Historical Markers
America's First Lager Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

America's First Lager

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
455 St. John Street, Philadelphia (800 block N. American St. post 1857)

Behind the Marker

Engel and Wolf's brewery and vaults at Fountain Green. Including five large vaults containing 50,352 cubic feet cut out of the solid rock and about 45 feet below ground, where they keep their well known lager beer
Engel and Wolf's brewery and vaults, Philadelphia, PA. circa 1855.
Beer, an ancient beverage, was part of the diet of the first British settlers in North America. The Pilgrims built their first brewhouse shortly after landing in Massachusetts in 1620. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were home brewers. What they and their Anglo-American descendants brewed was ale, a top-fermenting beer known for its fruitiness, bitterness, and high alcohol content. Ale was beer for millennia, until Bavarian monks in the 1300s began using special bottom-fermenting yeast strains. Combined with a careful program of cold storage (referred to as ‘lagering" the beer) these brewers invented lager.

German and Bohemian brewers perfected their lagers in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and soon contemplated taking their new product across the Atlantic to America. One such brewmaster was John Wagner from Bavaria. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1840, carrying with him a supply of lager yeast and dreams of glory marker in the New World.  At this time Philadelphia was by no means a new frontier for beer. The city already had a 160-year brewing tradition and its ales rivaled those of England.

A man stands atop a refrigerator railroad car and one man sits at the edge of the back of the car near an attached ladder. The car bears the following written text: Refrigerator of the Bergner and Engel Brewing Company, Philadelphia, Pa., Grand Prize, Paris, April 1878.
flip zoom
A Bergner and Engel Brewing Company refrigerator railroad car, circa 1880.
Hoping to keep his delicate yeast alive, Wagner sailed on board one of the new clipper ships. It was the lack of fast transport that had probably kept lager yeast out of the New World. He set up shop on St. John Street near Poplar in the city. Wagner ran his operation from the rear of his home. The brewery that introduced lager to Philadelphia was tiny, consisting of a kettle hung over an open hearth. Wagner's brewing capacity was limited to eight barrels which he then stored in a cellar in the rear of his property.

Probably as a result of limited capital, Wagner's experiment did not lead to the establishment of a successful lager brewery, although he remained in Philadelphia for some time operating a beer hall. Soon others entered into the lager business. George Manger, a Wagner associate, acquired a pint of his yeast at some point in the early 1840s. While an employee at the Haas and Wolf sugar refinery, Manger convinced his boss, Charles Wolf, and fellow employee Charles Engel to brew lager for private consumption in the sugar plant. Manger then established his own brewery on New Street. Engel and Wolf then set up the first large-scale lager brewery in the country in 1844. During the anti-Catholic riots of the same year, Wolf's refinery partially burned and he suspended business to commence brewing on Dillwyn Street. In 1849 he moved operations to Fountain Green.

Men work in a room filled with full barrels.
The fermenting room of the Bergner and Engels brewery, Philadelphia, PA, 1888.
The large German population of Philadelphia provided a good market for their lager, but with time other Americans began to drink it. Compared to ale, lager was lighter in color and taste. These qualities made it popular in Philadelphia, especially during the hot, humid summer months.

By the late 1850s, about thirty Philadelphia breweries were producing lager beer. Many chose to locate themselves near Engel and Wolf's operation, in the area between 30th and 33rd Streets and between Girard Avenue and Oxford Street. The terrain there enabled them dig extensive vaults two hundred feet into the banks of the river to age their lager. This neighborhood became known as Brewerytown, home to nearly twenty breweries. Eventually these breweries became some of the nation's largest and shipped Philadelphia lager to domestic and foreign markets.

An image of the brewery building. Workers and wagons can be seen in the foreground and to the left of the image are barrels.
Gustavus Bergner's original brewery on 31st Street, Philadelphia, Pa., circa...
The nineteenth-century growth of the American beer industry was impressive, due mostly to lager's displacement of whiskey as the alcoholic beverage of choice. In 1860, Pennsylvania had 182 breweries and the nation 1,269. Along with New York and Wisconsin, it was one of the big three beer producing–and consuming–states. Malt liquor consumption between 1880 and 1900 tripled.

In the twentieth century the brewing industry went through a long period of consolidation as national brands slowly but relentlessly replaced local ones. During Prohibition in the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s many smaller breweries went out of business. In the 1950s the larger national brewers spent millions of dollars for advertising especially for sports programming on television.

By 1960 the number of breweries was down to 229 nationally and 26 statewide. There was a time when cities as large as Philadelphia and as small as Pottsville and all had their own local breweries. Despite its rich brewing tradition Philadelphia is not a city most people today associate with beer. Its breweries eventually fell by the wayside as national brands replaced local ones in the late nineteenth century.

Remarkably, Pottsville's Yuengling has survived and prospered largely because of popular lager. This beer style that "made Milwaukee famous," and became the "king of beers" in St. Louis came to America first in Philadelphia and thrived throughout the state and nation.
Back to Top