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Celebrating Philadelphia’s German Beer Heritage

Celebrating Philadelphia’s German Beer Heritage

Weisbrod and Hess. Esslinger. Engel and Wolf. Bergner & Engel. Baltz. Bergdoll. Finkenauer. Yuengling.

Philadelphia was once inundated with beer made by German brewers. No surprise, really, considering the number of Germans that came to this country in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Victory. Sly Fox. Neshaminy Creek. Stoudts. Tröegs. Yuengling.

Our area is once again flooded with German-style brews. What leads so many local producers to make renowned beers in the German tradition? Is it something in the water, just good business practice, or is there some deeper connection to our collective German history that inspires these breweries?


The Germans Are Coming

In 1683, when Franz Pastorius and thirteen German Mennonite families established Germantown, he never could have imagined the number of his countrymen that would follow him to the United States in the subsequent two hundred years.

By 1790, according to the Library of Congress report “The Germans in America,” when more than 100,000 Germans had arrived in this county, 33 percent of Pennsylvania’s population was German.

Following a series of political and economic crises in Germany in the mid-1840s, immigration to this country boomed again. By the mid-19th century, 100,000 Germans were entering the US each year. And in the 1880s, that number jumped to 200,000 entrants per year, according to Birte Pfleger’s book Ethnicity Matters.

At that point in the city’s history, Philadelphia was well-known as a brewing center. William Frampton established the city’s first brewery in 1683 and the colonists were famously fond of their porters. The British subjects, who’d settled in the area and revolted against their former homeland, nonetheless, wallowed in their ancestral brewing traditions. Ale was king. But that was to change in the second half of the century.

In 1840, the beer that would eventually conquer the world, lager, was brewed for the first time in America. The wellknown tale involves John Wagner—recently arrived from Bavaria—bottom-fermenting yeast in hand, brewing a batch of lager in the Northern Liberties section of the city. Before long, Charles Engel got his hands on the yeast strain and began brewing lager on a commercial scale at his Engel & Wolf Brewery.

At first, this relatively new style of beer was popular predominantly with the large German population. Within a generation, however, lager was the most popular style of beer being consumed in the city and beyond.

The beer they eventually brewed, American lager, was German-inspired but a very American creation. In the classic American tradition of reinvention, many of these German brewers adapted their lager recipes to match their new surroundings. The lager brewers were no longer beholden to the Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Law of 1516, which restricted the allowable ingredients in beer to water, malt and hops (yeast would be recognized later).

Freed of this constraint, the brewers sought other readily-acquired ingredients to modify this emerging style. Corn and rice were the most common new ingredients. These ‘adjuncts,’ while imparting less body and flavor, increased profit margins and appealed to the developing American palate.

This love of lager meant more breweries. By 1879, according to the book Philadelphia Beer by Rich Wagner, there were 94 breweries operating in the city.

For comparison, today there are less than ten in the city and maybe 30 breweries or brewpubs within 30 miles of Center City. *Editor’s note–a number soon to drastically change.


Old School Meets New School

Many of these Germans followed the Schuylkill River out of the city and up to coal country, where they were seeking jobs. “All of the immigrants had to follow the river a hundred miles from Philadelphia, up to where all the work was and some of the brewers followed them,” noted John Callahan, Pennsylvania Brewing Manager at the Yuengling Brewery.

“He finally came up here in the anthracite region and built his brewery a couple blocks away [from the present location] in 1829,” Callahan said of the brewery’s founder, David Yuengling.

Callahan says very little has changed at the brewery in all those years. The process of making beer would be recognizable to the original brewer. The traditionally German method of decoction mashing is still used.

And as Callahan reported, “I’ve been brewing since 1981 and nothing has changed.”

Yuengling is the oldest brewery in the United States. But this Regional Brewery, as it is now classified by the Brewers Association, has seen hard times.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, according to Callahan, Yuengling was struggling. “Business leveled off [and] there were times we were lucky to get paid.” The brewery may have disappeared were it not for a national celebration and craft beer. As Callahan said, “Two of the things in my generation that saved the brewery were the Bicentennial in 1976,” when Yuengling gained attention for being recognized on the National Register of Historic Places as the oldest brewery in America, “and craft beer.”

