Historic Structures

History of Brewing in Baltimore Gunther Brewing Company - Hamms, Baltimore Maryland

Baltimore's growing German-born population fueled the development of breweries in the 19th century. By the 1850s Baltimore's German community was well established, encompassing all social classes and occupations. Baltimore's sea routes to Bremen, Germany provided a strong bond between the two cities. Baltimore served as a major point of German entry into the United States; Germans made up over half the foreign immigration to the city in the mid-19th century. One in four white Baltimoreans was born in Germany, and of the others, half were of German descent. The German community's major cultural impact on the city ranged from German American public schools to music to religion to political thought. "The most important influence, perhaps, was that the German community introduced new enjoyments and popular festivals," not the least of which was the brewing and enjoyment of lager beer.

Lager beer, a traditionally German drink that was first produced in the U.S. in the 1840s and gradually became America's national beer style, depended on yeasts that ferment on the top of the fermenting tank. Unlike the ales associated with Britain, which required somewhat warmer temperatures for their bottom-fermenting yeast, lager beer had to be laid away or lagered at near-freezing temperatures for several weeks after primary fermentation. Thus lager beer could be made only in winter months. To extend the production season, brewers dug cellars that could be kept cool, and they often lined the cellars with ice cut from lakes to extend the lagering further.

Baltimore's first commercial brewery seems to have been the 1748 establishment of John and Elias Barnitz, German immigrants from York, Pa. By the 1860s there were 22 breweries in the city. Several breweries were located near the wharves at Fells Point. With demand for lager and the ambition and sophistication of brewers rising along with the German population at mid-century, a number of Fells Point brewers dug lagering cellars in Highlandtown, especially around O'Donnell and Conkling Streets. With deep cellars impossible at the breweries' Fells Point sea-level locations, brewers could haul beer by wagon up what became known as Lager Beer Hill for storage in order to expand their capacities and periods of production.

The Highlandtown area also had the advantage of lying outside the city limits. Before Baltimore annexed the area in 1918, the city had no jurisdiction over restricted land uses such as cemeteries and slaughterhouses that clustered at the city limits. Taverns also located in the area, serving German families that came out from the city to enjoy the beer gardens on Sundays when drinking was forbidden in town.

The move of brewers to Highlandtown is an example of one aspect of the evolution of 19th-century brewing practice. After becoming attracted to the area by the natural cooling of underground cellars in the 1870s, brewers in the 1880s and 1890s began to construct icehouses for imported ice. Ships brought ice to Baltimore from New England ponds and lakes. Later, brewers constructed their own artificial ice plants to refine control of the lagering process: Just as central power systems would transform 20th-century brewing, refrigeration transformed brewing practices in the 19th century. The Wiessner Brewery, in the northwestern part of Baltimore, became the first in the city to make its own ice when it installed 50 and 100 ton ice machines in 1887. With an abundant ice supply, lagering cellars no longer had to be built underground, and multistory insulated buildings, still called cellars, accommodated ice hoisted into the top floor where it could cool the lagering below.

Product storage and distribution also influenced the building types present in the 19th century brewery, which required stables, cooperage shops, offices, and wagon houses. While individuals could come to the brewery to fill buckets and purchase half-kegs, beer was most often consumed collectively at taverns. Most of the brewery's product was distributed by horse-drawn wagons. Because product distribution was critical to a brewery's success, the location of a brewery was a key element of its business strategy.

The consolidation of food and beverage processing operations that characterized the late 19th and early 20th centuries affected brewing as well. In March 1899, investors organized the Maryland Brewing Company to purchase local breweries with the objective of forming a monopoly that could corner the market. Seventeen Baltimore firms joined the trust, including the Gunther and National breweries, leaving only a few breweries such as the Weissner Brewery on their own. The Gottlieb-Bauernschmidt-Straus Brewing Company (known as G.B.S. Brewing Company) took over the Maryland Brewing Company when it failed in 1901.

The combination of anti-German sentiment created by World War I and Prohibition soon after doomed Baltimore's breweries. In a city so culturally embedded with German ethnicity, World War I posed a painful dilemma. Sherry Olson, Baltimore's pre-eminent historian, wrote that "the war put an end to the German-American era in Baltimore." German Street and the German-American Bank vanished, replaced by Redwood Street and the American Bank. Viewed in the light of anti-German hysteria, Maryland's support for the prohibition of beer-drinking in 1918 can be seen as a direct attack on German culture and folkways.

The second, post-Prohibition phase of beer production stands in contrast to the earlier era. The process of brewery consolidation begun at the beginning of the 20th century resulted in beers brewed in quantity for a national rather than local palate. After Prohibition, beer became milder and less alcoholic. When breweries abandoned the krausening or second-fermentation process used in the 19th century, their products became thinner. In a period of expanding markets in the 1930s, production volume became the key to success and small brewers were left behind in the regional market. While there were 35 breweries in Baltimore City and County employing approximately 450 people in 1885, only 5 reopened after Prohibition, employing more than 1500 people.

