Ground Zero for Philadelphia Beer

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The survival of the Bergdoll Brewery at 29th near Parrish in Brewerytown
is interesting, but what remains from Philly beer’s earliest years?

Philadelphia’s been a beer town for a long time, long enough to have a destination equal to the story. We’re thirsty here for beer history, but there’s no must-see site. When we say “See the Bell; Crack a Beer” you know where the bell is. But where would you crack the beer, marinate in its present and contemplate its past?

Philadelphians are stuck for a beer site to venerate. Penn brewed way up the Delaware at the estate he called Pennsbury, but that’s too far. Robert Smith brewed at 20 South 5th Street, but that’s the same block as the Liberty Bell, and that’s too close. (Anyway, the Smith place is gone and the land is now part of Independence National Historical Park, where beer is generally frowned upon.) There’s a historical marker for “America’s First Lager” at Brown and North American Streets, but only so much brewing and aging could be done in the tightly-packed neighborhood of Northern Liberties. Brewerytown carries the right name but only a very few buildings remain from its 20 defunct breweries. There’s the former Bergdoll Brewery at 29th and Parrish (illustrated left and here). Bergdoll’s massive grain elevator stood nearby at 29th and Pennsylvania Avenue. But the grain elevator is no more and the brewery was converted into residences decades ago. (Read the story of Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, the family ne’er-do-well, in a blog post at Anyway, Brewerytown came late in the Philadelphia beer game. There’s no founding fizz in that history.

What do we have that really shows off Philadelphia’s venerable brewing history? What place can we call the Holy Grail of Philadelphia Beer? There’s got to be a site that tells the story of the formative years of fermentation and gets to the heart of Philly beer history.

There is. If we follow the trail of Charles Engel and Charles Wolf, the two men who started brewing that Northern Liberties lager, we find ourselves smack in the middle of a wooded area in Fairmount Park, not far from Kelly Drive at Fountain Green. Engel & Wolf were busily brewing at Fountain Green by 1849 and expanded their operation twice in the 1850s, carving five vaults from more than 50,000 cubic feet of rock to age their barrels at a constant 50 degrees. They printed a lavish colored lithograph advertisement and, we suspect, had a calligrapher embellish a copy with the resonant words in Fraktur script: “Die erste Lagerbier-Brauerei in Amerika” – “The First Lager Beer Brewery in America.”

The first, but hardly the last. In 1870, the City of Philadelphia enlarged Fairmount Park and forced Engel & Wolf to move again. Not to be undone by this, the company, now Bergner & Engel Brewing Company built themselves a newer and even larger facility at Thompson and 32nd Streets. Meanwhile, the city demolished the brewery at Fountain Green, presumably filling in the aging caverns with debris from the site.

Sure, the Engel & Wolf brewery site is isolated and overgrown. That’s what remarkable about it. A site untouched for 140 years is a gift. Meanwhile, the Engel & Wolf brewery sits, waiting for archeologists, for interpreters, for us. It’s Philadelphia’s long-lost beer destination waiting to happen.

Engel and Wolf’s Brewery and Vaults at Fountain Green.   “The First Lager Beer Brewery in America.”  Rendering by Kirk Finkel based on a lithograph by Augustus Kollner, ca. 1855.