My grandmother - Helene Ortlieb Flick was the granddaughter of Trupert Ortlieb, who founded the Philadelphia Ortlieb Brewery. Uncel Henry, was Trupert's oldest son, and he and three of his brothers -- including William Franz Ortlieb -- my great-grandfather, ran the brewery.
Here is the history of the Ortlieb Brewery, as passed on by the family in Philadelphia.
The History of OrtliebÂ¹s Beer
Ortlieb's beer first appeared in Philly in 1869 when Trupert Ortlieb, a German immigrant who had fought in the Civil War, came to live in Pennsylvania. Trupert was a brewmaster who had worked in New York breweries before moving to Philadelphia. According to Henry A. Ortlieb, his great-grandfather didn't like the local brews and started brewing his own beer and selling it in his saloon, which eventually became known as "Ortlieb's Jazzhaus."
Soon both Trupert's business and his family had grown. He had six sons, four of whom (Henry F., Albert, Joseph and William) went into the family business. When Trupert retired to a farm in Lansdale(Montgomery County, PA) it was Henry F. who first took over the brewery in the early 1900s and who, in 1914, expanded the brewery on American Street in the Northern Liberties area.
The brewery's business had begun growing nicely, but Prohibition hit the beer industry in the 1920Â¹s, and many breweries closed. At the time, Ortlieb's was making about 40,000 to 50,000 barrels a year. (A barrel is 31 gallons.) Henry F. stayed open by producing "near beer" (non-alcoholic beer) until 1933 and the end of Prohibition, when the plant returned to brewing beer. By the 1940s, production reached half a million barrels a year, selling both locally and in the region.
A Labor Strike and the "Beer Wars"
However, at the peak of production, fortunes changed for the local brewery. A severe labor strike in the 1940s hit breweries badly, and by the 1950s and 1960s, production had fallen to about 350,000 to 400,000 barrels a year.
Then, in the 1970s, came the second and fatal blow to the brewery: the "beer wars." Philip Morris, the owner of Miller, and Anheuser-Busch, the owner of Bud, began advertising heavily in local markets.
The price-cutting was tremendous. "Every major city in the East Coast lost breweries," Henry A. Ortlieb says. "Peels, Ballantyne, Rheingold, Schmidt's. We lasted a little longer, until the 1980s. In the beer wars, we were gradually chipped away."
Henry T. (the present owner's father) negotiated a contract with Blitz-Weinhart to produce old English 800 malt liquor. This helped the brewery hang on a little longer, but it was struggling.
When Henry T. died in 1975, the family "saw what was happening and sold the brewery to my cousin Joe Ortlieb in 1977," Henry A. Ortlieb says. At the time, it was making approximately 331,000 barrels a year. Henry A. left and began work with Clement and Muller, a local Miller distributor.
"It was depressing," he says. "I remember walking up the street thinking that a hundred years of family brewing had ended. I didn't want to come back." The brewery itself hung on for a few years before finally closing in 1981. After it closed, the game of musical beers began. "Ortlieb's, Philadelphia's Famous Beer Since 1869" was sold to Schmidt's, which in 1986 was bought by Heileman's, a company based in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Heileman's Baltimore brewery produced a beer, not Ortlieb's traditional recipe, but one that was labeled Ortlieb's.
Soon Heileman's merged with Stroh's, and the Baltimore plant was closed. Finally, Stroh's merged with Pabst, and the Ortlieb's brand was completely abandoned until Henry A. resurrected his family's beer.
The Road to Resurrection
"I felt there was a void," he explains. "Microbreweries didn't exist here any more. In the mid-eighties, I had many false starts. It seemed like a long shot. But by the time it was the nineties, I realized that if I didn't do it now, I was never going to do it." Henry A. talked with realtors and in 1995 took out an option on the building where his great-grandfather first bottled beer, across from the old Ortlieb's brewery.
"It took me a year and a half to get financing," Henry A. Ortlieb says. "Construction began in October 1996, the pub was built in June 1997, and wholesale beer was sold starting September 1997. I bought the building back almost 20 years to the day after it was sold to Joe Ortlieb."
After all the effort Henry Ortlieb put into starting his brewery, he was at a loss when it came to naming his brew. While he debated names, he was still struggling with problems in getting the new brewery up and running. "It was 'Poor Henry this,' and 'Poor Henry that'," Henry Ortlieb says. "So we ended up calling it Poor Henry's."
In February 1998, Henry Ortlieb went on to acquire the Dock Street label, a successful local microbrew that now reaches 13 states on the East Coast. Poor Henry's is sold in the Delaware Valley and in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Although he was by now established as a successful microbrewer, he had still not fulfilled his dream of brewing an Ortlieb's beer again.
"I reintroduced Ortlieb's in April 1999 on its 130th anniversary," Ortlieb says. He negotiated with Stroh's to purchase the Ortlieb's trademark, which had gone out of production a few years earlier.
Henry Ortlieb's Select Lager Beer bears a label adapted from the one that Ortlieb's beer used in the first half of the century. Ortlieb chose to use almost exactly the same label to "get a retro look" to mark the continuity of the name and to show that the beer, and its brewer, had a rich heritage. "We call ourselves 'brewers since birth,'" Ortlieb says.
OrtliebÂ¹s in the New Millennium
Henry A. is a pragmatic man. After all this, he insists that he is "only a beer salesman," and strongly believes that a microbrewery cannot survive without a brewpub. Both traditional and forward-looking, he brings modern production and business techniques to his family's beer-brewing tradition and has expanded his business to include catering services as well as an entertainment space-"The Big 'O'" (on the second floor of the brewery).
He now brews Poor Henry's Awesome Ale and Old Stock Lager, the four Dock Street brews and Ortlieb's Select, as well as smaller batches of seasonal microbrews that are tested on brewpub customers.
So Philadelphia finally has its brew back. But Henry must still compete with Dick Yuengling (whose father went to brewmaster's school with Henry's father) and other popular local beers such as Rolling Rock.
Ortlieb's no longer dominates the market the way it did in the first half of the century. Still, Henry Ortlieb is optimistic. He has brought back his family's brewing tradition and uses the family recipe that his great-grandfather created more than a century ago. But he is also ready to change with the times and hopes to take Ortlieb's into its second century.
Note: Poor Henry's is no longer open; it closed in 2000.