Philadelphia Breweries in the 20th and 21st Century

Did you know that beer advertising wasn’t popular until the 1950s? Do you know what it means to be a craft brewery today? If you’re curious about the answers to these questions, keep reading!

Philadelphia Breweries & Their Downfall

In the 1950s, advertising became a huge part of the beer industry. At the time, Philadelphia only had four major breweries: Gretz, Esslinger, Ortlieb’s and Schmidt’s. The owners of these breweries began investing their money into various advertisement campaigns to establish their own individuality. Consumers could see their beloved beers in regional newspapers, billboards, television commercials, magazines, radio broadcasting and much more. Brewers redesigned many of their packaging and bottling techniques with the availability of cans, “crowntainers,” and six-pack holders.

One of the many billboards for Schmidt’s during the 1950s. Image source here

Fun Fact: Esslinger Brewery introduced the “cold chest,” a fully insulated cooler that could hold six cans for up to eight hours without ice.

Schmidt’s Brewery worked hard to expand their business throughout Western Pennsylvania and across state borders including Ohio. At their peak (1979), Schmidt’s was the nation’s eleventh-largest brewer, only 8% behind the industry leader, Anheuser-Busch. By the 1980s, the Esslinger and Gretz brands had been acquired by Jacob Ruppert Brewery of New York and Schmidt’s had purchased Ortlieb’s brand and shut down the Ortlieb’s plant, making Schmidt’s the only brewery in Philadelphia. As the years went on, Schmidt’s sales continuously dropped due to a lack of advertising and the rising popularity of national beer brands (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Stroh and Heileman). In 1986, Heileman bought the Schmidt’s brand, but not the property. For the first time in 300 years there were no breweries in the city of Philadelphia.

Fun Fact: Esslinger created the Parti-Quiz Pak, the 1960’s version of Trivia Pursuit but on your beer cans! The Pak contained six beer cans in different colors with twenty-one different copyrighted facts printed on each. It was so popular that Tavern owners could barely keep them in stock.

The Parti-Quiz Pak’s innovative packaging made it an instant success. Image source here

Craft Beer & Its Success

Today, the Association of Brewers determines a craft brewery as one that produces fewer than fifteen thousand barrels per year. Prior to the term “craft” breweries, small breweries were referred to as microbreweries. Brewers would produce micro brews without the use of any adjuncts (corn or rice) differentiating it from national beer brands. Philadelphia’s first brew pub, Sam Adam’s Brew House, sat right above the beloved Oyster House (15th & Sansom) from 1989 to 1999. The pub continuously created new beer brewing techniques including cask-conditioned IPAs, aged whiskey barrels, dry beer/cider hybrids and unfiltered beers.

Micro brews have been on the rise since the turn of the century. Image source here

Fun Fact: How much beer do breweries have to sell on site to be considered a Brewpub? Twenty-five percent of their beer

In the 21st century, craft brewing is the only segment of the beer industry that continues to grow. In 2015, the Brewers Association said that Pennsylvania had a total of 178 craft brewers, which is double the amount that existed in 2011. Beer drinkers value craft breweries because they are small, independent and traditional compared to the mainstream “American” beers. We are living in a time where drinkers favor a full-flavored beer instead of a cheap one. Craft brewers have the ability to be innovative with new hops and beer flavors that grab our attention. For my IPA fans, wouldn’t you rather have a Dogfish Head 90 Minute over a Budweiser any day?

It’s Only the Beginning!

My opinion (a 22-year-old college student who enjoys beer) is that the best way to gather information on craft beer is to visit as many breweries in the Philadelphia area as I can. I hope to share my personal experience with all of you, including pictures, tastings and possibly interviews. The Philly Beergrimage is OUR pilgrimage through the history of beer and the craft breweries of today. Come along!



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