At the beginning of the craft beer era, budding brewers flocked to Pottsville seeking advice, know-how, equipment and “just to see how we do it,” said Callahan.

The subsequent success of what were then commonly called “microbreweries” provided a positive feedback loop for Yuengling. By refocusing attention on locally-made beers, the growing glow from the new breweries reflected on Yuengling.

“We were considered the largest of the craft brewers,” Callahan recalled. “We helped a lot of small guys out. And the craft brewery industry really helped us. We gained a lot of… recognition just for that.” And the regional entered the renaissance it’s still enjoying.

While Yuengling may be the industrial link between the area’s German past and craft beer present, Joe Ortlieb may be the human link.

Born in 1929, Ortlieb thinks he is “probably one of the oldest brew masters still around.” He was the last family member-owner of the brewery that bore his name.

Ortlieb’s was started by Joe’s grandfather, Trupert Ortlieb, as Victor Brewery in 1879. The brewery was passed to his sons, and in May of 1976, Joe bought out the family, becoming the sole owner.

“I knew whose brewery I was working in,” Ortlieb said in reference to the German influence at the brewery. There were “quite a few German employees. Of course, my uncles could all speak German.”

When Ortlieb started at the brewery, the German-speaking employees would exploit the language barrier to dupe Ortlieb into performing difficult tasks such as cleaning tanks. “They’d speak in German and say, ‘We’ll get him to go in the tank.’ I didn’t have to learn too much German to understand I was being put upon,” he recalled with a laugh.

German heritage played a part in Ortlieb’s decision to sell the brewery to Schmidt’s in 1981. “We had a situation where, in true German tradition, we didn’t have any debt. And I didn’t want to saddle my sons with a lot of debt…” by taking on creditors in order to keep the brewery in the family.

After the sale, Ortlieb’s involvement in the industry was minimized. Recently, however, he’s struck up a friendship with a brewer many years his junior.

Victory Brewing Company co-founder Bill Covaleski and Joe Ortlieb met a while back at a brew master’s conference. “We really enjoy each other’s company,” said Ortlieb. “He’s very technically-oriented. He really knows his stuff.” That shared interest in the technical side of brewing forms an intellectual link across the generations.

Or does it?

Does an old, local brew master and an older, local brewery really make the connection to our German past and our craft beer present? Rich Wagner doesn’t think so.

Wagner, a Philadelphia beer history fanatic, sees no “possible connection between nineteenth (or 20th) century German immigration and the current craft brewing scene in Philadelphia.”

Dubbing the German immigrants “the missionaries of lager beer,” Wagner asserts that Germans are responsible for creating the national beer. In his view, the Philadelphia area holds no exclusive grip on light lager or German beer influence in general. “You can go to Cleveland, you can go to Cincinnati, you can go to Buffalo, NY, you can go to St. Louis, you can go to Milwaukee You can go to anywhere where the Germans went and you’ll find a significant number of breweries.”

Wagner sees disconnect between the historical preponderance of German breweries and any affinity, real or perceived, for German styles today. “That [spread of German breweries] was from the last century.”

Nor does he find any correlation between current craft beers and the Germanic past. While acknowledging that breweries like Tröegs and
Victory “produce 
world-class German-style beers,” he pointed out, “they also produce world-class ale-style beers.”

And yet, the greater Philadelphia area is steeped in German heritage.

Today, Germans comprise the largest ethnicity of all Americans and the greatest number resides in Pennsylvania. In 2012, there were 3.3 million Pennsylvanians self-identified as being of German descent. That number is by far the highest population of German ancestry among the 50 states. Put another way, 26.1% of Pennsylvania’s population, according to the 2012 American Community Survey, is German-American.

And German-inspired craft brewers were here from the beginning.

