A heady historic feat for Philadelphia: America’s first lager

In Philadelphia, there are scores of historical markers commemorating churches and politicians and inventors and factories.

But none for beer.

As the voice of the beer-drinking public, I’d file an immediate complaint with the proper authorities if I weren’t too lazy to slide off this barstool. So Joe Sixpack will simply lift a pint to toast Rich Wagner, the city’s leading beer historian, who has made it his mission to promote Philadelphia’s important role in the foundation of brewing in America.

Rich’s latest effort is to persuade the state Historical and Museum Commission to place one of those familiar blue markers at the site of what he believes is America’s first lager brewery, right here in Philadelphia.

Sudsters without a sense of history may regard such a crusade to be about as useful as preserving last weekend’s case of empties.

But for those who care about what they guzzle, the sacred birthplace of American lager is the beer-drinker’s Independence Hall.

Before the mid-1800s, most Americans were drinking homemade ales, with notoriously uneven tastes. Lagers – especially those from Germany – were regarded as premium beers because they were brewed and aged under the exacting standards of Bavaria’s Beer Purity Law, known as the Reinheitsgebot.

American brewers who tried to produce a drinkable lager were stymied by the unfortunate death rate of imported lager yeast. Seems the stuff tended to succumb to old age and poor handling before it reached American harbors.

The number of valiant yeast organisms that gave their lives for your favorite beer is, sadly, unknown. But sometime around 1840, their miserable lot improved substantially with the introduction of fast clipper shipping lines from Europe.

By 1850, German immigrants had turned Philadelphia into the lager-brewing capital of the New World. In Northern Liberties and along the Schuylkill in a neighborhood that would soon be called Brewerytown, lager makers turned out thousands of wooden barrels for America’s largest city.

Rich – who has spent a disproportionate amount of his adulthood nosing around Pennsylvania’s defunct breweries – always wondered who among those early brewers was the first. “It’s been a longstanding wild goose chase of mine,” he said.

Schaefer – the one beer to have when you’re having more than one – calls itself America’s oldest lager brewer. But Rich said it dates to only 1848 – four years after Charles Wolf opened Philadelphia’s first large-scale lager brewery on the site of what later became the Schuylkill Water Works.

And Wolf wasn’t even the first in Philly.

The earliest Rich can find is a lager brewer on St. John Street (now called American Street) near Poplar in Philadelphia, circa 1840. On that site, a German immigrant produced lager in an eight-barrel kettle – about the size of a modern-day brewpub.

Two coincidences make that discovery almost too good to be true.

The first is the name of the brewmaster: John Wagner. Same last name, though Rich doesn’t believe he’s an ancestor.

The second is eerie. The address of that old lager brewery is the exact location of Poor Henry’s Restaurant and Brewery, where owner Henry Ortlieb now cooks up lagers in a 7 1/2-gallon kettle.

“It’s so serendipitous, it’s unreal,” Rich said. “I think of Poor Henry’s as a shrine, a memorial to John Wagner and the first lager brewed in America.”

Like any decent shrine, this one needs a marker. Rich had hoped he could persuade the Historical and Museum Commission to put one there, but it turned him down last spring.

Bob Weible, the commission’s history division chief, said the nominating committee that reviews marker applications wants to see more proof from Rich.

“Anytime someone claims it’s the first or the biggest, a red flag goes up. They want extensive documentation,” Weibel said.

Rich is combing through still more dusty records. In the meantime, though, he’s made Poor Henry’s one of the featured stops on his annual guided tour of old Philadelphia breweries. The tour runs from 9 to 5 p.m. on Oct. 10, and is open to the public. Call the Atwater Kent Museum, 215-922-3031, for info and reservations. Cost is $35, which includes lunch and a guidebook.

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Speaking of beer tours, a local entrepreneur has come up with a nifty idea for sampling locally made brews. Betty Robinson, a former chef, is running “Philly Hops,” a progressive beer dinner that visits a different beer spot for each course.

A typical dinner would start with hors d’oeuvres and a tasting of cask-conditioned ales at Yard’s Brewing Co. in Manayunk, an entree and micros at one of the ‘Yunk’s trendy restaurants and desert and nightcaps at Manayunk Brewing Co.

If you can stand the embarrassment of being gawked at like a tourist while you tram around in one of those Victorian trolleys, the tour is an excellent way to explore the city’s beer scene. If you can get together a group of at least 10 buddies, call Philly Hops at 215-426-5644. Prices start at about 65 bucks.

Joe Sixpack (written this week with a bottle of Saranac Lager) appears every other Friday.

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