Saturday, February 8, 2020

How Laurel Hill Cemetery Can Teach Us About Beer in Philadelphia

I would like to introduce my friend and guest blogger, Mike Lewandowski. Mike graciously offered the following article about Philadelphia brewers buried in the city's famous Laurel Hill Cemetery. I went on a photo excursion with my friend Frank Rausch, to locate and photograph the gravemarkers of the people Mike writes about. With the help of Frank and David Gurmai from the front office, we found them all! Please enjoy responsibly!

How Laurel Hill Cemetery Can Teach Us About Beer in Philadelphia

Fairmount Water Works designer Frederick Graff

Cemeteries are more than places where we mourn our loved ones upon their passing.  They are also places where an area’s history is remembered.  Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia is no exception.  Many aspects of Philadelphia’s history can be found at Laurel Hill.  Even the history of beer in Philadelphia flows through the cemetery.

Water is needed to make beer.  Laurel Hill resident Frederick Graff played a key role in developing Philadelphia’s water system, thereby allowing Philadelphia to emerge as a leading source of beer in the 18th century.

On April 1, 1805 Frederick Graff was appointed superintendent and engineer of the Philadelphia Water Works.  The works were located at the modern site of City Hall and run by steam engines which frequently broke down.  Additionally, all of the city’s pipes were wooden, which limited the pressures they could carry.  To overcome these limitations, Graff advocated the construction of a new water system of his own design.

Frederick Graff designed the Fairmount Water Works and a system of cast iron pipes (and the associated fittings like fire hydrants) that were revolutionary. In 1815, the new water works was constructed at the site of the current Fairmount Water Works. A steam engine pumped water up to a large reservoir located at the site of the current art museum. Subsequently feeding water to the city by gravity overcame the mechanical limitations of early steam engines and provided the city (and Philadelphia brewers) with a truly reliable source of water.

In addition to water, malted barley is the second largest ingredient in beer.  Laurel Hill resident William Massey was a brewer and malt producer in the 19th century.  At one time, his malt house produced 100,000 bushels of malt per season. 

Massey was born in England, where his father was a successful brewer in a small town near Stoke, England. William emigrated to Philadelphia at a young age and found work at Gray’s brewery on Sixth Street.  He had great success in several aspects of the brewing industry and was offered a partnership in what was renamed Poultney, Collins & Massey.  By 1870, William Massey was the sole owner of the brewery, and sales took off.  By 1877, Massey’s brewery was the 11th largest in the United States.

Massey was also a philanthropist who donated large sums of money to the Philadelphia House of Refuge (a home for Philadelphia orphans).  Without William’s leadership after his death, the brewery fell on hard times and closed by 1894.

For most of human history, the role of yeast in beermaking was not well understood.  However, advances in microbiology have revealed the importance of how yeast turns malt sugars into alcohol.  Modern lager brewing didn’t start in Bavaria until the late 1820’s and early 1830’s.  Philadelphia brewers were the first in the United States to adopt their brewing to include the new yeast.

John Wagner brought the first new-world cultures of lager yeast from Bavaria to Philadelphia in 1840.  A historical marker at 455 St. John Street in Philadelphia commemorates this revolution in brewing.  Wagner attempted to run a brewery out of his house, but the endeavor did not succeed.  It is speculated that the lack of brewing capacity limited his commercial viability.

An associate of Wagner obtained a sample of the yeast and convinced Charles Wolf and Charles Engel to begin lager brewing in their sugar refinery.  Engel and Wolf were successful and established the United State’s first large scale lager brewery (the Engel & Wolf Brewery).  Eventually, the brewery moved to the Fountain Green section of Philadelphia in 1849.  The Fountain Green location allowed the brewery to excavate the large deep caverns needed to allow lager beer to age at a low temperature without refrigeration.

In 1870, the City of Philadelphia expanded Fairmount Park and bought the site of the Engel & Wolf Brewery.  The brewery was then demolished.  At this time, Charles Engel dissolved his partnership Charles Wolf and merged with Gustavus Bergner to form the Bergner & Engel Brewing Company.  Bergner & Engel constructed a new brewery at Thirty-Second and Thompson Streets in Philadelphia. At one time, this brewery employed 180 men.  Bergner & Engel ceased production as a result of Prohibition.   

Bergner and Engel family plots in Laurel Hill Cemetery

Bergner and Engel are now more than business partners; they are partners in death.  Their grave plots are located adjacent to each other at Laurel Hill Cemetery.  

(And check out this fascinating piece of brewing history: