History of Philadelphia’s Beer Brewing Roots

My interest in everything beer has led to a great interest in the history of breweries in the area of my home town Philadelphia.  I have found that the city of Philadelphia played a significant part in the industrialization of beer in the U.S. and still does today.

Outrageous as it sounds, by the end of the Revolutionary War Philadelphia housed a tavern for every 25 men.  Along with Boston, this concentration of taverns was more than anywhere else in the English speaking world at the time (talk about pub crawl). One notable tavern still in existence is The Old City Tavern built in 1773.

Brewerytown

If you didn’t already know, Philadelphia was the resting place of many German immigrants.  They brought with them their love for beer and of course, started the famous Philly pretzel craze. At first, Germans set up breweries along the Schuylkill River.  The river provided a spot the Germans needed to dig caves in order to keep their beer cold (or lagered) during fermentation.  With the advent of refrigeration these brewers purchased a 10 block area in North Phila. (north of Girard Avenue and West of 30th Street near Fairmount Park) where they built many breweries.  This neighborhood became known as “Brewerytown.”  At one point there were about 100 breweries located in this area.  Some of the major breweries at the time were:

Bergner & Engel
Arnolt & Schaefer
George F. Rothaker
George Keller
J & P. Baltz
Bergdoll

The Brewerytown neighborhood easily thrived due to it’s proximity to the river and railroads–helping to distribute the beer throughout the country.  By the end of the Civil War beer making was one of the top 5 sources of income for the city.  But in 1920 Brewerytown was destroyed by Prohibition.  In fact, almost every brewery in the country was forced out of business.

Yuengling

Yuengling Brewing Company in Pottsville Pa. however, did survive Prohibition.  Originally called “Eagle Brewing Company” and established in 1829 the Yuengling family (which sounds Chinese–but is actually of German descent) changed it’s name, but kept the eagle emblem for their bottles’ labels.  Yuengling survived by selling “near beer” which had less than .5% alcohol–they called it “Yuengling Special.”  In addition, the Yuenglings operated a dairy farm.  Today, Yuengling is the oldest (surviving), but one of the fastest growing beer companies in the United States.  In March of 2010, President Obama sent the Prime Minister of Canada a case of Yuengling Beer to settle a wager on the outcome of the winter olympics.

So what happened to Brewerytown?  Every brewery in the town eventually disappeared from existence.  What remains are some of the magnificent buildings.  Being a predominantly poor residential neighborhood  now, a lot of these buildings and homes have either been destroyed or are in need of major repair.  I recently took a driving tour through the area to view the German-styled architecture.  The breweries have red-brick facades and elaborate trim.  The surrounding townhomes that were built to house the brewery employees are obviously modeled after the breweries with their red brick and unique trim.  In 1991 the National Registry of Historic Places recognized 380 buildings in the district.

A multi-million dollar project to repair and construct a “Brewerytown” square with premium shops, restaurants and housing has been put on hold due to a lawsuit and opposition from the AABRA (African American Business & Residents Association).  The AABRA claims that this project would ultimately force the lower-income residents from their neighborhoods.  I don’t know much about the AABRA and their position, but it seems to me that this project would only up the value of the resident’s homes and in the end be a benefit to the people of the community.

In the past two decades Philadelphia has seen a major boom in micro breweries.  Today we have one of the highest concentration of craft breweries in the United States–and a reputation for making some of the world’s best beer.  Ironically enough, none of these new breweries are located in Brewerytown.  Here are a few popular brewers in the area:

Philadelphia Brewing Co.
Yards Brewing Co.
Nodding Head
Dock Street
Manayunk Brewery
Sly Fox
Stoudts
Victory
Triumph

Beer Lovers and History Lovers

So for all beer lovers and history lovers alike please remember that Philadelphia certainly has history that includes more than just the Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross and Independence Hall.

Bergdoll Brewery

Bergdoll Brewery

Yuengling logo

Yuengling