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HORLACHER BREWING COMPANY

UPDATED  04/18/2011 - New Photo

This page veers away from my theme a bit, which was dedicating this site to the beers I drank in the 70s and 80s. I write articles on the history of brewing for the journal of the American Breweriana Association and in 2005 finished an article on the Horlacher Brewing Company of Allentown PA. This was a beer I always wanted to chug-a-mug,but just didn't have enough money to make a road trip to PA to buy!!

Well we're living here in Allentown
And they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line
 Billy Joel  “Allentown”
 

HORLACHER (Allentown, Pennsylvania) This one is weird. We grew fond of its unpredictable, somewhat murky taste, but we must point out that while we use "murky" as an antonym to clean (meaning "well defined"), another taster thought this beer had overtones of sewage. Other oddities: One guy thought the can looked "evil"; someone else said, "creamy aftertaste," and when fresh the canned tasted like a totally different brew than the bottled--and it tasted better. B MINUS  Oui Magazine 1975

When I read this review in Robert Christgau’s 1975 beer tasting article in Oui magazine (which, of course, I only bought for the ‘articles’…), I became intrigued by prospect of finding and tasting this brew. But alas, I was a penniless college student at Indiana University at the time and lacking any funds to travel, had to do without the murky and elusive Horlacher, quenching my thirst instead with Falstaff, Falls City, and Fehr’s XL.

10/22/2010 Steve Rivers found this old Horlacher bottle in his attic, I'm guessing it is at least 100 years old

The area around Allentown, PA was settled around by 1737 by German immigrants, primarily Mennonites and Lutherans. The first structure on the Allentown site was, appropriately enough, a tavern, and a store opened next door a short time later. Small houses began to spring up around the tavern and the beginnings of Allentown took root. Allentown survived the French & Indian wars, and later sheltered the Liberty Bell while Philadelphia was under English occupation during the American Revolution. With the coming of the railroad in the 1840s, coal from nearby mines became readily available. Blast furnaces, rolling mills, and cement factories followed, and Allentown became a gritty heavy manufacturing town. (cool Horlacher sign from www.breweriana.com)

Industry also brought a need for cheap labor to Allentown, and immigrants from central Europe were happy to sign up. With them they brought an abundant thirst for beer and the first brewery in Allentown was founded by William Oberly in 1845.

Frederick Horlacher was born on December 3, 1840 in Wurtemburg, Germany. In 1865 his family emigrated from Germany to Philadelphia. Horlacher attended Pierce Pioneer College and learned to speak English in just six months. He married Carolina Schwartz on January 30, 1868 and the couple eventually had 7 children.

Originally a jeweler, in 1873 Horlacher  and his family moved away from Philadelphia and opened a small hotel in Parryville. Some time later he started a small soft drink bottling operation in the basement of the hotel. It was so successful he established branches in Bowmans, Slatington, Bangor, Lehighton, Freeland, and Allentown, PA. Horlacher later added beer to his bottling lines. (pre-Prohibition Horlacher tray from eBay).

Having tremendous success with the beverage business, Horlacher took over the brewery formerly operated by J.J. Hottenstein at the northeast corner of 4th and Hamilton Streets in Allentown. In 1886, Horlacher’s son Fred H. joined the growing business. Fred H. convinced his father to close the satellite operations and centralize the entire business in Allentown.

The aging plant at 4th and Hamilton continued to operate until a new brewery could be built at 3rd and Gordon Streets. The new plant was christened the Allentown Brewing Company and began production in 1897. The brewery had been built on the banks of the Jordan Creek, a site of a Hessian Revolutionary War camp.

Around the turn of the century there were, in fact, three other successful breweries in Allentown, all located within a mile of Center Square. In 1902, the family decided to change the name to the Horlacher Brewing Company. A new brand, Perfection Beer, was launched by the brewery three years later and would stay with the brewery until the end.  

Unfortunately, Frederick Horlacher, the original founder, passed away in 1911. After his death, additional family members joined the business. Fred D.  Robert R. , Edgar S., and Joseph A. Horlacher, all third generation, entered the business in 1913.

