You walk the streets of the old neighborhoods and sooner or later you start to hear the sounds of a city’s forgotten past. Buried like 300-year-old cobblestones ‘neath layers of asphalt, the ghosts are still alive . . . if you know how to listen.
In Fairmount, you hear the creaking of a wooden wagon wheel coming down Poplar Street. In Northern Liberties, it’s the tapping of a barrel-maker’s hammer in the basement of a brick warehouse at 4th and Brown. In Germantown, it’s a whistling steam engine that heats a brew kettle.
Smell the air – it’s sweet with boiling malt and leafy hops.
The aroma stirs just the hint of a memory of a day when Philadelphia was the beer-making capital of America, when more than 400 brewers produced gallons and gallons of porters and lagers and ales. Beer made Philadelphia, not Milwaukee, famous.
If you’ve forgotten their names, the ghosts proudly will remind you: F.A. Poth & Sons . . . Robert Smith India Pale Ale . . . John C. Miller Ale & Porter . . . Mueller-schoen’s Weiss . . . Jacob Hornung White Bock.
Even if you never heard these brewers’ names, your father remembers running down to the corner for a bucket of John Jacob Wolf’s lager. Or the home where you live was built by a man who kicked back at the end of the day with a tall, cool glass of Wm. Massey’s XX Ale.
You’re thinking: Talking beer ghosts? Joe Sixpack, you better cut back on those strong ales.
But it’s true, I swear!
And I know at least one other beerhead who’s heard the sounds. His name is Rich Wagner, a Hatboro dude who can think of few better things than to climb into a time machine for a trip back to 1888 Northern Liberties.
“On one block of 2nd Street [near Fairmount Avenue], an enterprising beer-drinker could visit four separate brewery saloons,” says Wagner. Thirty blocks to the west, near the banks of the Schuylkill, it would take a weekend to visit each of a dozen breweries in four square blocks near 31st and Jefferson streets.
Today we call these brewery saloons “brewpubs,” and there are exactly three of them in Philadelphia.
“Can you imagine what it must have been like?” Wagner wonders. “All those breweries, all that commerce, the workers – it was a giant industry.”
You must listen carefully to hear the ghosts, for the city’s brewing industry was firmly silenced by Prohibition in the 1920s. Nearly every brewery in the city shut down and never re-opened. Those that survived failed to modernize and were ultimately swamped by national brands like Miller and Budweiser.
Wagner got hooked on old breweries in 1980 when he and a friend, Rich Dochter of Lock Haven, Pa., climbed into a ’50 Buick with a straight-8 engine and took off on a one-week tour of Pennsylvania’s last nine operating breweries. They figured it was a death tour because the ninth brewery – Ortlieb’s in Northern Liberties – was gasping its last breath.
Somewhere in the western part of the state, near the Straub Brewery in St. Mary’s, they stumbled across the ancient Dubois brewery. “We were awestruck by this huge complex. A brew house, a boiler house, a malt house – and it was all abandoned,” Wagner remembers. “I jokingly said to Rich, `Let’s visit every standing brewery in the state.’ He looked at me as if I was crazy. I took that as a personal challenge.”
The Buick eventually died, but Wagner and Dochter kept plugging away. In the 15 years since, they’ve visited the sites of more than 400 defunct breweries and researched enough history to write a couple of books.
“We thought we were telling the end of a story,” Wagner says. “But halfway through, we found there was a new story taking shape.”
The new story, of course, is the microbrew revolution. Now, in addition to all those abandoned breweries, the pair have had the good fortune to visit several hundred active micros across the country.
“It’s literally a remake of what was happening at the turn of the century in this country,” Wagner says. “It’s history repeating itself.”
See, I’m not hearing things – the ghosts are alive. Even Brewery-town, dead for two generations, is awakened, thanks to the Red Bell brewery that is now operating in the old Poth plant at 31st and Jefferson. Across town, in Northern Liberties, there are plans to reopen a brewery at the old Ortlieb’s bottling plant.
I think it’s safe to say Philadelphia will never see 400 breweries again. But a guy can dream and, while I satisfy myself with a tall cold one, I’ll listen for those beer ghosts from the past.