It All Started with Billy Penn

Standing above Philadelphia ’s city Hall since the late
nineteenth century is the largest statue topping any building
in the world: the monument to the founder of Pennsylvania ,
William Penn, more fondly known to Philadelphians as “Billy”.
The statue welcomes visitors to the exact center of the city
and is a fitting testimonial to the famous Quaker, but beer
lovers can get greater satisfaction from knowing that Billy
was one of America ’s first brewers in what arguably became
the greatest brewing state in the nation.

From 1863 until the present day Pennsylvania has always
been a leader in the number of breweries and available
brands. In 1810 there were 48 breweries in the state, but by
1880 there were 302, and in 1890 there were 91 in
Philadelphia alone. Pennsylvania was never first in the
amount of beer produced, usually finishing second to New
York , but it was always first or second in total numbers,
which must be some kind of testament to the loyalty of
drinkers to their local brewery. As local and regional brewers
fell by the wayside after repeal, Pennsylvania ’s numbers
decreased as well, but the state always remained a leader.
In 1940 it was in first place with 77 independent breweries,
and in 1950 it was still first, but with only 57 survivors. By
1960 it was in second place with 26, but by 1970 it regained
the top spot, although the number had decreased to only 19.
Even today Pennsylvania is second only to California , which
is considerably bigger in both size and population.

Pennsylvania ’s local brewers may have been an underlying
inspiration for the birth of the craft beer movement. Long
before California’s New Albion became the country’s first
microbrewery, thousands of beerfans were eschewing Bud,
Schlitz, Miller and the other national giants in favor of Stoney’
s, Straub’s, F&S, Kaier’s, Gibbons and scores of other local
brands produced all over the state. While no IPAs or
Hefeweizens were brewed by these locals, most of them
brewed porter, which had almost disappeared from other
parts of the country, and many of them made bock beer long
after the giants had abandoned the tradition. Until the micros
came along, the small Pennsylvania brewers quenched many
a thirst for something different. Having only read of the old
custom of Christmas brews and finding none available in the
early 1970s, beer lovers in my family were favorably
impressed when I appeared at a Christmas gathering with a
case of Prior’s Double Dark, a suitable enough substitution for
a  “holiday” beer brewed by Adam Scheidt (later Schmidt’s) of
Norristown, Pa.

Porter, Bock and Double Dark, notwithstanding, the Keystone
State’s brewers have always specialized in the lager style
made by the giants, and although similar to them and to each
other, there is something distinctive about the
“Pennsylvania” style of beer (most likely the corn used in the
brewing process) and I have argued for years that if
“California Common” can be considered a separate style, so
can “Pennsylvania Lager”. I was fortunate enough to have
sampled most of them before some of them went belly up
and can testify to the sweetish taste and creamy heads on all
Pennsylvania beers.

I couldn’t find a Q, an X or a Z, but alphabetically here are
some famous Pennsy style beers and the cities in which they
were brewed:

Anthracite                                           Mt. Carmel

Bartel’s                                             Edwardsville

Columbia                                           Shenandoah

Duquesne                                           Pittsburgh

Esslinger’s                                          Philadelphia

F& S                                                  Shamokin

Gibbons                                             Wilkes-Barre

Horlacher                                           Allentown

Iron City                                             Pittsburgh

Jackson ’s Select                                 Erie

Kaier’s                                               Mahanoy City

Lebanon Valley                                  Lebanon

Mt. Carbon                                        Mt. Carbon

Neuweiller                                          Allentown

Ortlieb’s                                             Philadelphia

Poth’s                                                Philadelphia

Reading                                              Reading

Stoney’s                                            Smithton

Tru-Age                                             Scranton

Uhl’s                                                  Bethlehem

Valley Forge                                       Norristown

Weisbrod& Hess Rheingold            Philadelphia

Yuengling                                          Pottsville

These and hundreds of other brands were also economical.
In the 1960’s Iron City and Reading made great inroads into
the metropolitan are with their “three quarts for a dollar”
marketing strategy, which , in the days before the hateful
sales tax, delivered the equivalent of an 8pack for only a
buck. In Pennsylvania , almost all beer for home consumption
is sold in beer distributors, with the low overhead of a
warehouse enabling the purchase of great brews at
extremely low prices. Twenty five years ago my grandfather
and I were buying Erie Brewing Co.’s   “Olde Pub” for
something like $5 for a case of 24 pints. Many small Pa.
breweries still use the returnable bottle, which has all but
disappeared everywhere else. A very pleasant experience is
pushing a hand truck through Frank and Dot’s beer
distributor in Easton and trying to decide between Yuengling,
Gibbons, Stoney’s, Straub’s, Liebottschaner, and Stegmaier,
all great session beers sold for less than $15 a case.

