Sunday, September 29, 2013

PROST!!! How The Germans Changed American Brewing

Zufrieden Deutsch-Amerikanische Erbe Monat! Or for my none German reading readers, Happy German-American Heritage Month! Every year between September 15th & October 15th German American communities around the states celebrate their German heritage. During this month long celebration, everything German is celebrated, culture, food, music, achievements, history and of course beer. There are a few things in the world that the Germans are renowned for, but beer is the number 1 recognizable German contribution to the world. I mean the country has had a purity law in place since 1516. Now, that beer making tradition spread as German people did, and one man, Johann Wagner would forever change the landscape of American brewing upon his arrival in the states.

Let me set the scene for you, picture it, Philadelphia in 1840, a bustling city full of people (128,139 to be exact), the second largest city in the United States, an inexpressive port filled with ships importing and exporting and a city with a very rich brewing history and full of even thirstier residence. Enter Johann Wagner. Wagner, a Bavarian immigrant, decided to pack up his belongs and make a new start in America. However, Wagner wasn't just packing the usual items an immigrant would bring. He had with his a fermenting yeast used in Bavaria for centuries, but unknown to those in America. Wagner arrived to a city, well nation of ale drinkers. But with the largest group of immigrants being German, he knew he'd be able to make a little money for himself with his a beer his country longed for.

Wagner set up shop around 3rd and Poplar St, there is a historic marker there today. Now, just a warning the marker is not on the exact site, as Wagner brewed from his home and the original street address is still...well missing. They know it was originally on St. John Street, which is now American, but the original numbering system is completely gone. It is believed that the original address was 455 St. John St, but no one can figure out where that actually is today. Either way, Wagner started using his new yeast and it was a big hit with the German citizens who could get their hands on it. Why was it such a big hit? Or more importantly, how did Wagner change the American brewing culture? Well, the yeast Wagner used was lager yeast, and in his tiny brewery Wagner would be the first person in America to produce lager beer. From his very small brewery Wagner was able to produce eight barrels of lager at a time and they'd be gone before you could say Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, actually don't try that. Wagner's operation was very limited, only producing eight barrels of lager was enough to support his small beer garden and that's about it. It is at this point that Wagner's story and American lagering get a little fuzzy.
 So according to Charles Wolf's "100 Years of Brewing" he is actually the first man to make lager beer in America in 1844. But first we have to examine his book and see he indirectly credits Wagner. The way Wolf tells it is as goes. he is awesome and made lager beer, the end. Ok, so that is not exactly the way it goes. In reality, Wagner sold some of his yeast to a friend and patron, George Manger. Manger himself  worked at Haas & Wolf Sugar Refinery, see how this is about to go down? Manger told Wolf and another employee Charles Engel how Wagner had brought tradition German brewing yeast to the states and that his fellow workers, mostly all German, would enjoy a nice cold one after work. Long story short, by 1844 Wolf opened the first large scale lager brewing company in America.  So when looking back on his career, Wolf credits himself with opening the first brewery to produce lager, but also tells how Wagner brought the lager yeast to the states, so when looking back we see that Wagner, not Wolf is actually the grand daddy of brewing lager in America.

So why is this important? Well if it wasn't for Wagner, and even Wolf and the others that followed, we'd still be drinking crappy, room temperature, English ales. Also it was from this moment that the United States found a new industry, brewing. When looking at the history of brewing, once lagering was made possible in the states, breweries popped up everywhere, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and so on. Every large city and small town seemed to have a brewery and business was good. And today there is one company left that in some way owes there some of their success to Wagner, Pennsylvania's own Yuengling Brewery. Yuengling adopted the lagering system and never looked back making them the U.S.'s longest and oldest running brewery. Even Pabst Breweing still get their yeast directly from Germany as another example of the long lasting effects Wagner caused on American brewing. Most of America's largest breweries today have their roots in German lagering. Today, in the world dominated by mass production, we can take what Wagner did and compare him to the micro brewers of today, carrying on a tradition that for sometime seemed lost in the brewing world. So to all those out there celebration German American Heritage Month, when sipping on a glass of your favorite lager, give a nod to Johann Wagner, because without him we'd have nothing to wash down our wurst and spatzle with. 

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