Leading the Charge for Urban Renewal

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 24, Issue 2
May 1, 2003 By

America is dotted with the corpses of old breweries. You might have passed them while driving through some forgotten inner-city neighborhood: brick-and-mortar behemoths, four to five stories high, sometimes with gaps in the wall where copper brewkettles and other objects of value were extracted.

In neighborhoods like Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhein, Philadelphia’s Brewerytown, Baltimore’s Brewers Hill and Boston’s Roxbury and Jamaica Plains, these early lager plants were once part of the city’s economic backbone. Some were almost self-sufficient communities, encompassing brewhouse, stockhouse, power plant, administrative offices, stable, bottling plant, and Bierstube, where thirsty workers could down a few on the house after a hard day’s shift.

The mass consolidation of mid-century drove most out of business. The buildings, according to Pennsylvania brewery historian Rich Wagner, became “white elephants”: too expensive to develop, too much trouble to tear down.

In time, the real estate beneath the brewery might become valuable enough, or the building become enough of a public nuisance, to summon the wrecker’s ball. Wagner, who along with his research partner Rich Dochter has been documenting brewing history and organizing brewery tours since 1980, has seen this happen too often. Last year, Schmidt’s of Philadelphia, a once-powerful regional capable of turning out over 3 million barrels a year, bit the dust. “It’s a vacant lot ready to become something else,” says Wagner. “There’s talk of building artists’ lofts.”

Sometimes, these old brewery complexes can be turned into showcases. The Jax brewery in New Orleans became an upscale shopping center. The Stegmaier plant in Wilkes-Barre, PA, one of the architectural gems of the Northeast, was saved from destruction by preservationists and breweriana collectors and now houses a post office distribution center and federal office space.

“If you can go into a place that used to be a brewery and make it a brewery again, that’s icing on the cake,” adds Wagner.

A few urban homesteaders have done just that.

Pennsylvania Pioneers

Among the most successful is Tom Pastorius of Pittsburgh, PA. Tom’s ancestor, Franz Pastorius, brought the first boatload of German settlers to the New World in 1683, and founded the city of Germantown. Tom, a pioneer in his own right, brought authentic German brewing back to Pittsburgh, transforming a decaying group of nineteenth-century edifices into a prosperous brewery/restaurant/biergarten.

Pastorius began contract-brewing his Pennsylvania Pilsner (later shortened to Penn Pilsner) at Pittsburgh Brewing Co. in the mid-1980s. A non-compete clause in his contract, however, prohibited him from selling locally. That gave him an added incentive to find a site for his Penn Brewery. Feeling that an old brewery building would add “charm and authenticity” to his business, he scanned a 1902 business directory, photocopied the brewery listings and went hunting.

The directory led him to the Eberhardt and Ober Brewery on Pittsburgh’s North Side, at the corner of Troy Hill & Vinial Street. The firm was founded in 1852 by C. Eberhardt, who is said to have been the first in town to use steam power. In 1899, Eberhardt and Ober merged with 19 other breweries in and around the city to form the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. The plant continued to turn out its E&O and Dutch Club brands until 1952.

Pastorius purchased the five remaining buildings for $170,000 and began renovating them in 1987, installing his restaurant/brewery in what used to be the keg-filling area of the old brewery. The complex back then wasn’t exactly postcard material: windows were broken, a courtyard was strewn with old tires, ivy was prying apart the bricks. But the foundation was solid. “These buildings are massive,” observed Pastorius. “The floors in the brewhouse are three feet thick, made of concrete and steel. The interior wall is five feet thick.” He acknowledges, however, that there is a down side: “When you’re installing new equipment, you have to drill through those walls and floors.”

“I used to think of them as looking like castles,” says Wagner of old breweries. The German immigrants who founded these companies, he adds, “intended to build buildings that would last hundreds of years and become their legacies.”

The neighborhood around the brewery, nicknamed “Deutschtown” after the ethnic make-up of the residents, hasn’t undergone a Cinderella transformation, but the signs of gentrification are apparent. A local developer, notes Pastorius, is sinking $80 million into turning some of the original Heinz buildings nearby into condominiums.

More important for the brewery, however, was the opening of two new sports stadiums about 12 blocks away: PNC Park, home turf of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Heinz Field, where the Pittsburgh Steelers play. Penn beers have a major presence in both parks. In addition, five new bars have opened along the route to the stadiums, all of which serve Pastorius’s beer. “You can drink your way down there and back again,” he laughs.