National Prohibition was passed by the 36 necessary state legislators in 1919, and Horlacher Brewing ceased brewing legal beer on January 16, 1920.  In 1921 the company was renamed as the Horlacher Company and went into non-brewing business activities such as soft drinks and distilled water. The soft drinks were marketed under the Purox brand.  (Horlacher Beer sign on route 30 Oxford, PA from http://www.herlocker.info/Ancestors,_Relatives,_and_In-Laws_of_Jack_Herlocker/Family_Photos.html)

Not all of the activities of the brewery during Prohibition were on the “up and up”. They continued to produce real beer for gangster Dutch Schultz. During this time the “kettle helper” also had the title of “spotter”. The “spotter’s” job was to follow the cars of revenue agents as they arrived from Philadelphia and see exactly who they were talking to in Allentown. Anyone identified as being in the company of the Feds were dealt with by Schultz’s “muscle” and “taken for a ride”. Brewing beer was nasty business in the Roaring 20s.

During Prohibition, Horlacher Brewing had a secret celler with four wooden fermenting vats. The fermenting room was on the top floor and hoses were strung out through a trap door to fill barrels. The door to the secret room was axe proof and the tanks could be emptied in seconds if necessary during a raid. Even with all these precautions, a Federal Prohibition agent did eventually manage to break into the room and collect evidence as the last few gallons of illegal beer went down the drain. (can from www.breweriana.com)

In 1927, Fred H. Horlacher passed away, not living to see the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Following Repeal, Horlacher again began the (legal) production of real beer.  Two other breweries in Allentown also resumed production, Neuweiler and Daeufer-Lieberman. (tray from www.trayman.com)

But far too many breweries had gone back into production after Repeal, and capacity exceeded demand. In 1935, the Horlacher Brewing went into bankruptcy court and was sold to F.B. Franks Sr. for $104,800. Franks lived on Parkway Blvd in Allentown, and had been successful in the cement business. His first decision as president was to cement over the plant’s eroding red brick building.  Unfortunately, he also chose to remove the building’s 19th century external stone ornamentation. Robert Horlacher, the former President, stayed on as vice president and G.M.  In 1937, Franks hired Charles E Lieberman from a celebrated brewing family as brewmaster.

Prior to Prohibition, Horlacher Brewing had sold a Nine Months Old Beer. There was no other brewery in the country that could make this claim. The normal brewing process from brewhouse to market normally took three to five weeks, but Horlacher wanted to create something special. Nine Months Old Beer was similar to the India Pale Ale of days gone by which had been aged for months in order to survive the long journey through the tropics from England to troops in India.

Brewmaster Charles E Lieberman recreated this beer in 1938 and it was packaged in an amber export bottle, labeled like a premium beer, and sold to better restaurants and night clubs in New York and Chicago.

Because the inhabitants of the Lehigh Valley tended to venerate the sophistication of the ‘Big Apple’, billboards for Nine Months Old Beer featured the skyline of Manhattan. Later a blonde model would be added to enhance the attractiveness of the brand. She was nicknamed “The Blonde Bomber” by Horlacher employees. Lieberman also suggested the inclusion of a penguin in a high hat and cane as an advertising symbol, which was perceived to give the Horlacher brands an air of sophistication. The penguin symbol had already been successful with Kool brand cigarettes and remained with Horlacher for years. (label from www.beercollections.com) (coaster from http://beercansrus.com)

Troubles began for the brewery in WWII when grain was rationed. Horlacher had a large market share in New Jersey, so while Neuweiler decided to focus on the Allentown market, Horlacher neglected its home town and tried to ration beer to hold onto its N.J. markets.  They felt that it would be easier to regain share in their backyard later than rebuild in New Jersey.  This led to huge bitterness among local taverns and distributors, who could not get beer.

To offset this loss, the brewery opened its own sales shop in front of the plant, which further infuriated wholesalers and taverns. This boycott continued well into the 1970s and was a chief contributing factor to the demise of the beer.

In 1946 The Wallerstein Laboratories conducted a six week seminar for brewmasters. Nine Months Old Lager was included in a taste testing session and received many favorable comments. It was favorably compared to “a heavy Canadian ale”.

In November 1948 Lieberman left Horlacher to become brewmaster of the Grand Prize Brewery in Houston, owned by Howard Hughes Jr. That same year, the first of Horlacher’s two local competitors, Daeufer – Lieberman closed. Nine Months Old Lager was finally discontinued in 1950.

