landscape, especially in its appropriately named Brewerytown neighborhood. But there are few stories about the lives of the barons who created them or the workers who sweated over their boiling kettles. For example, Louis Bergdoll, a German immigrant brewer who eventually became one of the richest men in America, with houses that still stand throughout the city, gets only a single paragraph.

(While I’m picking nits, the book would’ve benefited from a better index and a few maps to locate all those breweries.)

I’ve written that we’re lucky to be living in the very best time in the history of beer. With the microbrewing renaissance giving us an unimaginable selection of flavors, with hundreds of bars and restaurants pouring thousands of brands, it’s a beer drinker’s utopia. Yet Wagner’s description of Brewerytown as a place where "the very air [is] as nutritious as vaporized bread," at a time when the city’s largest brewery, Bergner & Engel, was winning medals in Paris; Brussels, Belgium; and Chicago, makes me wonder.

What I wouldn’t give for a taste of Charles Bergner’s Tannhaeuser Export or Jacob Baltz’s Czar Beer or Charles Theis’ Hohenschwangau Export Dark.

It was Philadelphia Beer at its finest.

Rich Wagner and Joe Sixpack will talk about Philadelphia beer history at 11 a.m. June 6 with Marty Moss-Coane on "Radio Times," WHYY-FM (90.9).

"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at www.joesixpack.net. E-mail: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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