County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

Perhaps not considered as noble as spirits­ – the clear, silvery gins, the South’s prized bourbons – nor as trendy as wines – particularly Califor­nia’s pale, refreshing whites – ­beer, nevertheless, has been a staple of the American lifestyle for more than three centuries. Pennsylvania’s earliest brewing traditions eventually emerged as an influential industry, affecting not only local and state economies, but the ways in which generations of Pennsylvanians labored, as well as relaxed.

Although successful centers of brewing evolved where large pools of immigrants settled – such as Milwaukee and St. Louis – very few states, if any, can claim a longer or more extensive involvement with beer and beer-making than Pennsyl­vania. From founder William Penn’s home brewing in the late seventeenth century to today’s small stronghold of independent commercial breweries, Pennsylvania possesses a proud, but rarely exalted, legacy of malted brews and brewmasters.

Beer – or, more precisely, ales, porters and stouts primarily originating in England – arrived in the New World very early. The Pilgrims reputedly chose to land at Plymouth Rock in 1620 partly because they had exhausted their supplies, “especially our beere.” The early shoreline explorers tasted a corn mash, beer-like brew offered by the Native Americans. The Pilgrims were not, however, the first ale brewers in America; records attest to domestic brewing in the lost Colony of Virginia as early as 1587! America’s first “help wanted” advertisements appearing in London newspa­pers in 1609, incidentally, sought experienced brewers to serve the new Virginia colony. By 1612, two settlers estab­lished a primitive commercial brewing operation in a log house on Manhattan Island.

Most early voyages to the colonies included beer as a vital provision. While water would quickly stagnate during the ocean crossings, properly casked beer would hold up well. A typical voyage to New England offered each passen­ger a weekly fare of bread, beef, fish, assorted vegeta­bles – as well as a seemingly staggering portion of seven gallons of beer. Often, one employee or passenger was appointed to tend to this important beverage. John Miles Standish, the noted colonist who arrived on the Mayflower, was one such individual.

Until the last decade of the seventeenth century, beer was usually imported in great casks or brewed and fermented from starch cereals and grains at home by early colonists. During this period, the quality and flavor of beer varied widely due to the limited availability of tradi­tional ingredients such as barley malt, yeast, hops and water. For many years the beer served while dining more often than not reflected the social status of the host. The well-to-do could afford imported malts and hops, enabling them to create a beer not unlike that brewed overseas. Until barley crops were established here, those less affluent relied on maize, bran, molasses, persimmons, potatoes, spruce twigs, birch bark, pumpkin parings and other fillers to concoct something remotely similar to beer. Ginger root, bay leaf and allspice were added to render the beverage somewhat palat­able.

William Penn carefully instructed his agents on the design and construction of Pennsbury Manor, his elegant country plantation twenty-six miles north of Philadelphia on the banks of the Delaware River. He made certain that the self-sustaining estate was outfitted with a brew house.

As population, demand and suppliers increased, commercial brewers eventu­ally emerged and proliferated. William Frampton opened the first commercial operation in the port city as early as 1683. In 1687, Anthony Morris, Philadelphia’s second mayor, opened a brew house on Front Street. The structure is immor­talized in the earliest oil paint­ing of Philadelphia, “The South East Prospect of the City of Philadelphia,” by Peter Cooper in 1720 (see the spring 1985 issue, pages 30-31).

Ever the consummate businessman and promoter, William Penn wrote “A Further Account Of The Province of Pennsylvania And Its Improvements” for the Free Society of Traders in the mid-1680s:

Our Drink has been Beer and Punch, made of Rum and Water: Our Beer was mostly made of Molasses, which well boyld, until it makes very tollerable drink; but now they make Mault, and Mault Drink begins to be common, especially at Ordinaries and the Houses of the more substantial People. In our great Town there is as able Man, that has set up a large Brew House, in order to furnish the People with good Drink, both there and up and down the River.