Horlacher Brewing expanded through the 50s and 60s and eventually reached a production peak of 230,000 bbl. F.B. Franks Jr. and H.F. Ricker Jr managed the company until 1969 when it was sold to Letzgo Enterprises, an investment capital firm.  But by that time, Horlacher was now the only brewery left in Allentown. Louis F. Neuweiler & Sons had closed the year before and the great American brewery consolidation was in full bloom.

In 1972, New York City based F. & M. Schaefer Brewing opened an ultra modern brewery just down the road from Horlacher. The antiquated Horlacher plant fell further and further behind the manufacturing cost positions of the big national brewers. And to make matters worse, Horlacher could ill afford the expensive television advertising required to maintain and grow market share.  (label from www.breweriana.com)

President Martin E Zernick launched an impassioned plea for state tax breaks for the remaining 16 breweries in Pennsylvania. Speaking to the state Senate, Zernick asked for “a break by changing the current tax structure affecting them”. Without it, they were facing extinction. But no relief was forthcoming. As the saying goes “the only things certain in life are death and taxes”.  

In an effort to survive, Horlacher introduced Malta, a high protein non-alcoholic beverage popular with Puerto Rican immigrants. The company now had between 80 -100 employees, depending on the season.

In 1974, in a last ditched effort, the brewery launched Brew II, advertised as “Second to None”. It terms of alcoholic content, this was true. Not quite a malt liquor, it was designed to be the strongest beer brewed anywhere. Zernick explained:

“As we analyzed it, the Horlacher drinker in most cases had been a Horlacher drinker for many years, and they’re dying off. Brew II was aimed at younger drinkers.” “We decided to give them a beer – not a malt liquor – but a beer with a bigger kick than standard beer. We also decided that to make this beer, we would select grain and hops more carefully”. Brew II was tripled filtered for a smoother flavor.  Here’s what Oui magazine said about Brew II in 1975:

BREW II (Horlacher, Allentown, Pennsylvania) The label boasts, "Second to none," and we don't doubt it, since this beer seems to be its own category. While Brew II isn't malt liquor, it has the highest alcohol content of any beer in the country and is definitely the oddest one in our survey--so we liked it. Bitterer than stout, sweeter than ale and Strong. B MINUS

But Brew II could not save the ailing company nor could another new brand, Imperial Pilsener. By 1977 the brewery was only operating two days per week. Horlacher needed to work a full five day work week to be profitable. President Albert C. Nassif tried hard to save the company. A special 85th anniversary beer can was issued in 1977, but the project was abandoned after Horlacher Brewing was put on credit hold by American Can for a $124,500 in past due invoices. Due to the severe cash flow problems, Horlacher also had problems to get any supplier to sell them glass bottles. They were now in the situation where they could no longer package their beer. In desperation, Nassif put $35,000 of his own money into the company but it wasn’t nearly enough. Horlacher failed to qualify for a SBA loan and the IRS collectors began banging on the door for back taxes. (can from http://beercansrus.com)

Without capital to run their business, the company closed for good in 1978.

At their height Horlacher had 300 distributors and a fleet of 12 trucks.  No one showed any interest in picking up the brand names. Parts of the factory were razed in 1984. And thus the “murky and unpredictable” Horlacher brew passed into history…

If you have something on Horlacher, please email me!

Pictures not credited are from eBay auctions...

 

10/22/07 Here are some new pics thanks to Bill King!:

 

01/17/2010 Michael Ostrofsky sent over this Horlacher Link for more information and an interview with a former brew master

04/18/2011 Dick Goodman sent in this nice photo of an old Horlacher calendar.

 

The author would like to thank Charles Nekvasil, ABA Member Rich Wagner’s “Guidebook – Lehigh Valley Brewery Tour”, ABA Member Donald Roussin Jr.,  and Carol M Herrity of the Lehigh Valley Historical Society. Sources include Charles E Lieberman My Life In Beer, Allentown Morning Call September 13, 1937, Allentown Call Chronicle April 7, 1974, Donald Bull, Manfred Friedrich, Robert Gottschalk “American Breweries”.