Were Brewers Successful Before Prohibition?

You may have learned about Prohibition in the past, but do you know about the period of time before it became a law? Prohibition began in 1919 when the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment occurred, but even prior to this era it was a tough time for both brewers and distillers across America. Did you know that Philadelphia was home to several hundred breweries before 1920? Have no fear, you can learn all about it right here!

Welcome to Brewerytown!

Back in the day, Brewerytown was one of the most popular destinations for any brewer looking to open up a brewery in Philadelphia. What started out as a completely undeveloped neighborhood eventually became responsible for about half of the beer production in the entire city.

In 1879, Eagle Brewery became a part of Brewerytown. The brewery was located at the corner of 31st and Masters Streets. Image Source here


The area ran between the Schuylkill River’s eastern bank and 25th Street, bounded by Cecil B. Moore Avenue to the north and Parrish Street to the south. Brewers valued Brewerytown due to opportunity for growth and the proximity of natural ice produced by the river. At Philadelphia’s peak, there were about 700 breweries operating across the city and a large sum of them were located in Brewerytown. In 1991, the National Register of Historic Places certified Brewerytown as a historic district. Today, the only brewery that is still active in Brewerytown is Crime & Punishment Brewing Company. Check it out if you can! 

Fun fact: Try to imagine the smells you would experience if you lived in Brewerytown during its prime. One newspaperman said, the rich aroma of malted grain hung like a fog, making the very air as nutritious as vaporized bread.  

Bergner & Engel – the Ideal Duo 

Gustavus Bergner built Bergner & Engel Brewery in the famous Brewerytown in 1857. In 1870, Gustavus partnered with Charles Engel after beer production had doubled and was continuously growing.

An advertisement for Bergner & Engel’s Brewery back in 1875. Image source here

Their beer quickly became known around the world through many awards and expositions:

  • At the Centennial Exhibition (1876), the brewery won two medals for its draught and bottled beer
  • At the Paris Exposition (1878), Bergner & Engel defeated German brewers and took the grand prize in the lager beer category
  • Bergner & Engel achieved the Grand Gold Medal and Diploma of Honor in 1888 and 1889
  • At the Columbian World’s Fair (1893), the brewery took home four medals
  • At the Amsterdam Exposition (1895), Bergner & Engel was awarded the grand prize

Aside from their brewery, Gustavus and Charles acquired Henry Mueller’s Centennial Lager Beer Brewery and Eble & Herter’s Brewery in 1890 in order to expand their business. At its prime, Bergner & Engel was the third largest brewing firm in the nation. Sadly, their business did not survive through Prohibition.

The Anticipation of Prohibition 

Originally, brewers thought that they would be exempt from anything involving Prohibition, as they did not consider their products to be intoxicating in the same way as distilled spirits were. The first effects felt by brewers involved restrictions on the use of coal and grain, cutting beer production by 30 percent. In September 1918, the government announced that all brewers would be prohibited from purchasing supplies for making beer and breweries would be required to cease production December 1st. Once Prohibition was official, the manufacture, sale, transportation and consumption of any beverage exceeding .5 percent alcohol was deemed illegal. Many brewers closed up shop and sold their properties, while other brewers tried to find ways around Prohibition. Bootleggers acquired industrial alcohol or illegally brewed beer, camouflaged trucks transported barrels of beer and some brewers kept their entire cellar full with aging beer during this era.

Policemen dumping out barrels of beer in the 1920s. Image source here

Although many breweries were operating illegally, Bergner & Engel was the star pupil of violating the dry law. In 1928, Bergner and Engel went bankrupt and were forced to empty 900,000 gallons of their beer down the drain. The era of Prohibition quickly ended once Franklin D. Roosevelt took office. 

Fun Fact: Can you guess how much alcohol was in “War beer” during Prohibition? “War beer” had a strength of 2.75 percent alcohol. 

What’s Next?

Now that I covered the history of Philadelphia beer from when William Penn first arrived here to the Prohibition era, we can start discussing the modern age of beer. In the near future, we will learn about the modern age of beer and the community of microbreweries that exist in the Philadelphia area today. Cheers to my lovely readers!


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