Buried in the shadows of a cold, dark beverage distributorship, a dusty, lost case of beer caught Mike McCracken’s sharp eye.
Others – thousands, maybe – had ambled past this spot without wasting a second glance. But McCracken recognized the label’s familiar lettering.
Could it be…?
He reached down and lifted the cardboard box.
McCracken had struck gold or, more accurately, amber: a case of Schmidt’s quarts.
“You never hardly see quarts anymore,” said McCracken, recounting his recent find. “I take them up to the checkout and they scan it – it wasn’t even on the computer.
“They had to take out this big book, full of brands and prices, and the last record they had for Schmidt’s quarts was almost 10 years ago. They sold it to me for the 1991 price.”
McCracken won’t name the distributor. One more case is still hiding on the floor, and he doesn’t want to lose it to another devoted Schmidt’s fan.
C. Schmidt and Sons was the last big brewery in Philadelphia. The Northern Liberties facility – at one time, the ninth-biggest brewery in the nation – produced beer for 127 years. It was a Philadelphia institution, a firm presence on the city’s cultural landscape, like Cheez Whiz on a steak.
When it closed its doors at 2nd and Girard in 1987, local beer drinkers cried…and then found a different brand.
Others, though, stuck with their favorite label as it was passed from brewery to brewery. G. Heileman brewed it in Baltimore, then Wisconsin, through the mid-’90s, then sold out to Stroh in Detroit, which passed it to Pabst, who’s now producing it in Lehigh Valley, Pa.
Schmidt’s sales have been slipping for 20 years, according to Joe Bound, whose Bound Beverages in Bensalem wholesales the beer in Bucks County.
“We still have a loyal following,” Bound said. “But every day the obituaries come out, you lose another Schmidt’s drinker.”
Those still breathing are near-fanatics.
McCracken, for example, is a member of the Schmidt’s Riders Memorabilia Club – a band of bikers who, well, as McCracken told Joe Sixpack, “If you want to ride with us, you have to drink Schmidt’s and only Schmidt’s.”
Most of the two dozen members ride Harleys, of course, but the guys say this is no hardcore outlaw motorcycle gang.
“It’s not like we go out riding and get bombed on Schmidt’s, because that wouldn’t be good to say…,” McCracken said, then added, “and we don’t do that anyway. ”
“Yeah, sure, the shall-we-say illegal lifestyle of motorcycling is out there,” he continued. “The Pagans, the Warlocks, the Breed – if they call you at 3 in the morning to come out, you come out. And if you don’t, they kick your ass.
“Not us. If you can’t make a ride because, say, you’ve got to take care of your 10-year-old kid, well, that’s more important.
“We’ve got two rules:
“Family comes first.
“And everybody drinks Schmidt’s.”
For those who’ve forgotten its distinctive taste, Schmidt’s is your standard industrial lager, sweet and mildly malty. Some locals used to call it “headache beer,” for obvious reasons.
In a less-than-ringing but completely unassailable endorsement of its flavor, McCracken reasoned, “You kind of get used to it, if you can’t drink anything else.”
Or, as a rival biker once told him, “Youse guys got to be tough, ’cause you drink that stuff for $8.44 a case.”
The Schmidt’s Riders M.C. formed about 10 years ago. The first member (and current president) was the legendary Corbi Pale – legendary because, in a tribute that only a beer drinker could appreciate, area bars would stock cans of Schmidt’s solely because Corbi Pale was a reg’lar.
“We all drank Schmidt’s in my neighborhood and we loved it,” said Pale, 40, who grew up in Hulmeville, Bucks County. “We used to impersonate Schmidt’s employees and visit the Beer & Gear [the brewery’s old bar] and buy cheap beer and memorabilia.
“It was a sad day when Billy Pflaumer sold out in ’87,” he continued. “We bought the last pallets of Philly Schmidt’s, then we switched to that terrible-tasting Schmidt’s that was brewed in Baltimore.”
The old beer was gone, but not the love.
When he bought his bike – a 1980 Harley-Davidson Wide Glide Sportster – he slapped a deliveryman’s patch on his jacket.
The Schmidt’s Riders were born.
Everyone wears Schmidt’s colors; you can tell how long a member’s been riding by the size of his patch.
Mostly, they just go riding hogs, stopping for refreshment at one of the dozens of out-of-the-way bars that still serve up ice-cold cans of Schmidt’s.
A few weekends each year, they throw beef-and-beer parties at Chester W. Terchon VFW Post 5542 in Bristol, featuring (inevitably) kegs of their beloved brew. At the end of the summer, they host a free blowout – the Schmidt’s Riders Pig & Keg Classic.
It’s all just “good fun,” Pale said.
And it’s a chance for the members to boast about their extensive collections of Schmidt’s memorabilia. Some of their collectibles go back 40 or 50 years.
“The stuff you can find on the Internet is amazing,” Pale said.
On-line auctions, like eBay and Yahoo!, regularly offer Schmidt’s collectibles, ranging from rusty old cans and coasters to tavern advertising lights and signs.
