Philly Brews: Past Is Prologue

by Jack Curtin

        For Philadelphia beer drinkers with a sense of history, the day in 1987 when Schmidt's Brewery, the last of the great Philadelphia breweries ("great" in the sense that they were large and powerful), closed its doors and sold off its trademarks to G. Heilman's, the Wisconsin conglomerate, was a sad one indeed. The city that had been the brewing capitol of a new nation back in Colonial times (in 1752, there were 120 taverns in Philadelphia, serving a population of 20,000, one pub for every 165 people) and was the place where lager had first been introduced on these shores (more about that later), now had no breweries at all.

        But if a grand old tradition had ended, one had only to look to the west for the promise of a new day. About an hour up the turnpike from Philadelphia, in rural Adamstown, Stoudt Brewing Company was being born just as Schmidt's died. It wasn't yet apparent, but the advent of Stoudt's (which followed shortly on the establishment of Penn Brewery in Pittsburgh) marked the beginning of a new and different approach to brewing in Pennsylvania.

        Thus, just a decade later, Philadelphia and environs are arguably once again the hottest and most important brewing center on the East Coast. Some extraordinary brews, in an impressive variety of styles, are being produced in these parts these days.

        The first stirrings of new beer life in the city proper came in 1989, with the opening of the Samuel Adams Brewhouse in center city. More significantly, the following year saw the birth of Dock Street Brewing Company, which established a significantly larger brewpub and restaurant a few blocks away and began retailing Amber Lager in 12-ounce bottles. Even though the latter product was-and is--contract brewed out of state, there was once again a "Philadelphia beer" on the market.

        Things advanced slowly. In the bottle market, Penn Pilsner had a presence, as did Dock Street's and Stoudt's contract-brewed 12-ouncers, but most distributorships pushed, and thrived on, the major brands. As the '90s rolled along, Red Feather Pale Ale from Chambersburg's Arrowhead Brewing Company (now Rock Creek Brewing Company) became the first true craft beer produced in the region to be sold in traditional 24-bottle cases, and Stoudt's craft brews, available in 765-ML bottles, developed a following. Stoudt's, Dock Street and occasionally Red Feather even began showing up regularly on taps in those pubs and taverns which were aware of the Microbrew Revolution rolling inexorably eastward.

        By mid-1994, though, staid old Philly was definitely Micro-ized. Sam Adams was available everywhere, even small neighborhood bars. Pete's Wicked and Sierra Nevada began teaching folks who didn't know they knew better than they most certainly did. Any brew that wasn't the same old, same old was suddenly an In Thing: Yuengling Lager, the flagship brand of D. C. Yuengling & Son of nearby Pottsville, the oldest continually operating brewery in the United States, became, through a process that was never quite clear, the cool beer of choice for the young and hop-hip.

        In 1995, Philadelphia began to put its own stamp on things. Independence Brewing Company and Yards Brewing Company opened within weeks of each other that spring. Red Bell Brewing Company, which had been contract brewing beers for several months while looking for a microbrewery site, acquired the former F. A. Poth & Sons brewery in the city's historic Brewerytown section for its plant. Victory Brewing Company, the most significant of the new suburban breweries, did its first brew in late December. And, as the year drew to a close, the region's new brew-on-premises operation also introduced a retail product.

        It was as if a dam had broken. From then until now, new microbreweries and brewpubs have been springing up in and around the City of Brotherly Love at an extraordinary rate, more than 30 in Pennsylvania and another ten in neighboring New Jersey and Delaware (see sidebar, page XX).

        Red Bell, incorporated in the summer of 1993, was the first new company into the market. Structural engineer Jim Cancro, an avid homebrewer, approached an old friend, investment banker and stockbroker Jim Bell, looking for money to launch a chain of brewpubs and the two eventually decided to seek out investors and go into business together. They also chose to introduce their label with contract brews while they sought out a site for a real microbrewery. With that site acquired and plagued by an inability to maintain quality control in their contract products, Red Bell eventually shut down its line in late 1995 and essentially withdrew from the market to wait for the $5 million refurbishing of the Poth plant to be completed.

        Independence Brewing Company officially became the first new brewery in Philadelphia since Prohibition when it began shipping ale and lager in early April 1995. It is the brainchild of Robert W. Connor, Jr., a former stock broker who had worked with Jim Bell (one presumes, just to set the karmic record back in balance, a few brewers will one day walk away from their kettles and go off to Wall Street to hustle stocks and bonds). No fool he, Connor secured the services of Bill Moore, then brewmaster at Stoudt's, where he'd been the man in charge for four years and several GABF medals.

