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 stand up?

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 history?

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


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