Prime Philadelphia Sites

On the opposite side of the state, in Philadelphia, Tom Kehoe and Bill Barton of Yards Brewing Co. had outgrown two facilities and were desperately searching for a third. As Barton recalls, he was driving through one of the city’s “edgier” neighborhoods when his wife spotted an old building with the words “Bottling Department” written on the façade. Barton and Kehoe contacted Wagner, and learned that the structure once housed the Weisbrod & Hess Oriental Brewery (closed 1938). The partners were able to acquire the property—which was serving as a warehouse for supermarket equipment—“for next to nothing,” says Barton.

The complex consists of three buildings arranged in a U-shape surrounding a cobblestone courtyard. “Renovation took us 14 months, seven days a week,” says Barton. Finally, in April 2002, they fired up their 25 barrel brewhouse, which sits on the second floor of a building that once served as bottling plant and cooperage. There is no brewpub attached, although Yards does have a 3,000 square foot tasting room with a makeshift bar and a pool table.

Weisbrod & Hess was founded in 1880 by two German immigrants, George Weisbrod and Christian Hess, who originally intended to brew just enough beer for their saloon on Germantown Avenue. In time, their brewery turned out about 300,000 barrels a year. Barton, by comparison, would be happy to expand production to 10,000 barrels a year of his ESA (Extra Special Ale), Entire Porter and other brands.

While building a ramp to the loading dock, Barton and Kehoe discovered a hidden underground room not listed on the blueprints for the brewery. It measures 20 by 40 feet and is equipped with finished walls and piping. Barton thinks it was used for illicit activities during Prohibition when Weisbrod & Hess was supposed to be manufacturing soda pop.

Yards’ new home sits in a neighborhood called Kensington, which was once a major hub of the U.S. textile industry. “It’s still kind of a tough neighborhood,” admits Barton. “Kids here like to do graffiti. There are burned-out cars and illegal dumping. We’ve lit up the outside of the building like a baseball field at night.”

But it’s improving, he adds, and he gives credit to a civic group called the New Kensington Community Redevelopment Corporation. The organization has tried to improve the quality of life by planting trees and shrubbery, petitioning the city to remove trash and abandoned autos and rolling out the red carpet for newcomers. “We feel much more a part of the community here than we did [at our former location] in Roxborough,” says Barton.

From Boston to Seattle, More Brewery Revivals

Pennsylvania certainly has no monopoly on old brewery buildings. In the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, Sam Adams founder Jim Koch maintains his corporate headquarters and a pilot brewery in the old Haffenreffer plant.

The facility was built in 1870 as a lager brewery, at a time when lager was still something of a novelty in ale-loving New England. In the post-Prohibition era, however, the company’s leading brand was Pickwick Ale. According to Will Anderson’s book Beer New England, the brand was known as the “poor man’s whiskey” because it offered more bang for the buck. Haffenreffer brewed its last batch in 1964.

According to Boston Beer Co. spokesperson Michelle Sullivan, about half-a-dozen old brewery buildings are still extant, identifiable by their smokestacks. Jamaica Plain was a hotbed of brewing because of its German and Irish population (few teetotalers here!) and because Stoney Brook, which flows through that part of town, was a convenient source of pure water.

Since 1988, when Koch moved in, the neighborhood has drawn “a nice mix of families and young professionals,” says Sullivan. Boston Beer Co. tries to be a good neighbor. Last year, the brewery raised $50,000 for Youth Enrichment Services (an organization that provides tutoring, mentoring and after-school programs for disadvantaged youth) and Boston Urban Gardens of Jamaica Plain.

Not all of these ventures have succeeded. Philadelphia alone has seen two failed attempts to breathe new life into old breweries. Red Bell Brewing Co. in 1995 tried to set up a production facility in the 280,000 square foot F.A. Poth complex in Brewerytown. Previously, civil defense authorities had used the premises to stockpile food, water and medical supplies. “They felt that if our enemies ever dropped the big one, these were the buildings that would still be standing,” noted Wagner. Red Bell, unfortunately, had its brewery license yanked after it wound up $80,000 in arrears on its state tax bill.

BrewWorks at Party Source was an ambitious attempt to locate a retail store, brewery and restaurant (with four separate kitchens) in the old Bavarian Brewery in Covington, KY, just across the river from Cincinnati. “There was no walk-by traffic; we couldn’t get the volume of people we needed,” says John Hickenlooper, who ran the place for about 11 months before giving up. Hickenlooper is the founder of Wynkoop Brewing Co., an anchor of the Lodo historic renovations in downtown Denver.

Hickenlooper has had considerable success in running restaurants and is currently running for mayor of Denver on a pro-business platform. But BrewWorks, he concedes, was not one of his major accomplishments. “The building was uniquely designed not to be a restaurant,” he recalls. “There was too much interior space with no windows…and diners like to have a view!”