Whether Penn’s enthusias­tic advertisement was respon­sible for encouraging other brewers is unknown, but four commercial brew houses were in operation in Philadelphia by 1694. Their beers and ales rivaled those produced in London.

As the colony entered the eighteenth century, the port of Philadelphia continued to grow and prosper as a vital, important brewing center. By 1721, Philadelphia beer was being shipped as far south as Charleston and the industry was firmly established in the city by mid-century. Beginning in 1787, the city’s brewing operations required at least forty thousand bushels of barley annually.

In addition to the early breweries, several malt houses were founded by 1696 to supply the brewmasters with processed barley malt. The strength of Philadelphia beer was equivalent to its London mentors, and was often a mixture of “half and half”­ – part light ale and part stout. In time its reputation had spread to Barbados where it was preferred to British beer even though it was more expensive.

Beer-making inevitably spread to other areas in Pennsylvania. The Moravians built a brewery at Christian’s Springs, Northampton County, in 1749. Henry Eckert in 1763 founded a brewing complex in Reading which continued under various owners until 1831. His products included “strong,” “middle” and “small” beer.

The American Revolution disrupted the industry’s growth, but it once again burgeoned upon the end of the conflict. Reports indicate existence of a brew house in Pittsburgh in 1782, while the better known Point Brewery opened in 1795. Most of the malt liquor consumed in the United States by 1791 was sold by domestic operations.

Commercial breweries prompted the development of an important, new location for the consumption of beer: the tavern. Philadelphia’s first was the Blue Anchor. Although many were modest – often nothing more than crude log structures – these taverns became centers of activity during the colonial period. In time many became famous. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence at Philadelphia’s Indian Queen Tavern while the nearby Tavern of the Tun served as the backdrop for the formation of the United States Marine Corps. Leo Bressler, a contributor to Pennsylvania 1776. reported that “in the public rooms of Pennsylvania inns a patron could drink locally made beer, ale and cider, as well as a limited array of expensive wines and spirits.”

Many of these rural inns, taverns and hotels loaned names to the settlements clustered around them. King of Prussia, Blue Ball, Broad Axe and Red Lion were origi­nally names of early taverns. As late as the opening decades of the nineteenth century, wayside hotels still offered their names to villages in rural areas. The Home Sweet Home Hotel in Rush Township, Schuylkill County, owned by William and John Kaup, prominent Pennsylvania German farmers, lent its name to the bustling village of Hometown.

Pennsylvania’s brewing enjoyed its finest era in terms of quality, quantity and diver­sity beginning with the nineteenth century. With the construction of major highways and turnpikes came the establishment of taverns and hostelries. Along the National Road, authorized by the federal government in 1806 and completed in 1818, taverns were located every few miles. But beer was not the most popular beverage. According to Thomas Searights in The Old Pike, “Ale was used in limited quantities, but was not a favorite drink. Whiskey was the leading beverage, and it was plentiful and cheap.”

Relative disrepute along the National Road did not deter other manufacturers. By 1810, Pittsburgh counted three large brewery complexes and one small operation. Their combined output by 1815 amounted to a respectable 18,000 barrels annually. Wainwright Brewing Company appeared in nearby Allegheny three years later. Frederick Seitz began brewing in Easton about 1821. In 1824, the Lauer Brewery began in Womelsdorf, Berks County, but two years later moved to Reading, the county seat. George Lauer succeeded his father, Frederick, in 1835 and less than Len years later became one of the country’s first lager producers, earning a reputation as “father of the American brewing industry.”

Before the early 1840s, beer was a type of ale fermented with a yeast that rose to the top. The new lager beer, origi­nally developed by Bavarian monks during the previous century, was fermented at a lower temperature with a yeast that fell to the bottom. Lagers featured a lighter taste and they could be stored for a longer period of time, making them easier to transport. The word “lagern,” in fact, means “to store.”

