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Brews, Barrels and Bethlehem

July 17th, 2015 |

July 16, 2015 | In The News

Written by William Gordon for the Morning Call; Photos by Michael Kubel

Bethlehem has a rich brewing history that goes back 274 years, and it’s all in the pursuit of one thing — a cold glass of beer.

Most of the breweries that supplied suds in Bethlehem for the last three centuries are now gone, including Uhl’s Brewing Co., the South Bethlehem Brewing Co., J. Widman Brewing Co. and even a brewery that was on Lehigh University’s campus.

That brewery was called Die Alte Brauerie — or The Old Brewery — and is now the anthropology and sociology building at the university. The beer was popular among students, especially those in the drama club Mustard and Cheese Society, which beer historian Chris Bowen says was known for often drinking and eating German cheese in the shade.

You will learn all that and much more in “Bethlehem: Brewed and Distilled,” an exhibit presents by Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites at the 1810 Goundie House that covers the brewing history of Bethlehem from the time it was a Moravian settlement to the small city it is today.

The exhibit focuses around the life of Johann Sebastian Goundie, who exhibit curator Chris Bowen calls the “Patron Saint of Brewing” in Bethlehem. Bowen impersonates Goundie at events.

Goundie was commissioned by the Moravians to brew beer in the settlement soon after Moravian leaders closed the Christianbrunn Brewery, the first brewery in Bethlehem, in 1796 after the brewers began “sampling” their product too much, said Bowen.

The settlement needed beer. Because the water was contaminated, men, women and children drank beer instead — with men drinking an average of two gallons of beer a day.

Goundie was hired as the head brewer of the Single Brethren Brewery in 1803 but recommended the brewery be closed. A brewery was then constructed behind his house, where he did most of his brewing.

Goundie soon became a civic leader, entrepreneur and even a fire inspector — because the brewing process was prone to fires. He brewed about 3,000 to 5,000 barrels yearly, estimates Bowen. That’s the same amount that Bethlehem Brew Works, a Main Street craft brewer, brews today, Bowen says.

“Brewed and Distilled” is presented in five parts and tours are guided.

In “The Goundie Experience,” you will learn about the life of Goundie see a version of what his office might have looked like with period furniture.

“From Grain to Glass” explores how beer is made, with examples of tools from the 1800s and 1900s such as a firkin — a container used to hold beer — from around the 1830s or 1840s.

The process of making beer generally has stayed the same since Neolithic times, Bowen says. The grains are crushed, the sugar is taken out and heated up, then cooled. Yeast is added and it ferments. What has changed is the technology used to produce beer in large quantities.

Bowen says the caves in the region where the beer was stored are still some of the largest caves still intact in eastern Pennsylvania.

“Women in Brewing” is an exploration of the importance of women in the brewing process. Beer was made in the home before brewing became a profitable enterprise. According to Bowen, this laid the foundation for recipes that would be used to make and sell beer in the future. You can see what a kitchen that brewed beer might look like in this part of the exhibit.

In “Liquid Time-Travelers,” you can take your picture with a life-size picture of Goundie.

“Bethlehem Brews Beer” tells the stories of past and present breweries in Bethlehem through illustrations and reading material on the walls.

The three biggest breweries in Bethlehem after Goundie died were Uhl’s, J. Widman Brewing Co. and the South Bethlehem Brewing Co..

Uhl’s made beer from 1856 until about World War II. What’s left of the building can be found behind the Old Brewery Tavern on 138 W. Union Blvd.

The biggest brewing company in Bethlehem as far as annual production was J. Widman Brewing Co. (1880-1938), which brewed about 25,000 barrels a year. The building is gone now, but it was located behind Bethlehem Brew Works on Main Street.

All these breweries continued to produce beer during Prohibition, including South Bethlehem Brewing Co, which was in business 1901 to 1954. Bowen says Bethlehem Steel built the building, which was located along Fourth Street between Taylor and Webster streets and at the corner of what was called Brewer Street.

When it was torn down in 1966, workers found a trap door behind a 5 -foot tall, 600-pound safe. Inside they found $200,000, Bowen says.

Bethlehem’s breweries closed down when big companies like Miller and Bush began putting local breweries out of business, Bowen says.

Between the time the South Bethlehem Brewery closed in 1954 and Bethlehem Brew Works opened in 1998, there were no breweries in Bethlehem.

william.gordon@mcall.com

Twitter: @William_WGordon

610-770-3754

‘BETHLEHEM BREWED AND DISTILLED’

*What: A semi-permanent exhibit on Bethlehem brewing history presented by Historic Bethlehem Museum and Sites.

*Where: 1810 Goundie House. 501 Main St, Bethlehem

*When: Tuesday through Sunday with tours at noon and 2 p.m. Tours are about one hour long.

*How much: Tours start at $12, which includes a tour of another historic site as part of Bethlehem Museums and Sites’ “Pass Into History” program. “Pass Into History” goes up to $30, which includes five locations. Tour “Brewed and Distilled” and go on one of Historic Bethlehem’s walking tours for $15. This program goes up to $35, which includes five sites.

*What else: Monthly tastings, lectures and Historic Bethlehem Pub Walking Tours on Saturdays. The next Meet the Brewer program is at 4 and 5:30 p.m. July 25. The next pub tour is 2-4 p.m. July 25.

Info: 800-360-TOUR, www.historicbethlehem.org

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