Pennsylvania has some “first”, “bests”, and “worsts” in it’s
storied brewing history. Yuengling, which has now become
the nation’s sixth largest brewer, is acclaimed as America’s
Oldest Brewer, but the state also claims title to the first lager
brewed in America in 1840, by the Wagner Brewery of
Philadelphia, the first brewery ( Continental, also of Philly) to
be powered by electricity, and the first pop top can,
introduced by Pittsburgh Brewing in 1962. The tiny town of
St. Mary ’s, home to the still thriving Straub Brewery, brewers
of “honestly fresh” Straub Beer, made with Pennsylvania
Mountain Spring Water, holds a distinction which probably no
other place in the world can claim. According to a newspaper
article I read, an estimated 30% of the private homes in town
are equipped with draught apparatus for serving up fresh
Straub’s whenever thirst requires. The brewery still has an
“eternal tap” from which visitors can also pour a cold one,
although why this is necessary when one out of three homes
has a tap remains a mystery. St. Mary’s isn’t exactly a drive
through kind of town, so possibly most of the drinkers at the
eternal tap come from the two out of three homes where
draught Straub’s is not available.

The almost unbelievable rise of Yuengling to 6th largest
brewer from near obscurity probably is unsurpassed ,
allowing Pennsylvania to lay claim to the fastest growth of
any brewery in history.

There are a couple of “worsts” as well. Judging by the
uniformly scathing reviews of “Gettysbrew” posted on, the commonwealth is home to the worst
brewpub in the world. While possibly not unique to the
Keystone State, Pennsylvania is the only place I have ever
seen under the bar urinals. Although they were no longer in
use, the two I saw were obviously used at one time for other
than decorative purposes. My grandfather, born and raised in
York , Pa. assured me that such conveniences existed in his
youth. Actually, they seem like a pretty good idea. Why waste
precious drinking time rushing off to the men’s room or privy?

Pennsylvania beer purveyors can be inventive. In 1917, the
state legislature, believers in the adage “there is no free
lunch”, banned them. Since this would adversely affect the
noontime trade, the saloonkeepers, keeping one step ahead
of the moronic lawmakers, began to charge for the lunches,
while giving away the beer. Unfortunately the dimwits in the
US Congress had the last laugh when they foisted prohibition
on the unwilling public a short time later. In this agricultural
state, brewers are also a friend to the farmer. When egg
farmers were having a terrible year in 1939, with egg sales
down to unprecedented lows, the Pennsylvania Brewer’s
Association, to help their friends in the egg business,
launched an ad campaign promoting beer and boiled eggs as
a tasty treat.  They’re still producing eggs and still brewing
beer, so the idea must have been successful.

No article about Pennsy beers is complete without a mention
of Fatima Yechburgh, more popularly known as “Miss Old
Frothingslosh”. In 1954, a local radio personality began to
mock Iron City beer by referring to it as Old Frothingslosh, the
“pale ,stale, ale with the foam on the bottom”. Rather than
fight him, Pittsburgh Brewing Company decided to join him,
labeled a couple hundred cases of IC as “Old Frothingslosh”,
and gave it away as Christmas presents. It proved to be so
popular that it became a yearly offering, and in 1969 they
introduced Miss Old Frothingslosh, an obese, swimsuit
wearing, ex-gogo dancer as the spokesperson for the heady
brew. She graced many a beer can and although nowhere
near as popular as Miss Rheingold of the metropolitan area,
Fatima has outlasted her prettier counterpart.

Although Yards, Troeg’s, Victory and other microbreweries
have put the Keystone State among the leaders in the craft
brew revolution, still available are the great Pennsy regionals
turning out wonderful, fun to drink session beers at
reasonable prices. Sadly, however, one of the most famous,
Rolling Rock, is now made in Newark by Anheuser-Busch.
Even a giant like A-B realizes there is a great thirst for
“Pennsylvania Lager”


Another two
glasses up
article from
Dan Hodge!
has to say
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and it could
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Beer My Way......... proudly presents....DAN HODGE, beer reviewer, historian and raconteur
anything and everything about beer
by   Dan Hodge
Pittsburg Brewery's
first pop top can
Straub Brewery in St. Marys,
Pa., has been offering a free beer
to thirsty tavelers since 1872.
A-B Brewery, Newark, NJ