Brewing historians disagree on which brewer sponsored the first shipments of European lagering yeasts to the United States, but it does seem certain that Pennsylvani­ans or, more specifically, Philadelphians were respon­sible. Philadelphia brewer John Wagner has been credited by several research­ers with the first American lager in 1840. Unfortunately, his venture did not meet lasting success; in fact, his operations ceased in 1859. Iron City Beer, made first in the 1860s by Frauenheim and Vilsack Company (now Pitts­burgh Brewing Company), is probably the oldest extant lager beer under the same name in the country.

The introduction of lager beers not only pleased the German population of the state, which had grown considerably after 1700, but it also offered excellent employ­ment opportunities for newly arrived German immigrants, many of whom joined the industry as apprentices.

Echoing a trend throughout the country, breweries began appearing in many communi­ties during the mid-nineteenth century. Not only had opera­tions been established in every major city, but they were, by the 1870s, an economic force in small towns and villages, including Beaver Falls, Catasauqua, Lykens, Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe), Tyrone, Galeton and Millers­town. About 1850 Pennsyl­vania reportedly took second place to Ohio as the largest grain distiller, but Pennsyl­vania boasted 172 breweries in 1860, producing at least twenty-five percent of the domestic malt liquor. By 1870 – the year 3,286 brewers offered 5,093,300 barrels of beer – Philadelphia counted 53 operations and Pittsburgh claimed fifteen. In each city today, only one company is still in business.

Pennsylvania has been home to at least 865 brewers even though many were small and highly dependent on the loyalty of their communities and nearby consumers. Brewer Jacob Zelt arrived in southwestern Pennsylvania in 1845 and founded a small company. Zelt’s successful operation had expanded considerably and, by 1873, was producing 300 barrels each year. The company, later renamed the Washington Brewery, sounds statistically quite small, but it typified operations in Pennsylvania during the second half of the nineteenth century. Many brewers started small and stayed small, usually closing completely – due to poor business or Prohibition – or purchased by industry giants. The Washington Brewery survived until Prohibition, but others were merged with larger operations: The Lion purchased Wilkes-Barre’s Stegmaier and Bartels compa­nies. Some simply disap­peared without a trace. The Wyoming Valley Brewing Company, headquartered in Kingston, Luzerne County, was established in the 1890s by several Scranton business­men, but its subsequent devel­opment has been lost in the annals of history.

Many nineteenth century breweries are now remem­bered as no more than obscure footnotes or eagerly collected souvenir tumblers and trays, yet several Pennsylvania operations still influence the industry. The most significant of independent brewers is, perhaps, D.G. Yuengling & Son of Pottsville.

Founded originally as the Eagle Brewery in 1829, D.G. Yuengling & Son holds the honor of being the country’s oldest family-owned brewery in continuous operation. The founder, David G. Yuengling, was born in Germany in 1806 and came to America in the 1820s. After living in Reading, sixteen miles southeast of Pottsville, he moved to the Schuylkill County seat and established the small brewery. He was joined by his son Frederick G. in 1873. The company was incorporated in 1914 and remained open during Prohibition by produc­ing “near beer,” a rather anemic brew with less than .5% alcohol as compared to the customary 3.5% alcoholic content today. The complex was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Thirty years after David G. Yuengling began brewing, Robert Coutrenny founded his operation on Philadelphia’s Edward Street, but it was taken over a year later by Borden and Brother. The company was acquired by Christian Schmidt in 1863 whose current corporation­ – after many changes and pur­chases – today ranks in the top ten of the country’s beer brewers.

Other companies fared as well as Yuengling and Schmidt’s.

Competitor Pittsburgh Brewing Company humbly began as Frauenheim, Miller and Company in 1861, but its size and output mushroomed with the 1899 merger and take-over that involved more than twenty breweries in the greater Pittsburgh area. What eventually evolved as the Pittsburgh Brewing Company is now the tenth largest brewer in the nation.

Peter Straub in 1874 purchased a fledgling two­-year old business in St. Marys. Today, the company produces thirty-six thousand barrels of highly popular beer every year.

Even though the Victorian era spawned many breweries, due primarily to growing ethnic populations and the corollary growth in demand for lagers, most had finally closed by 1919, the remainder during the 1950s. The year 1919 marked the advent of Prohibition, the thirteen year period during which alcoholic beverages were outlawed by the Eighteenth Amendment. Of the more than eleven hundred breweries in the United States operating in 1919, less than 750 survived to reopen in 1933, the repeal of Prohibition.

The companies that did survive to brew again succeeded by adapting their facilities for manufacturing other products. Yuengling made “near beer.” In addition to “near beer,” Pittsburgh Brewing Company made soft drinks and opened an icehouse. Other Pennsylvania companies weathered the long dry spell with similarly inven­tive strategies.

But Prohibition was not the only threat to brewers.

As smaller companies were acquired by larger companies, the conglomerates allowed the smaller facilities to deteriorate while shifting production of the popular labels to a central plant. With the original complexes went the once widely varying types of beers.

Since Prohibition’s end, and with the exception of several short-lived 1934 endeavors, only one large company has been established in Pennsylvania. Schaefer Brewing in 1977 transferred its Albany and Brooklyn, New York. plants to a new facility west of Allentown. True to the evolution of the entire indus­try, Schaefer has been acquired by Stroh-Schlitz, vastly reducing the independence of the long-established brewer.

Indeed, economic troubles and corporate closings have driven the number of brewers in U1e United States ever downward-to approximately forty-six today. Pennsylvania is fortunate in claiming – in addition to Schaefer and Yuengling – seven indepen­dent beer makers with single locations. Only California­ – buoyed by a new trend of micro-breweries – can compete with the Common­wealth for the greatest number of active breweries. Although the volume of products may not equal or surpass California or Wisconsin, Pennsylvania’s brewers are still significantly influencing consumers throughout the country.

Each of these fortunate survivors faces an ever­-increasing struggle for contin­ued support. Straub’s of St. Marys is the sole brewer that has been able to sell whatever volume it chooses to produce. The remaining independents encounter many competitors, including each other, for a share in a volatile market dominated by huge conglom­erates. But the fact that they do survive – whether due to strong family control wielded by the Yuenglings or the Straubs – is an effervescent, heady tribute to the time­-honored traditions which date to William Penn’s era. Of the early established states, only New York, Virginia, New Jersey and Ohio count brewery operations that are not branches of national majors. And Pennsylvania, true not only to its noble brewing traditions, but to its heritage of hard work and patience, produces more than fourteen million barrels of beer each month.


For Further Reading

Dunaway, Wayland F. A History of Pennsylvania. 2nd ed. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1948.

Friedrich, Manfred and Bull, Donald. The Register of United States Breweries 1876-1976. Trumball, CT, 1976.

Klein, Philip S. and Hoogenboom, Ari. A History of Pennsylvania. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.

Porter, John. All About Beer. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975.

Robertson, James D. The Great American Beer Book. New York: Warner Books, 1980.

Secor, Robert, gen. ed. Pennsylvania 1776. State College: The Pennsylvania State University, 1973.

Siebel, John E. and Schwartz, Anton. History of the Brewing Industry and Brewing Science in America. Chicago: G.L. Peter­son, 1933.

Weiss, Harry B. and Grace M. The Early Breweries of New Jersey. Trenton: New Jersey Agricultural Society, 1963.


William D. Cissna is a free-lance writer, field editor for the magazine All About Beer and a lecturer on beer-related topics for the University of Pittsburgh’s informal education program. He graduated from Allegheny College in 1976 and worked for nine years in public relations and advertis­ing. The author lives with his wife and young son in Upper St. Clair, near Pittsburgh, where he pursues his studies of brewing history.