When the late Tom Pastorius (who could trace his roots to the Germantown founder) hatched his Penn Pilsner in 1986, he did so in the City of Brotherly Love. Penn Brewery Director of Marketing, Linda Nyman revealed, “When Tom Pastorius started the business, he started it in Philadelphia,” before moving to Pittsburgh.

Brian O’Reilly, Brewmaster at Sly Fox in Pottstown, observed, “The Pennsylvania Dutch heritage was always there, as far as craft brewing’s concerned. Stoudts, with their initial success, kind of set a standard.”

“We never even thought of doing anything other than German beers,” said Carol Stoudt who, along with her husband, Ed, started Stoudts Brewing Company in 1987. As she put it, “Ales weren’t part of our vocabulary.”

When Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet founded Victory Brewing in 1996, their idea was to start a brewery firmly rooted in the German brewing tradition. “Not so much as an ideological constriction,” says Covaleski, acknowledging that Victory brews a range of non-Germanic styles, but as a result of their brewing background and Pennsylvania’s German beer heritage.

Covaleski and Barchet (whose grandparents were from Germany) were nurtured in an environment where German beer was always at hand.

Raised in the area, Covaleski noted, “Ron and I ‘grew up’, so to speak, on Germanic beers.” The state’s German brewing heritage had an impact. So did parental influence—Barchet’s father drank Stegmaier; Covaleski’s uncle drank Gibbons. DAB was a special occasion beer.

Inevitably, perhaps, the two trained in Germany and upon their return, they seized their moment.

“We recognized—by appreciating hoppy American IPAs and what was going on in the early 80s here—but also understanding what was going on in Europe; we had a unique opportunity to try to convey the best of both worlds.”

In Covaleski’s opinion, there is no break between past and present. “I think that Ron and I stand as a bridge between what was traditional German beer consumption and what is modern beer consumption.”

Covaleski spoke of a “positive bias” for German beers locally. “Most culinary trends move from west to east. By nature, it seems like the more experimentally and progressively minded people are on the West Coast. We tend to still be the Pennsylvanian Dutch skeptics here that adopt things slowly. And that same mentality may have allowed us to retain some of these beer styles culturally longer than other areas did.”

While Covaleski’s parents were drinking the old-style lagers, Covaleski and Barchet themselves were seeking out a locally made German-style that was pleasing palates in the late 1980s—Stoudts Gold.

“When we started doing the research on beer I had never tasted a traditional ale,” Carol Stoudt stated. “This area was very lager-driven by the old Germans. There were seven to nine breweries in Reading and Lancaster and they were all German.”

Stoudt and her husband are German on both sides. Ed’s family is from southern Germany in the Palatines and can be traced to the 1500s. Carol’s family is from near Heidelberg. “When my husband and I married we spent three, four weeks in Germany. And that’s really where I had my first good lager beer.”

Craft-brewed lagers, however, weren’t all that common at the dawn of the movement.

But for one notable exception. Citing the success of the darker Sam Adams Boston Lager, Ms. Stoudt recalled, “We did an amber lager, because amber lagers in the beginning, in 1986, were real popular.” This Vienna lager was designed to appeal to the craft beer drinker back when “amber” practically meant “microbrew.”

As Marnie Old observed recently, “Nobody drinks their father’s beer.” Old, the enthusiastic engine behind Bierfest, the festival of Pennsylvania-brewed German-style beers held annually at the German Society of Pennsylvania, sees the craft beer movement as, in some part, a response to light lager. The ale-heavy lineups of the majority of early microbreweries were a rejection of the pale lagers that owned the shelf space in the 1980s.

In the first generation of craft breweries, lager played second fiddle. Ales, because they are quicker and in many cases, easier to make, formed the backbone of many microbrewery offerings. But perhaps that’s changing.


History In A Glass

Jeremy Myers, founder and head brewer at Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company, may be the most historically aware young brewer out there. His Croydon brewery is making waves with their Trauger Pilsner, a beer rich in brewing history—local and German. “There’s a lot of German in my family. And that has a lot to with where we’re from.”