        Both Bell and Connor were, and are (though one senses they are slowly being seduced by the romance of hops and malts), primarily businessmen who saw an opportunity in the growing craft beer market. Still to be heard from was the "beer geek" contingent, the dedicated sort who are the heart and soul of craft brewing. Enter Jon Bovit and Tom Kehoe of Yards Brewing Company.

        College buddies and home brewers who had apprenticed at British Brewing Company in Oxford, MD, Bovit and Kehoe had been trying to figure out how to create their own microbrewery since 1990. In 1994, they finally decided to just go ahead and do it-on a shoestring. They designed their own system and set up shop to produce "authentic British style cask conditioned ales." They introduced Yards Extra Special Ale at the first Philadelphia Craft Brew Festival in late April. Within a few months, producing one six-keg batch at a time out of their tiny 3.5 barrel brewhouse, the "Yards Guys," who delivered every keg themselves and made a point of being there whenever a bar tapped its first one, were supplying ESA, Entire Porter and several other cask conditioned products to bars clamoring for their wares. Yards became, and remains, the city's cult brew, because of the high quality of the beers, because of the scarcity of same and, in part, because it turned out to be a focal point for the very nature of the way beer is served in Philadelphia.

        A surprise entrant into the beer wars emerged in December 1995. Three former University of Pennsylvania students had introduced America-U-Brew to Philadelphia 11 months earlier. It was the fifth Brew On Premises facility in the country, they said, and the first outside California. They rapidly expanded into two additional locations in the suburbs, then, in what Mike Morrissey, one of the three partners, termed "a natural move," decided to use their capabilities to create and market a microbrew of their own. Thus was born Gravity Pale Ale. Purists sneered because it was done with extracts; consumers didn't quibble over such arcane matters.

        And late that same month, as noted, Victory Brewing, located in a former Pepperidge Farm plant in an industrial park in the old mill town of Downingtown, some 20 miles west of Philadelphia, began brewing. Victory officially opened the doors of its brewpub in February 1996 and began off-premises sales in March. Brewer-owners Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski, who both apprenticed at Baltimore Brewing Company, specialize in German-style lagers (Barchet also studied for a year in Germany), although the brewery first caught the public fancy with a hoppy Americanized IPA.

        Victory Brewing's entrance into the market marked, one can argue, "the end of the beginning" for the Philadelphia beer renaissance. Now, nearly two years down the road, we can see more clearly what that beginning has wrought.

        For one thing, the "establishment" has risen to the competitive challenge. At Stoudt's, head brewer Marc Worona points to the addition of additional tanks in the 25-barrel brewhouse so that beers can be aged longer, the fact that several Stoudt ales are now cask conditioned for serving on a hand pump and the introduction of two special brews this past fall to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the brewery. Stoudt's Anniversary Dark, a special maibock in 65 ml bottles with the original reindeer pattern label and a wax dipped seal, became available in the spring; Stoudt's 10th Anniversary Commemorative Doublebock, a Marzen which was lagered until the end of September, was released as a draft product for Octoberfest.

        At Dock Street, according to head brewer Eric Savage, there came a realization in 1995 "that we weren't going to be the only guys on the block anymore. So we sat down and thought about what we wanted to do with our beer. We had always strived primarily for authenticity, but as more and more microbrews came out, people started to want something more, something memorable. As a result, we've become bolder and more aggressive with our beers at the brewpub (an eight-barrel brewhouse). Lately we've been doing a lot with Belgian styles and we introduced a new Belgian Strong Ale this past Fall."

        America-U-Brew, which now markets itself as a "personal microbrewery" rather than a BOP, has begun implementing a bold and unique plan for its Gravity label. One of the suburban Philadelphia locations has been closed and relocated to Kansas City where, as Gravity Brewing Company, it operates in similar fashion to the Philadelphia company, combining personal brewing, contract brewing and the manufacture of Gravity Pale Ale for resale. "We envision either acquiring or becoming partners with existing BOP operations and forming small Gravity microbreweries in several markets," says Morrissey. "In the long run, we could have national identity and national buying power, but continue to brew in small batches and be fresh and local in each market."

         Red Bell began brewing at its 280,000 square foot new facility in late June 1996 and has aggressively sought to expand the market in some interesting ways. A year ago, the brewery opened the Red Bell Brewery and Pub in Philadelphia's new CoreStates Center (home to the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers), the first brewpub in a major arena in the country. Although a deal for a center city brewpub fell through at the last minute, several other new venues are in the works, including a brewpub in the historic Reading Terminal Market.