In spite of these failures, entrepreneurs continue to eye abandoned breweries as promising sites for redevelopment. Partners Mannie Chao and Roger Bialous are setting up a 3,000-barrel-a-year microbrewery in the former malting room of the long-defunct Seattle Brewing & Malting Co. (built in 1893), brewer of Rainier beer. Don’t confuse this building with the newer Rainier Brewery, two miles to the north, which Heileman operated into the 1990s, cautions Chao. That one became Tulley’s coffee roastery. Seattle Brewing & Malting, on the other hand, consists of four red-brick buildings inhabited by candlemakers, artists, photographers, metal workers and other artisans.

Chao and Bialous have named their company Georgetown Brewing Co. after the neighborhood in which the brewery stands. “It used to be a seedy area full of brothels, gambling and bars,” says Chao. Now it’s a light industrial area, increasingly popular because of its cheap housing.

The two partners—Chao is a former brewer for Mac and Jack’s Brewery in Redmond, WA; Bialous is a health-care administrator—have started making Mannie’s Pale Ale on a 15-barrel system. The original brewing equipment disappeared long ago. “I heard they used the old tanks for scrap metal during World War II,” says Chao. “Quite impressive” is the phrase he used for the brewhouse building, vacant at present. “The owner calls it the rock video room because Nirvana filmed one of their award-winning videos there. They also did some filming there for an X-Files video game.”

Pabst Resurgent

Perhaps the most far-reaching brewery redevelopment to date is being planned right now in Milwaukee. Over the next several years, the abandoned Pabst complex will spring back to life with a hotel, fancy shops, up to 700 loft apartments, two to three brewpubs and/or microbreweries, and a brewing museum.

“I want to emphasize that the deal has been closed,” says Jim Haertel, president of Brew City Redevelopment Group, which is partnering with two other companies, the Ferchill Group and WISPARK, to resuscitate Pabst. The three firms intend to invest up to $300 million in the project.

Pabst is almost a city within a city, encompassing 27 separate buildings with 1,600,000 square feet of space, sprawling over six city blocks. Most of the structures were built between 1880 and 1910. Pabst made beer here until December 1996, when the brewery’s parent firm, S&P Corporation, decided to pull the plug on an outmoded and hard-to-maintain facility. (Pabst today is strictly a contract brewer, making most of its Blue Ribbon beer and a couple dozen other brands at Miller.)

Haertel figured that S&P had no long-term commitment to Milwaukee, and approached them even before the first for-sale signs went up in the windows. They accepted his offer of $11 million on the fateful day of September 11, 2001, and a deal was closed a year later.

Already Haertel claims to have commitments from two brewers. “We have a pretty big international name connected with beer and restaurant operations,” he says. He declined to identify the prospective tenant, but added, “Munich, Germany will be involved.”

In addition, Randy Sprecher, president of Milwaukee’s Sprecher Brewing Co., has signed a letter of intent to open a beerhall in Blue Ribbon Hall, which served as a reception and meeting area for Pabst employees. “It’s quite lavish, with stone arches and lots of hardwood,” he says. “Very little has to be done to restore it. Just polish the brass, and get ready to pump beer and have a good time.” Sprecher plans to stock the beerhall with beer from his brewery, five miles away. “If the situation warrants it, I’ll install a small brewing system for specialty batches.”

The opening will be a homecoming for Sprecher. He brewed for Pabst from 1980 to 1984, and even appeared in TV commercials for Pabst specialty brands Andeker and Olde Tankard Ale.

None of the brewpubs will use Pabst’s equipment, much of which, reports Haertel, has been cannibalized over the years to service other breweries. The former brewhouse, with its six copper kettles, four-story atrium and stained-glass window, will serve as the lobby for a yet-to-be-built hotel, he says.

Haertel has reserved three buildings in the complex for himself, including the offices where Captain Frederick Pabst once presided over his empire. One of Haertel’s pet projects is a Museum of Beer and Brewing, which will present the history of beer making from antiquity onwards, with the emphasis on brewing in North America.

One artifact is missing from the Pabst complex: the life-size statue of King Gambrinus, which once stood in the courtyard outside the corporate offices. The statue has been ceded to Miller, according to Haertel, and now languishes in their research and development building. “I plan to ask for it back,” he chuckles.

It all goes to show that the brewing industry, like any other business, experiences cycles of death and rebirth. And what’s happening to Pabst and to other long-dormant buildings, proves that we’re in the middle of a very verdant and productive spring.