Brewhouses grew even taller and more industrial in character during this period. The brewing process of the 1930s continued to follow the fundamental principles of brewing, but over time nearly every aspect became automated, and the quantities produced grew larger. Brewing began near the top floor of the brewhouse, where a malt mill would draw malt from the storage bins where railcars had placed it. After grinding, the malt would be mixed with water in a mash tun with an automatic mixer. To add adjunct or filler ingredients to the brew, a brewer boiled corn grits and mixed them into the mash. Straining off the solids to sell as animal feed, the brewer would send the wort that resulted to a copper brew kettle for boiling with hops. The process would take several hours to this point; the rest consisted of a long period of fermentation. Refrigerated coils cooled the hot wort, which went to tanks where the yeast was added and the mix was allowed to ferment for two weeks. The yeast was skimmed off the bottom of the tank, and the beer was sent to glass-lined lagering tanks for a number of weeks. After filtration, the beer was ready and could be stored in tanks until the bottles or kegs were ready to carry it out of the brewery.

The perfection of the metal crown in the 1880s allowed bottled beer to become the standard means of product distribution in the first quarter of the 20th century. Eventually sales of bottled beer would overtake those of beer sold in kegs. Bottling also allowed a greater emphasis on consumers as bottles became miniature advertisements and enhancers of brand identity. Breweries now required bottling plants along with their kegging operations, though Federal tax law did not allow bottling to take place inside a brewery. The beer had to be measured and taxed first, then bottled in a separate building. At the Gunther Brewing Company, the Shipping and Bottling Building situated across Toone Street from the 1900 Brewhouse illustrates the effect of this mandate. By the 1930s, bottled beer was overtaking draft beer. Cans joined the beer market in 1935 and would account for more than 9% of packaged beer sales nationally in six years. By 1940, packaged beer outsold draft beer slightly, valued at $924.5 million nationally compared to $906.7 million for draft beer. With cans changing distribution and facilitating home consumption, there were 5,900 retailers and wholesalers of beer in Maryland by WWII.

Advertising, important to breweries since the 19th century, became one of the defining features of the industry beginning in the 1930s. At the time the National Association of Brewers met in Baltimore for their annual conference in 1941, there were five contending breweries in the city, all defined by their advertising: "So active is this competition that it is almost impossible for an outside brewer to invade the Baltimore market. On the one hand, it must do an advertising job commensurate with National, Gunther and Arrow. And that means investment of a large sum of money because these brewers are no advertising tyros. If an outsider is to come in on the basis of price, then he must run over American and Free State, brewers of very fine beer, sold with little advertising, but at a relatively low price." By the early 1950s, the National Brewing Company was spending between $78,000 and $140,000 per year on advertisements; Gunther was spending more than $166,000.

Brewing was a major industry in Baltimore and Maryland before Prohibition. According to data compiled by the Census of Manufactures, brewing remained a significant force in the Maryland economy after Prohibition, particularly after World War II. Census data aggregates beer and brewing within the Malt Liquors sub-category of the Food and Kindred Products industry category. Food and Kindred Products ranked as the first to third largest industry category in the state of Maryland between 1947 and 1972. Within Food and Kindred Products, Malt Liquors ranked as the second to fourth largest sub-category. Malt Liquors contributed approximately $17.7 million to the Maryland economy in 1947; that amount grew to approximately $48.5 million by 1972. Eight breweries were located in Maryland. The industry was centered in Baltimore City, which had five breweries. Gunther Brewing Company was the second largest of the Baltimore City breweries, the largest being the National Brewing Company.

Baltimore breweries would prove no match for national competition in the last quarter of the 20th century. The seeds of their demise were sown in the 19th century when Anheuser-Busch developed the process of pasteurizing beer, allowing it to be shipped throughout the country. When beer packaging shifted from relatively heavy, expensive glass bottles to cheaper, lighter cans, the stage was set for national beer distribution dominated by large, Midwestern breweries like Anheuser Busch. Larger breweries could always translate their economies of scale into lower prices. By the mid-1950s, they used television advertising and a powerful, nationwide sales force to increase market share at the expense of local or smaller regional breweries. As Jerry Di Paolo, formerly the Baltimore branch sales manager of National Brewing Company stated, "It wasn't dog-eat-dog [among the Baltimore brewers]; it was a good rivalry. But when the big guys came in, it was like lions eating deer." In 1970, Pabst supplanted National as Maryland's best-selling brand of beer. To add insult to injury, that same year Phillip Morris bought Miller Brewing and proceeded to apply the acumen they had developed in cigarette advertising to beer. When cigarette ads were pulled from television in 1970, Phillip Morris shifted its advertising budget to Miller, a major factor in the successful introduction of Miller Lite. The one-two punch of the scale of operations of Midwestern-turned-national breweries and their national advertising budgets proved too much for Baltimore's homegrown industry, and by the late 1970s, Baltimore's last major brewery had shut down.