        "I want my beers to look different, taste different, be different," says Director Brewing Cancro, happy now that the process is under his full control in the 40-barrel brewhouse. Specialty brews such as a Black Cherry Stout and a rich Wee Heavy Scottish Ale are attracting the attention of the city's growing legion of beer aficionados, but Red Bell's major effort rests behind its Philadelphia Original Lager, a mild German Hellas style available in both kegs and bottles. That label is taking dead aim on Yuengling's domination of the market, stressing its all-malt character and low price.
        At Independence, Connor has chosen another approach to try and firm up and expand the company's foothold in the market: advertising. A public stock offering in early 1997 raised $6.8 million and $1.5 million of that is being pumped into a print, radio and direct mail campaign to increase name recognition for the brand, in effect fighting the Majors on their own turf. Other funds have gone toward a new Krones bottling line and new keg line, as well as additional personnel.

        "We took the risk of starting out with a large facility that we could grow into," says brewmaster Moore (Independence has a 32,000 square foot plant with a 40-barrel brewhouse in the city's northeast section), "which means we have to produce and sell a lot of beer. We try to stress quality and to make good, clean beers that are well balanced and suited to the market." Leading products in draft and bottles are Franklinfest, a traditional Marzen lager which won a Gold Medal at the 1996 GABF, and Gold Ale, which took a Bronze at the same event. The ale started out as a seasonal but proved to be so popular it is now brewed year round.

        For Victory, their HopDevil India Pale Ale, as noted, was an immediate hit, but the crisp lagers Barchet and Covaleski so relish are probably the brewery's long-term strength. These include Brandywine Valley Lager, Prima Pils, Victory Festbier, St. Boisterous Hellerbock and St. Victorious Doppelbock. Victory also produces an imperial stout and seasonals. According to Covaleski, the pair "plan to whittle away at all the beer styles and eventually try our hand at most of them. We try to make beers that appeal to us personally and we don't mind playing with things to make them right. I guess you could call us sort of traditional nonconformists," he laughs. Barchet cites an example: "Our Prima Pils is right on in terms of style, with the aroma and bitterness you'd expect, but we turned everything up a just a little bit. We wanted to show hopheads who love IPA and only IPA that lagers can be nice and hoppy too. Plus we use only Bavarian malts, which are dramatically different from the Cascades so common in most American microbrews."

        Victory has a 25-barrel brewhouse and probably the best bottling setup of all the local micros, a 15-head Technik line. "The bottling equipment is the most expensive part of the whole brewery," notes Barchet, shaking his head ruefully.

        Sweeping and dramatic changes have come at Yards. Bovit and Kehoe put their house trailer-sized original site behind them early this summer and moved into a 6,000 square foot former warehouse to set up a 25-barrel brewhouse, immediately increasing weekly production by two and a half times. As before, they designed the entire system and had it custom built. The addition of a small 4-head Maheen bottling line, put cask conditioned bottles of Yards ESA on the street late this November. "Bottling is new for us, so it's risky," admits Kehoe. "You can't put a hop sack in each bottle, so it will be a little different. Our great advantage is that we have a solid grass roots customer base who know us personally and who will let us know if they don't like something."

        Yards has also found a new source to upgrade the British Maris Otter malts they use and ordered a year's worth of hop plugs in advance. They also added a new head brewer, Brandon Greenwood, a rare American graduate of Scotland's Heriot-Watt University, where he earned a Master's Degree in brewing and distilling. Greenwood, who worked at Edinburgh's Caledonian Brewery before returning to this country, has a simple job description, says Bovit. "Brandon is here to bring us to the next level."
        There are many other stories that ought to be told here-for example, beers produced at Pennsylvania's Lancaster Malt Brewing (Lancaster), Pretzel City Brewing (Reading) and Weyerbacher Brewing (Easton) and New Jersey's Flying Fish and Delaware's Dogfish Head breweries are important landmarks in the Philadelphia beer revival-but we have only so much space, unfortunately.

        Still, just as a fine beer is balanced and well rounded, the finish fulfilling the promise of the initial sip, our story, which began with the disappearance of a classic old Philadelphia brewing name can, fortuitously enough, achieve that same character if we but add the city's newest microbrewery to the tale.

        On June 7, 1997, Henry A. Ortlieb opened his brewery, Henry Ortlieb's Original Philadelphia Beer Company, and his brewpub, Poor Henry's, in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia, in the building that once served as the packaging center for the brewery his family owned and operated for more than a century (the original brewery is directly across the street from the new one). The opening returning a grand old name to the local beer scene. Interestingly, according to local beer historian Rich Wagner, Poor Henry's is quite likely located on the site where lager was first brewed in America, in 1842, by John Wagner.

