Our beer and brewing scene here in Pittsburgh is exploding.
It seems as though a new brewery, quality beer bar, or homebrew-oriented establishment springs up almost on a monthly basis. Our distributors and bottle shops are boasting unprecedentedly comprehensive lists of selections. Pittsburgh is hosting first round judging for the National Homebrewers Conference. The inaugural installment of Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week is here.
When you look back into the not-so-distant past at Pittsburgh’s numerous pockets of ethnically diverse neighborhoods as well as our aforementioned industrial roots, it’s easy to see why Pittsburgh has always been a brewing town.
The structure of the brewing industry during the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries looked very different than it does today.
Pennsylvania was home to hundreds of small breweries, many of which made their homes in and around Pittsburgh. The city proper and its surrounding communities were dotted with dozens of small, regional and community focused breweries. Although a handful of the breweries enjoyed higher production levels and rather widespread distribution, the majority of them catered to a more concise, local or regional market.
The modern North Side area of Pittsburgh—Allegheny City until it was annexed by the City of Pittsburgh in 1907—adopted the nickname ‘Deutschtown’ resulting from the influx of German immigrants around the 1850s and still affectionately maintains the moniker today.
The North Side continues to be associated with its German heritage and brewing pedigree at least partially thanks to the modern Pennsylvania Brewing Company; however beer has been brewed in large quantities on the North Side long before the advent of Penn Brewing in 1986.
The buildings that house the current Penn Brewery date back to pre-turn-of-the-century Allegheny City.
The building at the corner of Troy Hill Road and Vinial Street previously housed the Eberhardt and Ober (E&O) Brewing Company. John Peter Ober and his brother-in-law William Eberhardt officially established their brewing company in 1870 and acquired another small North Side brewery, J.N. Straub Brewing Company (no association with the well-known Straub Brewery of St. Mary’s, PA), in 1883.
Although E&O was eventually absorbed into a large scale brewing merger, the company continued to produce its popular E&O and Dutch Club brands on the site until 1952.
Once E&O closed its doors, the old brewery building would have to wait nearly 35 years before beer flowed through its pipes once again.
In addition to E&O, the North Side had also been home to a number of other notable breweries during approximately the same timeframe; including D. Lutz & Sons Lion Brewery (on Vinial Street near Spring Garden Avenue), and Northside Brewery on Spring Avenue.
No neighborhood of Pittsburgh was a bigger brewing center during the latter part of the 19th century and up until prohibition than the city’s South Side.
The South Side’s industrially attractive location and largely ethnic population made for a promising location for a number of breweries of varying sizes. The close proximity to maltsters, coopers, glass producers, and production bottling facilities drove efficiency, to boot. Until the advent of widespread, commercial refrigeration during the early part of 20th century, area breweries dug ‘lagering caves’ in to the hillside at locations including along Pius Street in order to have a temperature stable facility to cold condition their beers.
At one point near the turn of the century, beer was being brewed for commercial consumption on at least three separate locations along Josephine Street alone. The most successful of these operations was the M. Winter Bros. Brewing Company on 27th & Josephine.
German immigrant brothers Michael, Alois, and Wolfgang Winter arrived in Pittsburgh, acquired the facilities, and began brewing operations in the fall of 1883. Their production increased from 500 barrels in their first year to approximately 9,000 barrels annually in their fourth year. As the demand for their Bavarian-style lager beer grew, the Winter brothers eventually erected a large production facility a few blocks down at 21st and Josephine. By the late 1890s, M. Winter Bros. Brewing Co. had reached nearly 150,000 barrels annually and ranked amount the largest brewing operations in Allegheny County.
Pre-prohibition brewing and beer culture was a decidedly utilitarian enterprise.
Still riding the wave of the industrial revolution, brewers produced affordable beer for a largely working class market; however, they managed to do so while maintaining a level of vibrancy and certainly a wide array of ethnically diverse styles, methods, and traditions. Some may say that a precursor (foreshadowing if you will) to the downfall of brewing diversity through the ratification of the Volstead Act, was the advent of corporate brewing conglomerates.
In 1899, the Pittsburgh Brewing Company was incorporated. The newly minted brewing trust quickly began acquiring small and medium sized breweries throughout the Pittsburgh area; mainly focusing on breweries within the city and its immediate surrounding areas. PBC branches included most notably Iron City, M. Winter, E&O, Wainwright, and Phoenix Brewery, just to name a few.
In order to compete with the corporate PBC juggernaut, Independent Brewing Company of Pittsburgh was established in 1905. Independent directed their focus more toward breweries located in wider surrounding areas and soon had acquired 15 breweries to PBC’s 21. Independent’s branches included the Duquesne, American, Hill Top, Homestead, First National, and Chartiers Valley breweries among others.
By the latter part of 1907, 58 breweries in Pennsylvania were involved in mergers throughout the state involving at least five separate corporate brewing trusts.
Over the next decade or so, the newly created corporate structure of Pittsburgh’s brewing industry began to take its toll. The trusts began to morph the once diverse brewing community in to a more fiscally efficient, industrially driven machine, pumping out a more homogenous product and pushing once fondly anticipated seasonal variations and ethnic specialty brews to the wayside; however, the full effect of the mergers was not to be realized.
With the passing of the Volstead Act in late 1919, came the age of prohibition and, effectively, the death of American brewing culture for, what some would say, the next 60 years.
Even once prohibition was repealed with the passing of the 21st Amendment in late 1933, irreparable damage had been done. The nearly 4,000 breweries that dotted America’s landscape around the turn of the century had dwindled to approximately 725 with only a few major players capable of keeping their head above water for long. Pittsburgh breweries were by no means spared.