Pale’s fondest Schmidt’s possessions, though, can’t be traded. His arms feature a pair of Schmidt’s tattoos, including one from an old ad campaign that pictures a pair of broken-backed mules pulling a rickety beer wagon. Beneath the mules is a long-forgotten motto, a shot at Budweiser:
“Quality without Clydesdales.”
These days, though, the members’ eyes are on the crumbling, soon-to-be-demolished brewery in Northern Liberties – especially its huge stainless-steel letters that spell S-C-H-M-I-D-T’-S.
After Joe Sixpack wrote a plea last month to save the letters, McCracken offered, “We’d be glad to hold on to those letters till the city decided to do something with ’em. We could divvy ’em up. Everybody in the club gets a letter. We’ll give the newest member the apostrophe.”
I told him I’d run it by the property’s developer, who hasn’t yet revealed his plans for the site.
When the old brewery comes down, finally, McCracken hopes he gets his hands on a few hundred bricks from the brewhouse. “They’d make a perfect grill and keg holder for my backyard,” he said.
As the city’s old landmarks crumble, most of us either just don’t care or we forget. The ones who love this town scavenge it for memories to be cherished.
The irony that Schmidt’s hasn’t been brewed in Philadelphia for more than a decade does not deter the beer’s biggest fans.
“I can’t tell if it’s the same flavor as the old Philadelphia Schmidt’s, but I still love it,” need to find out from Russell if this quote is McCracken or Pale.he said. “I can afford to drink whatever I want, but I still love Schmidt’s beer.”
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a 16-ounce can of Schmidt’s.
Where to get Schmidt’s
You never know where you’ll find a Schmidt’s. A sixpack hiding in the back of a cooler, a dusty case in a neighborhood distributor, a tap handle in a corner bar, an old quart in the fridge in your uncle’s garage.
These days, it’s almost easier to find an expensive Belgian ale made by Trappist monks than an el cheapo lager that was once Philadelphia’s favorite beer.
Now produced at the old Schaeffer brewery outside of Allentown, the label is an afterthought for the Texas-based brewing conglomerate that now owns the facility. It won’t be long, beer fans fear, before Schmidt’s is finally put out of its misery.
Searching for the stuff is a trip down memory lane, in and out of neighborhood haunts that haven’t changed the tap handles since Rizzo was police commish.
So what if it’s no longer brewed at 2nd and Girard? A glass of Schmidt’s is still 100 percent Philadelphia.
Grab a taste before this one beautiful beer disappears forever.
Clement & Muller, the distributor that wholesales Schmidt’s in Philadelphia, suggests scouting out these locations for a taste of the city’s increasingly scarce favorite.
Properly served in a short, 8-ounce glass that can be swallowed in two gulps.
- *McGlinchey’s Bar and Grill, 259 S. 15th St., Center City. A classic dive, and still cheap.
- Wichita Steaks & Brews, 22 S. 3rd St., Old City. Former craftbrew have in is now retro suds kitsch.
The aluminum brings out the delicate hops nose…and you can crush it on your head when finished.
- Billie’s Boomer Lounge, 227 S. 52nd St., West Philadelphia.
- Cookie’s Tavern, 10th Street and Oregon Avenue, South Philadelphia.
- Eddies Cafe, 6500 Dicks Ave., Southwest Philadelphia.
- Stokes Sports Bar, 16th Street and Oregon Avenue, South Philadelphia.
For hot summer nights on your front steps, or an afternoon mowing the lawn.
- Park’s Beer & Deli, 5146 Market St., West Philadelphia.
- The Sixpack Store, Roosevelt Boulevard and Princeton Avenue, Northeast.
Less than $9 for 24 cans. ‘Nuff said.
- Four K’s, 2825 S. 17th St., South Philadelphia.
- A&R Beverage Distributors, 6101 Market St., West Philadelphia.
- Alessandro’s Beer Distributor, 128 E. Chelten Ave., Germantown.
- McKeown Beverages, 6828 Rising Sun Ave., Lawndale.
Used to be that beer signs and other collectibles were strictly for the college dorm room. But beer memorabilia is one of the biggest sellers at flea markets and on-line auction houses.
Here’s a selection of Schmidt’s beer paraphernalia found on line, at eBay and Yahoo! Prices are highest bid as of this week.
- Twelve-ounce “Silver Noggin” beer can, unknown vintage. $12.50.
- Beer tray with Plymouth Rock scene and inscription, “Beer was the Beverage of the Mayflower Passengers.” $39.99
- Tiger beer label, a Nigerian lager brewed by Schmidt’s. $1.
- Battery-operated clock with brewery logo. $21.12.
- Etched stemware with brewery logo. $9.99
- Three Schmidt’s Light beer coasters. $1.50
- Simulated wood tap handle, $12.00
Caution to collectors: Don’t confuse Schmidt’s of Philadelphia with Schmidt’s of Detroit (now defunct) or Schmidt (without the apostrophe) of Minnesota. They’re separate breweries.