KNOW YOUR HISTORY: The Story Behind Philadelphia Brewing Company
Philadelphia Brewing Company operates in a magnificant building at 2439 Amber Street, one block off one of the busiest streets in the neighborhood, Frankford Avenue. The building stands large and menacing over the smaller Rowhouse Spirits just in front of it. Many locals probably know that the Philadelphia Brewing Company was not the first to use the location for providing beverages to the city. This is evident from the online petition to save another property that used to be used in conjunction with the brewery.
Philadelphia Brewing Company (P.B.C.) takes pride in their style of business. On their website, they state that they “brew fresh beer daily and deliver fresh brew daily – directly to our loyal customers.” Prnewswire.com claims that P.B.C. is the “only brewery in Pennsylvania to self distribute its products to retail beer distributors, restaurants, bars, and delis.” It definitely sounds like a unique way to run a business in an age where everyone is concerned with the bottom dollar and cutting costs at any means necessary.
Bourbon and Broadleaf explains that P.B.C. operates in the oldest brewing facility in the city. The brewery was constructed in 1885 under the architect A.C. Wagner, a fact that is mentioned on P.B.C.’s website as well as in a recent article on philly.com. The original owners were George Weisbrod and Christian Hess. On Smedley’s 1862 Philadelphia Atlas, the block that Weisbrod & Hess Oriental Brewing Company would be located was surrounded by York, Amber, Adams, and Wayne Street, and just a block away from Frankford Road. Not all of these street names should be familiar to those who know the area.
Hopkins’ 1875 Philadelphia Atlas shows that the block has been significantly more developed since 1862, as well as the areas surrounding it. Frankford Road was renamed Frankford Avenue and Wayne Street was renamed Holman Street. The neighborhood was mostly home to churches and small estates. On the next block is a new school that is unnamed on this atlas.
The brewery appears on Bromley’s 1895 Philadelphia Atlas, as it was constructed in 1885. It is surrounded by York, Amber, Adams, and Holman Streets. The school on the next block over is named “Adams School, facing Adams Street. Weisbrod & Hess Oriental Brewing Company also has a large property on the other side of Holman Street where Rowhouse Spirits stands today. Remnants of the brewery complex on that block still remain, and it is the building that citizens are trying to save.
It has a large smokestack overlooking the small buildings in the area and there are holes that developed in the side of the building. Wildlife has grown all the way up the side to the roof that is in need of repair. Instead of demolishing the building, people are uniting to try to save it. If a buyer would recondition it for another purpose, then the neighborhood can still maintain the beautiful architecture that the building is capable of showing off. Time will tell if anyone is ambitious enough to take on this project.
By the time this 1895 atlas came out, the Weisbrod & Hess company was a successful business. According to Workshop of the World, the business “employed 32 men and comprised a brewery, refridgerating houses, stable, and copper shop with the bar-room, store, and meeting rooms facing Frankford Avenue.” The brewery expanded in 1889 and employed 100 men at the brewery. This is over three times the number of full-time workers that Philadelphia Brewing Company has today, which is 30, according to Philadelphia Neighborhoods.
Brewing was a huge industry during this time period. Weisbrod & Hess was just one of nine different breweries operating in the 19th and 31st Wards. With business booming, the only thing that could halt the progress of these two German saloon keepers was the 18th Amendment in 1919. Market in Philly describes Weisbrod and Hess as “casualties of prohibition.” The Prohibition Amendment was passed in 1919 and was effective one year later. This is the reason why we see so many abandoned or redeveloped breweries still to this day.
One of the first things that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did as the Commander in Chief is enact the 21st Amendment. Back when FDR was elected, the president began his term in office in March. History.com states that Roosevelt ran on a platform to repeal Prohibition, and it helped him defeat the incumbent candidate Herbert Hoover. Roosevelt’s victory in 1932 spurred Congress to propose the 21st Amendment at the end of February 1933. Roosevelt took office a couple of weeks later, and the Amendment was quickly ratified by the end of the year. The 21st Amendment is the only Amendment of the 27 that repeals another Amendment.
The 15th Amendment gave black men the right to vote, the 16th Amendment enacted a graduated income tax, and the 17th Amendment created the direct election of Senators. In between the two Constitutional Amendments relating to alcohol, women gained the right to vote and presidential terms were changed from March 4th to January 20th effective after FDR’s election. It is interesting to see exactly what the country was focusing on overtime by looking at the 27 Amendments to the Constitution.
So George Weisbrod and Christian Hess had another shot at the brewing business. They reopened after the 21st Amendment was ratified, but they were still forced to close down once more in 1938. In time, pieces of the brewing complex would be demolished, and the the buildings that remain today would go unused. The 1942 Land Use Maps shows that the lot where Rowhouse Spirits is today was vacant, and Adams Street was finally renamed Hagert Street.
The street between the two blocks is not shown in 1942, but we can tell that Holman Street was renamed Martha Street by looking at the street name east of Hagert. The 1962 Land Use Maps is not very different, but it does show that Ordnance Guage Company now operated at the site of the old Weisbrod & Hess Brewery and the new P.B.C. The Admas Public School still exists on the next block north.
Today the Adams School is the Hagert Street Playground. Rowhouse Spirits sits on land that the large brewing company once owned. Surviving pieces of Weisbrod & Hess are hanging on by a thread under the threat of demolishment. Philadelphia Brewing Company now operates in the last remaining part of the old brewery that is still usable.
According to prnewswire.com, Nancy and Bill Barten were once working at Yards Brewery. They left that company to form P.B.C. with Jim McBride. They have created a successful business for the community to enjoy. Foursquare.com ranks P.B.C. the fifth best place to tour in the city of Philadelphia. Ratebeer.com has reviews of 29 different beers that they have brewed and they earned an average rating of 3.03 out of 5 with the highest rating being a 3.61 for their “Philadelphia Shackamaximum Stout.”
Untappd.com ranks 57 of the beers that P.B.C. has produced with an average rating of 3.41 with the highest rated beer being the “Walt Whit” that earned an average rating of 3.48, followed by the “Kenzinger” and “Joe Coffee Porter.” To put these numbers in perspective, the number one rated brewery in the world, according to Untappd users, is The Alchemist with an average rating of 4.581. The number one rated beer in the world, according to the Untappd community, is “Rare Bourbon County Brand Stout (2010)” by Goose Island Beer Company.
P.B.C. earned high grades not only for the product they produce, but for the atmosphere they create. They have a close-knit staff and a friendly work environment. Philly Beer Scene claims that “Nancy and Bill Barton…prepar[e] a home cooked meal for their entire staff, nearly every day” and there is “even a brunch on Saturdays.”
Philadelphia Brewing Company is more than just a business to the community. The brewery, along with the decaying remnants of a brewery across the street, are fine examples of beautiful architecture. They also serve as a reminder to what the history of the community is. The brewery of Weisbrod and Hess is long gone, but its memory is still an active piece of the comminity. •