"I'll have a lager."
Say those words in a Philadelphia bar, and you won't be misunderstood.
It wasn't Yuengling that started the Philly lager tradition, however. That heritage stretches all the way back to the 1840s, when Bavarian immigrant John Wagner was, by most accounts, the first person to successfully transport a special kind of yeast across the Atlantic. When he landed in Philadelphia and used it to brew beer, he added another milestone to the long list of Philadelphia firsts: the home of America's first lager.
Wagner is widely credited with brewing the first lager beer in the United States — there's even a blue-and-gold historical marker posted next to his former residence — and thanks to its refreshing taste and clear, easy drinkability, lager spread from Wagner's Northern Liberties basement to become the dominant style of beer in America.
How did that happen? There might be no one who knows better than Bill Moeller, and next week you'll have a chance to hear his story, plus drink some of the best lagers on the market today.
On Tuesday, Oct. 21, Moeller will spout knowledge about Pennsylvania's illustrious lager history at Sly Fox's Pottstown brewery. Sly Fox brewmaster Brian O'Reilly, Victory's Bill Covaleski and Lancaster Brewing's Bill Moore will join him in a panel discussion. The evening will be, as event organizers Brewers of PA dubs it, a true "Meeting of the Malts."
Pick up a $60 ticket (here) and you can enjoy a night of great beer (and food to go along) while hearing about the people who made it possible.
A fourth-generation brewer who served in World War II, Moeller worked for several of Philly's most well-known beer-makers, including Ortleib's, Schmidt's and Orlacher, where he helped create some of this country's most popular lagers. He was also instrumental in the development of the old original Dock Street brewpub, when it was located in Center City. But he might be most famous for something he did 90 miles north — consulting on the formulation of Brooklyn Lager, Brooklyn Brewery's first product.
Based on a recipe from Moeller's grandfather, that beer was one of the first modern lagers brewed for taste instead of efficiency, and it was extremely popular. The success of Brooklyn Lager played a huge part in ushering in the current craft beer boom.
Victory's first beer was also a lager, in fact. When Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet opened their brewery in February of 1996, they offered Brandywine Valley Lager (now just called Victory Lager) and Victory Festbier, a fall seasonal that is all over beer store shelves right now.
"We also made something called HopDevil, which we thought was too bold to catch on," laughs Covaleski. Although IPAs and ales have come to dominate the modern craft beer scene, lagers are actually more difficult to create, he says.
"[Lagers] are not highly hopped, so the nuances can be readily tasted. We call them "naked" beers, meaning that there is nothing to cover up any flaws," he explains. Lagers also require more patience, since they use a slower fermenting yeast that works at colder temperatures than more common ale yeasts.
("Lager" is actually the German word for "storeroom" or "warehouse," and refers to the underground caverns Bavarian brewers used to store their beer as it was made. They also placed gravel and planted trees on top of those caves, to help keep them shady and cool, and once a few picnic tables were added, the beer garden was born.)
"Beer mellows with age, just like people," says Moeller, who, at 88 years old, still does beer consulting from his Bucks County home.
""Bill Covaleski and Brian O'Reilly and Bill Moore are very, very good brewers, and they do a great job. Any lager they would make, I know would be very drinkable," he says about his fellow panelists.