Myers inherited a love of history from his father. He has a keen sense of place and a deep knowledge of his ancestry. He proudly traces his roots on his father’s side to the Trauger family, a now massive German-descended family whose forefathers first came to the area in the mid-1700s. “The day my wife and I went to the Bucks County Courthouse to get our marriage license, I thought about how many generations of my family are in those marriage rolls.”

And that historical knowledge informs his brews. “I take a lot more influence from German-styles than anything else.

I’m sure a little bit of that has to do with how many times I’ve been there [and] my family history.” Myers is headed back to Germany this spring.

But it’s not German-made beers, solely, that inform his brewing. The local scene has an impact as well. “Yuengling was the first brewery I
ever visited. They’re the reason why I 
started drinking better beer. Obviously, the heavy German-influence there is evident.”

From Yuengling, he branched out. “The first Victory beer I had was their lager. And I discovered breweries like Stoudts—all these breweries that make great German beers. [They] are absolutely why I make German beers.”


The Future Is Here

Is the success of beers like Trauger Pilsner, the popularity of Sly Fox’s annual bock fest and goat race or even the simple fact that Philadelphia Brewing Company’s helles lager, Kenzinger, is made in a building that once housed the Weisbrod and Hess Brewery, part of Covaleski’s “positive bias” that keeps us drinking these styles? Or is it a sign of things to come?

Marnie Old thinks it’s the latter. She believes that German styles are primed for renewed popularity. “Craft beer has done England. We’ve done Belgium.”

She envisions the Philadelphia-area, and Pennsylvania, in general, leading the way to increased interest in a range of German styles.

She sees a future where well-made, “subtle and lower alcohol” German styles court more women to the craft beer fold. Citing the fact that women and men process alcohol differently, she thinks many women see big, high alcohol beers as off-putting. “I’m a lightweight. If I can’t finish a beer and have another one…?” she asked rhetorically.

In her view, a reemergence of German beers may open the eyes of the average non-craft beer drinker, as well. To the uninitiated, full-bodied, powerfully flavored ale is intimidating. “9 out of 10 people ordering beer are thirsty. They don’t want a palate-pounding hop bomb.”

Veteran craft beer drinkers too, may seek out these more restrained styles. As Brian O’Reilly pointed out, “It does take a mature palate to really appreciate the more subtle nuances [of lager]. But when they’re put together, it certainly is a symphony.”

Old predicts too, that brewers themselves will welcome the challenge of making quality lagers. As Neshaminy Creek’s Myers observed, “Lagers are difficult to make. So if there are problems, they’ll show them more so than if you make a 10 percent [ABV] Russian imperial stout.”

Noting the “incredible fountain of German heritage,” Old sees this area as ideally situated to exploit a trend toward increased interest in German styles. She designed Bierfest—which is open to any Pennsylvania brewery making German-styles and includes big guys like Samuel Adams and Yuengling and small gals like Stoudts—to acknowledge, highlight and tout this rich history. “Until we notice it and talk about it, no one else is going to notice it.”

And Straub Brewery, the 141 yearold brewery in western Pennsylvania, is already adapting. Brewer Vince Assetta is revisiting Straub’s legacy as a century old Germanic brewer of American lager. According to Assetta, Straub is undergoing a “merging of our German-American [identity] and craft beer.” For example, Straub’s new maibock includes German malts and Mt. Hood and Liberty hops, which are “bred from Hallertau rootstock.”

So, perhaps Covaleski and Barchet are not the only “bridges” to the brewing past. Perhaps that history is accessible to anyone with a mash paddle and a desire to acknowledge those that came before. History is more than a series of lists of lagers and a catalog of crumbling breweries. It’s a living thing that can be tapped for inspiration.

As Myers put it, “All of that [German heritage] definitely influences [me]. Whether it be overt or [subconscious], I definitely know it’s there.”

German history, it seems, is alive and well.

About Mat Falco

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