Of the 21 original members of the Pittsburgh Brewing Company trust, only three survived; whereas five of the Independent Brewing Company branches remained by 1933.
One of the fortunate few breweries to survive and effectively thrive during the aftermath of prohibition was Duquesne Brewing Company. The South Side brewery was not incorporated until 1899—the same year that the PBC trust was established—and was essentially in its infancy during the period when many Pittsburgh breweries were being coerced into merger. Its timing benefited Duquesne in the sense that it was passed on by the larger, and effectively more powerful, PBC, and instead merged with Independent, becoming their biggest branch. Then came prohibition.
Duquesne Brewing Company acquired a license to sell low alcohol “near beer” in 1933 and planned to re-open upon passing of the 21st Amendment. The brewery famously sent a case of their beer to President Roosevelt on Wednesday April 5th 1933.
Duquesne opened its doors at 12:01 a.m. that Friday to a waiting crowd as ‘Independent Brewing Company.’ The brewery readopted its ‘Duquesne Brewing Company’ namesake later that year. By 1937, Duquesne had become the largest brewery in Pennsylvania, producing 325,000 barrels annually.
Capitalizing on its newly adopted marketing strategies and catchy slogans, Duquesne had expanded its brewing operation to three locations and increased its capacity to 2 million barrels by the end of the second World War. They opened a new, state-of-the-art facility on the South Side in 1950 (closing its two others) and were recognized as one of the top ten breweries in the country.
Despite Duquesne’s success through the 1950s, market trends began to favor national mega-breweries during the 1960s. A combination of market difficulties, legal problems, and ownership/management struggles resulted in the closing of the flagship South Side plant in 1972. One of the historic 1899 brewery buildings, with its recognizable clock face, still stands on 21st & Mary St. as a common meeting place and beloved South Side landmark. Another, just across the street, serves as housing for artists, providing studios and a gallery for its tenants.
The Duquesne Beer brand was revived under new ownership in 2010, and a new version of the historic beer is currently being brewed under contract.
Although Duquesne endures as a lasting Pittsburgh brewing icon, another oft forgotten name still haunts the pantheon of South Side brewing lore.
John Henry Nusser—son of a cooper and S. 12th Street saloon owner turned brewmaster of the same name—took over the family business as the brewmaster of the National Brewery at the age of 25. The family brewery was located on S. 12th Street where it intersected Brosville Street.
Nusser took full advantage of its location by building lagering caves into the side of the hill. In his early days as a brewer (1870s & 80s), Nusser personally harvested ice for the caves from the company’s ice pond located overlooking 22nd Street; often rising as early as 2 a.m. to do so.
Nusser and his staff produced approximately 80 barrels per day, an impressive amount of beer for a modest sized facility. Each barrel sold to area bars and beer gardens for $8 per barrel, generally selling at retail for a nickel a glass. Nusser reminisces in a 1932 interview with The Pittsburgh Press that housewives, particularly in German neighborhoods, would often order kegs of beer delivered directly to their homes.
Nusser also recalls that National Brewery employees were free to help themselves to as much beer as they wanted during work hours (which to me, as a brewer, is quite the intriguing concept). In fact, each employee had their own closely guarded stein hanging on a peg near the spigot. This was not an uncommon practice for the period, however it was understood that any man who became noticeably intoxicated on the job was promptly relieved of his duties.
Remarkably, nearly every facet of the breweries operations and materials were sustained in the South Side neighborhood; from the ice for lagering, to the barley maltster (Nusser did business with Hogel Malting nearby on 18th St.), to the local cooper who made his kegs and barrels, to South Side Bottling Company who blew the glass.
In Nusser’s 1932 account, he fondly remembers the seasonality of the brewing trade. The National Brewery, like many traditional German breweries, produced variations of bock beers in the spring. These special brews were generally darker, stronger lagers adorned with images of billy goats on their labels (a common visual pun associated with the accent with which citizens of Munich pronounced “Einbeck,” the city of origin for the traditional style).
Like many of the period, the National Brewery merged with the Pittsburgh Brewing Company trust. It ultimately perished with the advent of prohibition.
Nusser was said to have remained a familiar figure near his home on Brownsville in Carrick where he was known to take long walks.
"I haven’t forgotten how good the beer was, and I never will," he said in his 1932 interview. “I think the country will be better off if beer comes back.”
And come back it did. There’s no doubt that Nusser and his pre-prohibition counterparts would be pleased to see the drastic (albeit very gradual) recovery that the American beer culture has made.
It’s certain that they would be proud indeed to see the level of creativity and commitment to a quality product that our city’s brewers display—both in commercial and homebrew settings.
Although this barely scratches the surface of Pittsburgh area brewing history, stopping often to revisit our brewing roots can only help us to appreciate where we are and where we are going that much more.
— By Brian Reed, student, brewer, beer/food enthusiast who enjoys making and wearing items decorated with puffy paint. Follow him on Twitter at @BrianIsBeering
Pittsburgh: Once a Brewing Town, Always a Brewing Town, originally published in Craft Pittsburgh, a quarterly magazine about the local craft beer industry. Pick up free copies at Mad Mex North Hills and beer distributors along McKnight Road. Follow @CraftPittsburgh on Twitter.
Craft beer lovers all around the city are celebrating Craft Beer Week, with special tastings and events in the North Hills and surrounding areas. For a calendar of events and more information, click here.