Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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{Lager Beer}
Beer Wagon

After the Civil War over a hundred breweries serviced by a large German population, concentrated around the Schuylkill River between Spring Garden and Girard Avenues. Lager beer requires ice, and Brewerytown by 1880 reversed the usual Philadelphia population growth pattern by spreading East from the Schuylkill caves and ice vaults toward the Delaware River wards as electric refrigeration made that practical. There were more breweries along the Schuylkill than could be accommodated anyway. Prohibition in 1919 then abruptly killed the beer industry, Brewerytown became a slum. A large real estate developer is now trying to gentrify that area, laying down rather arbitrary borders to a brewery area after all breweries have disappeared. Some heated but pointless arguments are heard about which block is, or is not part of Brewerytown; the fact is, it's hard to say.

After World War II the area was filled with deserted houses, Skid Rows, and questionable characters. The worst Skid Row was at the base of the Ben Franklin Bridge along the edge of Franklin Square, probably not within any reasonable definition of Brewerytown but certainly affected by the brewery upheaval. After this blight had been brutally cleared away, a strip between Vine Street and Fishtown/Kensington became mostly a no-mans land of vacant lots, awaiting a developer. Or an expanded Chinatown, or whatever else will eventually be drawn into large parcels of land quite near the center of the city. The vacancy rate is unusually high because of the barrier of the cross-town Vine Street Expressway, but it can't last; whatever fills this vacuum is going to make a big impact on the future of Philadelphia. Meanwhile, it's patchy, sort of like London after the blitz.

But what's behind the rise and fall of the breweries?

Beer was known to the ancient Egyptians, and mentioned by Aristotle, Herodotus, Pliny, and Tacitus as the "wine made out of barley". Grain grows better in rainy Germany, while grapes grow better in dry Mediterranean regions, so beer has long been more popular among Central European people than Latin ones. The beer itself changed very little until the time of the American Civil War when Lager beer was introduced. Ale, porter and brown stout are brewed at room temperature, but lager beer must be kept very cold from start to finish. And that's the underlying fact driving the massive expansion of beer consumption. People like cold lager beer much better than the warm stuff. In 1863, Americans consumed 3 million barrels of warm stuff, but in 1883, they consumed 18 million barrels of cold lager. Enter, Philadelphia.

At first, cold lager was brewed in caves, and only in the winter. If you wanted to go for big volume, you had to haul in tremendous amounts of ice and build massive fortresses to hold all the weight. Pictures of 19th Century Philadelphia are astonishing for the huge size of the breweries, the associated stables, and beer gardens. These things needed railroads and harbors nearby to ship out the product, and to ship in the grain, ice, glass bottles. And coal.

The underlying principle was that breweries had to generate their own electricity in order to run the refrigeration units, and the refrigeration industry itself was stimulated to develop nearby. It's probably no accident that the science of electrical engineering was largely developed in Germany during this time. Another factor required was good water, supplied by Artesian wells going down to the Raritan aquifer. And finally steam was a big ingredient, used to sterilize the bottles, brew kettles, and floors of the brewery. Cleanliness was not just a necessity, it was a fetish. Even the horses were cleaned by steam, a mass production effort requiring two minutes per horse. Lots of horses and lots of Teamsters. So many in fact the dairymen were the main audience for the local professional baseball teams.

Three things killed the breweries.

Philadelphia water became notoriously bad, and conservation movements began to protect the aquifers from excessive penetration. The cheapest refrigerant was ammonia, and its use was prohibited by local ordinances, concerned by gas warfare in World War I. But the biggest killer was prohibition. Distilled spirits were easier to smuggle in from Canada (to Boston), ounce for ounce of alcohol content. Little copper stills could be hidden in the Jersey Pine Barrens, or the hills of Appalachia, but lager breweries were here in the first place because they were so enormous and industrial. Prohibition lasted long enough to change American tastes from beer gardens to speakeasies, from beer to booze. During that period, the huge industry sort of collapsed and never revived. It's certainly true that fickle American tastes, guided by the tax laws, have once more turned from distilled spirits to fermented ones. But now it's grape wine, not barley wine that has engaged the excitement of young things on both coasts. What beer industry it is left has migrated to the center of the country, the so-called red states, and grape versus barley has become a social-political issue to be decided every four years, on the first Tuesday in November. Trace out the local liquor taxation rates if you doubt it.

Originally published: Saturday, June 17, 2006; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2019