Lager in America: A different look
By Gregg Smith
Did the Pilgrims come ashore at Plymouth Rock? The image is etched in our
national conscience. In reality they came ashore in the surf and cold,
water freezing to their clothing. Most historians agree the notion of
stepping onto a rock was added about 100 years after the fact. This happens
often, stories and legends replacing fact, and sometimes it starts with an
ulterior motive. This reason guides historians away from popular notions
when conducting research, even with beer.
Consider the origins of commercial lager brewing in America. Most often
beer writers credit John Wagner of Philadelphia with producing the first
lager in 1840. It's almost universally accepted as gospel, but does it
The story goes that Wagner secured a supply of German lager yeast and
started brewing. Closed case right? Maybe not. It seems as though Wagner
had a very small operation in the back of his house on Philadelphia's St.
John street, near Poplar. Production from the tiny facility was reported as
similar to what a modern homebrewer can turn out. It appears the size of
the brewery would have restricted any commercial application, and it would
have struggled to supply Wagner's German friends.
If that was the case, where, and for what reason, did Wagner get such
credit? It began much later, with an essay by Charles C. Wolf in the book
"100 Years of Brewing" a series of brewery profiles amassed in 1903. In
reading that account a problem comes to light. It raises the question -
Could Wolf have produced the account as a subtle and self-serving dismissal
of Wagner? It might have, and in doing so it would position Wolf himself as
operator of the first commercial lager brewery.
The answer sits within the untold part of the story. Charles Wolf was a
sugar refiner. One of his employees, George Manger, was a friend of Wagner
the lager brewer, and Manger had the good fortune to receive a supply of
lager yeast from Wagner. Together Manger and Wolf began brewing. Later, in
1844, another employee, Charles Engel, from Bavaria, began brewing with
Wolf at the sugar refinery. It was so profitable that Wolf soon gave up the
sugar business and opened a separate brewery with Engel at 352-354 Dillwyn
Street. Thus, by reporting the small size of Wagner's brewery, and by
showing a direct path of the lager yeast strain passing on to Wolf and
Engler's brewery, a heavily biased Wolf could ever so subtly build a claim
as the first "significant" commercial lager brewery in the country.
What could be wrong with Wolf's account? After all, virtually every account
of American lager brewing has been based on it. That in itself illustrates
the problem. All the histories written after 1902 spring from only one
source - the story Wolf wrote in "100 years of brewing."
From a historical aspect several problems exist with Wolf's essay. First,
his writing was more than 60 years after the events transpired, and stories
do tend to get better with age. Next, what about the incestuous nature of
it all: his employees, Wagner, the yeast, and his brewery. Was his story
accurate? Or was he clearing a place for himself in American lager brewing
Wolf's writing has buried implications. It's hinted that Wagner's brewery
was of no consequence. At the same time Wolf constructed a tale which begs
the question; was his intent to manipulate history in order to lay claim to
the first commercial lager brewery in the country? Unfortunately, Wolf was
too close to the story, and had too much to gain, for us to accept as a
reliable single source.
If Wagner wasn't the first commercial lager brewer (according to Wolf) was
it indeed Wolf who should get credit? Apparently not, even if Wolf's story
was true he didn't establish his brewery until 1844. In this instance we
should look further west, to St. Louis. There, in 1840 Adam Lemp
constructed what would become the first truly national brewery. Upon
opening he brewed only ale, but according to a variety of accounts he was
producing lager there by early 1842.
So was the first American lager brewer Wagner, Wolf, or Lemp? We may never
know for sure but we have indications it wasn't Wolf (despite his best
efforts.) A claim, but only one, could be made for Wagner's small brewery
(Based on Wolf's account.) That leaves Lemp. So maybe, just like the
Pilgrim's story, the location and legend is wrong. Now where was the Battle
of Bunker Hill? You say Breed's Hill?
© Gregg Smith