by Christine Wolkin
Rich Wagner, Pennsylvania Brewery Historian of more than 30 years, says you don’t have to be a beer drinker to make a good beer historian but that it certainly “helps the research along.” Author of “Philadelphia Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Cradle of Liberty,” Wagner will be speaking on Thursday, April 19, 7 p.m., at Morris Arboretum’s concluding lecture series on brewing and malting in early Philadelphia. The audience will be treated to a satisfying journey from the earliest ale brewers and the heyday of lager beer through the dismally dry years of Prohibition and into the current craft-brewing renaissance to discover and celebrate the untapped history of Philadelphia beer.
Part of that journey will focus on Anthony Morris, ancestor of Arboretum founders, John and Lydia Morris, who became Philadelphia’s second brewer in 1687. “The Morris family founded several breweries to supply ship captains with necessary sustenance for their long voyages and serve the city’s thriving tavern culture that supplied the growing city with food, drink and lodging,” said Wagner.
When Philadelphia was the second largest English-speaking city after London and the largest seaport in the colonies, it produced more beer than the rest of the colonies combined. “Throughout history New York has pretty much been at the top of the list in terms of a state, but Pennsylvania’s distinction is that more often than not had more breweries than New York,” said Wagner.
“Every neighborhood had its own brewery, and every corner had a saloon. The city’s population was barely half of today’s, and yet it had 12 times the number of breweries,” said Don Russell, more commonly known as beer columnist Joe Sixpack of the Philadelphia Daily News.
William Penn, who constructed a brewery on his own property, and later the founding fathers promoted the development of the brewing industry as a solid foundation for a temperate society and as an engine for promoting industry and technological innovation. Brewing gave agriculture production a boost since brewers needed barley and hops, which encouraged their cultivation. And according to Wagner, producing that liquid libation was incredibly hard work.
Breweries lacked the modern conveniences of indoor plumbing, electricity or essentially any automation. Giant open kettles were heated over raging hearths. Ice was cut from the river. Barrels were made by hand and sealed with hot pitch. Casks were stored in underground vaults carved out of solid rock and insulated with straw. Horse-drawn drays delivered the beer. Basic equipment like the thermometer and hydrometer wouldn’t be invented till the 1760s. Brewers knew the water was ready for mashing when it was “hot enough to bite your finger smartly,” said Wagner.
Despite the hardship, Philadelphia’s ale earned a solid reputation throughout the colonies and beyond. In 1876, Brewerytown brewery Bergner and Engel won the grand prize for its beer at the Centennial Exposition. Additionally, the historic brewery won the grand prize at the Paris Exposition in 1878, elevating the status of American brewing in the eyes of the world. “That got the attention of the brewers in Europe, being beat by some guy from the New World,” said Wagner.
Rich Wagner, a former high school science teacher who frequently dresses up like a Colonial brewer for hands-on demonstrations, began interpreting the brewing process in 1990 at William Penn’s home, Pennsbury Manor, in lower Buvksd County. Since then he has constructed his own brewing system to demonstrate the brewing technology of the late 17th century. Using this experience along with primary source material, he gives us a view of the city’s earliest breweries.
Join Morris Arboretum for this engaging talk, followed by a reception with refreshments at the Widener Visitor Center. The cost for this lecture is $15 for Arboretum members and $20 for non-members, which includes admission to the garden for the talk.
Call 215-247-5777, ext. 125, or visit http://bit.ly/morrislectures to make a reservation. Advanced registration is required.