LEBANON, Pa. — In 1980, brewery historian Rich Wagner set out to visit all the breweries located in the state of Pennsylvania. There were just nine at that time. None of them was in Lebanon County.
However, had he visited this southcentral Pennsylvania bastion of Germanic culture 106 years earlier, he would’ve found seven breweries in the city of Lebanon alone. Records from 1874, Lebanon’s heyday of beer-making, showed the location of these brewing establishments spread within about a one-mile radius of each other.
Wagner recently presented a program on the subject for the Lebanon County Historical Society. He noted that the history of brewing beer in Lebanon County pre-dates the Revolutionary War, when its Cornwall Furnace was making iron cannonballs for George Washington’s army, and is typical of other Pennsylvania areas settled by families of German heritage. With no commercial brewery facilities nearby, early Pennsylvania Dutch farmers thirsty for beer took matters into their own hands. Most already grew barley and some began maintaining small brewhouses on their farms to malt it for making a crude form of beer.
Malting involves soaking the barley kernels, draining off the water and then allowing the damp grain to sprout. The sprouted barley was placed into a kiln to roast, with the kiln’s temperature and the roasting time determining the color and flavor of the beer. Eventually, after milling the malt and adding water, hops and yeast, the farmhouse cellar might be used for fermentation and storage of this home brew.
Colonials longed for the authentic taste of their homelands’ beers, so as settlement spread westward, so did small commercial breweries. Wagner said that brewing promoted agriculture, commerce — and maybe most importantly — tax revenue for the government.
Charles Arnt’s brewery on North Seventh Street in Lebanon became the county’s first, beginning in business as early as 1759.
Lebanon’s next brewery was established in 1780 by Henry Light, who started a family business at North Market (now North Ninth) Street and Scull Street that would endure for almost a century. The brewery and malt house were located across Market Street from each other and the beer produced there was reportedly mild — possibly not an intoxicant. Among its uses was the making of “Fasnacht cakes.”
George H. Uhler wrote about Light’s beer in his “Recollections of 1845” for the Lebanon Courier newspaper: “Nearly every family had a keg of Light’s beer in the house for Christmas, and many kept it on tap from fall to spring. It was very mild, of rich flavor and could be tapped for a week without deterioration.”
Light’s beer was likely not a lager, since John Wagner only brought lager yeast from his native Bavaria in 1840 and introduced lagered beer from a brewery he established in suburban Philadelphia. As other German immigrant brewers began brewing lagers, the popularity of this new-style beer grew, and the American commercial brewing industry thrived.
As the demand for beer grew, so did the number of breweries in Lebanon. The brewery of Henry Hartman opened at what is now 840 North Seventh Street in 1856. After his 1870 death, it went through a series of owners, eventually becoming known as the Lebanon Brewing Co., then the New Lebanon Brewing Co. and finally the Lebanon Valley Brewing Co.
This appears to have been a typical pattern with the local breweries in Lebanon, which changed hands and business names frequently. A listing found in Robert A. Heilman’s 1997 publication, “Brewers and Breweries: A Brief History of the Brewing Industry in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania,” includes 33 such establishments spanning the period between 1759 and 1959.
The 1874 Sanborn map of Lebanon city shows a snapshot in time of its seven breweries. They included two breweries owned by the Yost family. Frank Smied operated a brewery on North Twelfth Street, while John Smied’s brewery was on Locust Street. Other brewery owner-operators were recorded as Henry Fortna, Joseph Hoelzle and a Mr. Graeff. These businesses produced ale, porter and lager.
The 1902 Sanborn map includes the Iron City Brewing Co., founded in 1889 along North Eighth Street. The map notes that Iron City had three water tanks “in top of building,” each with a capacity of 75 barrels. Iron City was noted for its Rheingold Beer, Canada Malt ale and porter.
A gap in brewery history occurred nationwide from 1920 to 1933, when the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and passage of the Volstead Act banned production of alcoholic beverages. In some cases, brewing of beer merely went underground. Philadelphia’s Jan. 24, 1931, Evening Ledger reports federal prohibition agents raided breweries in Lancaster and Lebanon. At Lebanon’s National Brewing Co., a cooper named John Wuerdinger was arrested when found “in possession of a beer-laden truck about one-fourth mile from the brewery. Agents are searching there today for an alleged pipeline which is supposed to connect the brewery with another building.”
After Prohibition’s end, it appears only two breweries survived in Lebanon. Wagner pointed to a November 1934 report in American Brewer stating that Lebanon’s P. and H. Brewing Co., “formerly known as Iron City Brewery, has been sold to C.D. Becker, representing the mortgage owners, at a nominal cost, involving only the cost of sale and accrued taxes, etc.”
By 1940, Lebanon Valley Brewing Co. was making its new Penngold Beer. Lebanon Valley Brewing advertised its beer, ale and porter as “Pride of the Valley.” Other advertising stated, “Lebanon Valley Beer has that thick, creamy head and full-bodied flavor that makes and holds a host of friends. Always uniform, always at the peak of perfection, it promises you tops in enjoyment wherever you buy it. Order a case for your home to-day!” By 1959, the “Pride of the Valley” had moved and was being brewed by Eagle Brewing Co. in Catasauqua.
That marked the end of a 200-year era for brewing beer in Lebanon. But that end turned out to be only a hiatus. The recent advent of microbreweries and brew pubs has put Lebanon County back on the map. Snitz Creek Brewery opened its doors in January 2014 at 7 North Ninth Street. Later that same year, it was joined by the Rotunda Brewing Co. at 245 West Main Street, in Annville. There are also reportedly indications that another brewing operation may be revitalizing the old brewery on North Seventh Street in Lebanon.
Wagner’s historical presentation was highlighted by a display of Lebanon breweries’ memorabilia from the collection of Edward and Kathy Dannels of Lebanon, who are chair and secretary, respectively, of the Lebanon County Historical Society.