On January 13th and 14th, the Fourth Annual Big Philly Beer Fest will gather together scores of brewers showcasing hundreds of craft beers for enthusiasts to sample at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Today’s thriving beer scene in Philly is connected to a regional tradition stretching back centuries.
Philadelphia played a pivotal role in establishing U.S. beer culture. Brewing in the Southeast Pennsylvania region dates back to the early colonial period, when Quakers in the region ran small personal brewing operations out of their homes. William Penn was one of them.
Arriving in Pennsylvania in 1682, Penn returned to England just two years later, entrusting the construction of his Pennsbury estate in Bucks County to James Harrison. While conducting his affairs in the Old World, Penn wrote letters to Harrison, detailing his vision for the idyllic landholding: “I would have a Kitchen, two larders, a wash house & room to iron in, a brew house & in it an oven for bakeing [sic].”
The prevalence of small domestic breweries stemmed largely from concerns regarding contaminated water and waterborne illnesses such as typhoid fever. (Beer consumption in Philadelphia dropped when clean water became publicly accessible in 1800 and 1801, though beer’s popularity obviously survived the advent of centralized water supplies.)
Widespread home brewing made the region fertile for commercial breweries and malting companies, many of which opened and closed in Philadelphia throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The one with the longest staying power proved to be the Morris Brewery, opened by Anthony Morris in 1687 on Front and Walnut Streets. The docks nearby constituted the city’s first “Brewerytown,” with a variety of taverns and breweries catering to dockworkers and sailors.
Morris passed away in 1721, having handed down the business — which both brewed beer and malted barley — to his son. Throughout the 18th century, Morris’ business stayed in the family and thrived, bouncing around the city as his progeny expanded operations. By the 1790s, the Morris Brewery was located on what is now Thomas Paine Place, where the company specialized in a porter favored by George Washington.
In 1811, Francis Perot — an ancestor of French Huguenots who fled religious persecution — apprenticed at the brewery, signing on for a rigorous six-year commitment. The company’s brew masters at the time were Thomas and Joseph Morris, widely considered Philly’s premier brewers. The two mentored the young Perot, who learned every aspect of the trade: malting, milling, maintaining the brewed beer in the company’s cool cellar, and (toward the end of the indenture) brewing. Perot opened his own brewery in 1818 after completing his apprenticeship.
Five years later, Perot married Thomas Morris’ daughter Elizabeth and incorporated the Morris Brewery into the brewery he ran with his brother, called Francis and William S. Perot. The Perot brothers ceased brewing in 1850, focusing their energies exclusively on malting. Francis’ son T. Morris Perot and son-in-law Edward H. Ogden joined as partners in 1868, resulting in the company’s new name: the Francis Perot’s Sons Malting Co. Francis passed away in 1885, just two years shy of the company’s bicentennial.
Remarkably, the Francis Perot’s Sons Malting Co. survived Prohibition and lasted under family control until the 1960s (though it relocated to Buffalo in the early 20th century). The business ranks among the oldest continually operating family businesses in U.S. history.
Today, Philadelphia is home to a growing number of craft breweries; more established enterprises such as Philadelphia Brewing Co., Dock Street Brewing Co., and Yards Brewing Co. have been joined by upstarts including Crime & Punishment Brewing Co. and Evil Genius Beer Co.
The city’s beer renaissance would make its early Quaker home brewers proud.
Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. firstname.lastname@example.org