A crafty comeback set for Joe’s beer

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Remember Ortlieb’s Beer? I can still taste the gassy belch left over from the last time the warm dregs from a 16-ounce can drained down my throat.

Forget the thin, fizzy taste, though. Mention “Ortlieb’s” around town, and you’re likely to be met with a smile of nostalgia. Old-timers remember when it and Schmidt’s were king in the city; baby-boomers can recite those old radio commercials that hawked “Joe’s Beer.”

The Northern Liberties brewery closed in the early ‘80s and its name was sold and re-sold over the years till Stroh’s decided to kill it for good last fall.

Ortlieb’s – or, as they call it in my neighborhood, Or’lips – may be extinct, but its DNA is still alive. This week, Henry Ortlieb, a great-grandson of the brewery’s founder, opened his long-awaited Poor Henry’s Brewery & Restaurant on the site of Ortlieb’s huge, old bottling plant.

The place reeks of brewing history, not to mention the smell of malt and hops.

Tucked among the rusting carcasses of old factories and mills, the brewery is what they call a destination; you’re not likely to stumble across this place while bar-hopping down on nearby Delaware Avenue. Once inside, though, happy beer-drinkers will find a decent selection of freshly brewed ales that, thankfully, taste nothing like those old Ortlieb’s dregs. I haven’t sampled the food yet, but entree prices are in the $10-15 range.

Beer historian Rich Wagner believes Poor Henry’s location, at American and Poplar streets, is the probable site of America’s first lager brewery, opened in 1850.

Trupert Ortlieb started his company in 1879 and his descendants expanded it as a formidable presence among Northern Liberty’s breweries.

The bottling plant was erected in 1948, and at one time it was churning out a half-million barrels a year. Poor Henry’s will produce a fraction of that in two separate breweries – one to provide ales and lagers for an on-site pub, and a larger one that will put out kegs and bottles. Look for its Awesome Ale and a lager on the shelves later this summer.

Go ahead, make your wisecracks about a megabrewer trying to put out a craft brew. When I impolitely slighted the family brew, Ortlieb winced briefly and replied, “I firmly believe that Ortlieb’s was as good as, if not better than, any industrial lager brewed in America.”

That is, until his father called him at college one day in the early ‘70s and told him he was going to cut back on the hops and malt to compete with the light beers that Bud and Miller were starting to market. Ortlieb had worked at the brewery as a teen-ager, washing delivery trucks, hoisting kegs. He thought he knew the business, and “I told him he was selling out… The irony is that the old taste is coming back.”

Henry’s father died in 1975. By then, the label was already in decline, soundly trounced by larger national brands. Two years later, the brewery was purchased by his father’s cousin, Joe Ortlieb – the familiar voice of those radio commercials who poked fun at himself while calling it Joe’s Beer.

“It was a heartbreaking decision for me to sell the brewery because it had been in the family for 100 years,” Henry Ortlieb said while sampling a pint of freshly brewed ESB at the pub’s bar. “I never dreamed I’d be back in here again.”

Ortlieb calls himself “a frustrated brewmaster,” and says he wants to get back to the kettle himself, possibly cooking up some of the old recipes he’s unearthed from family records. Right now, though, he’s spending 20-hour days with the details of opening a new business.

His head brewer, John Ruhl, is handling the beer making chores. Like Ortlieb, Ruhl’s brewing background is in megabrewing. He served seven years as an assistant at Champale, the malt liquor brewery that formerly operated in Trenton.

“We’re using all malt, with no adjuncts like corn,” said Ruhl, who said he is a sixth-generation brewer whose father worked for the trend-setting New Amsterdam brewery. “I’m looking to put out up to 10 different brews at a time, from unfiltered wheat beer to Imperial stout.”

And, he promises, “This beer won’t taste like the old Ortlieb’s.”

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Hey, maybe I’m overly nostalgic, or just plain twisted. But I sure could go for a can of that old Ortlieb’s. I’m told you can still find a dusty case in some local distributors.

<boldface this graf>So, here’s the deal: Bring me a case of Ortlieb’s The first person who shows up at my desk at the Daily News with a case can trade it in for a coupla rounds of beer and dinner for two at Poor Henry’s.

Unless, of course, you want to drain the old Or’lips yourself. Speaking as a fan of old Philly beers, I can’t say I blame you.

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