        "I've wanted to do this since the original brewery closed in 1981," says Henry, a great grandson of founder Trupert Ortlieb. "I've tried to get the name back, but so far they won't give it to me." The Ortlieb's trademark was sold to Schmidt's in '81, went to Heilman's with Schmidt's closing in 1987 and finally disappeared from the market last year when Stroh bought Heilman's and closed its Baltimore plant.
        Under whatever name, Ortlieb's has come back on a grand scale: a huge 60 barrel brewhouse (plus a second seven barrel system for the brewpub) producing "beers, ales and specialty brews that are created from the family's secret recipes." Two styles, Old Stock Lager and Awesome Ale, are now available in bottles which bear a Poor Henry's label based on an Ortlieb's version from the 1930s which showed the original brewery circa 1914. Other design elements point up the fact that the Ortlieb's tradition stretches back to 1869.

        In Philadelphia, where tradition always counts and brewing has proven to be a once and future thing, it seems only fitting that what goes around has come around.

The Little (Beer) Engine That Could

        When Jon Bovit and Tom Kehoe premiered their Yards Extra Special Ale at the first Philadelphia Craft Beer Festival in April 1995 (see main story), they were looking for tavern owners eager not only to offer an authentic British style ale to their customers but also to "serve it right."

        "A true cask-conditioned ale, to be appreciated at its best, needs to be served at the right temperature and drawn on a traditional hand pump, or beer engine," says Bovit.

        They found their man among the many publicans who called the Yards Brewery the day after the Festival, anxious to carry the new brew. He was Dave Wilby, owner of the Dawson Street Pub, a former biker hangout which he was steadily transforming into a "good beer bar." Like Yards, Dawson Street was located in Philadelphia's Manayunk section, a sprawling community along the banks of the Schuylkill River just shy of the western suburbs. "I've been looking for a reason to put in a beer engine," Wilby happily told the two brewers and, within a matter of weeks, he had located, purchased and installed a used hand pump from Canada.

        It was an ideal situation. As Yards grew to be the city's cult brew and seekers of truth would call or visit the brewery, "we'd send them across town to Dawson Street," remembers Kehoe, "because there we knew they'd get to taste the beer exactly the way we intended it to be." Both businesses benefited, of course, and others began to take notice. Downtown, hand pumps in the Dock Street and Samuel Adams brewpubs, generally ignored and often not even always in service previously, suddenly became facilities to be trumpeted. And cask conditioning became the mantra of other brewers, both local and national, seeking to break into the market.

        Observing all this with great interest was Eddie Friedland, vice president of Edward I. Friedland Company, a local beer distributorship with a proud beer history (Friedland's father, Marty, was the first US distributor on the East Coast to bring Bass Ale into the country). Friedland was trying to make his distributorship a specialist in microbrews and was eager to take on the Yards account. "Those guys were such perfectionists," he laughs now. "I had to convince them that my delivery people had respect for our products and wouldn't mishandle their beer before I even started trying to convince them that I should sell it for them."

        Friedland got the account, finally, and while waiting to take it over, contacted several breweries in England and asked about hand pumps. "Somebody finally put me in touch with Hi.Gene Beer Pumps over there," he remembers, "and they gave me a good price and made me the exclusive distributor for the East Coast." Thus he was able to offer not only Yards ales to his customers, but also a dispensing system ideally suited to delivering those ales at their peak levels of enjoyment.

        There are today probably three dozen or more hand pumps in the area. It is virtually impossible to find a bar which specializes in quality brews that doesn't have at least one (Dawson Street is up to three). Several of the more adventuresome local bars have even taken the whole process one step further, regularly gravity-tapping small casks right on top of the bar.

        For that matter, Brigid's, a small Belgian-style pub in the hip Art Museum area, has installed a permanent gravity-tapping system, the brainchild of local beer writer and proselytizer Jim Anderson. Kegs are stored and tapped in a temperature controlled room above the bar and poured through a pipe in the ceiling to taps below. Yards is often the brew of choice for this presentation, but the "Down Draft" system has also featured such goodies as a Dock Street Imperial Stout and the only cask-conditioned versions ever of Hair of the Dog's Adambier and Stoudt's Pilsner.

        The Down Draft is apparently the only system of its kind in the country, perhaps the entire world, although there are rumors about a pub in liverpool. CAMRA has been in to check it out, says Anderson. "They never did give me any official word, one way or the other, but they drank a lot and left smiling."

        Truly, a journey of a thousands beers, as the Chinese might have said, begins with a single hand pump. And what happened to that second-hand beer engine from which Dave Wilby introduced Yards ESA to all those wandering pilgrims? It's been retired from active duty and now sits in Tom Kehoe's basement.

Copyright (c) 1998 Jack Curtin