Founded by Civil War veteran Trubert Ortlieb in 1870, Ortlieb's was one of the few Philadelphia breweries to survive Prohibition and, along with Schmidt's Brewery , one of the last of the great industrial-era local breweries to close. The remains of the Ortlieb's and Schmidt's plants are visible reminders of the importance of the brewing trade in Northern Liberties and adjacent Kensington. Ortlieb's Brewery ceased operations in 1981. In 1987, saxophone player Pete Souder reopened the tavern as Ortlieb's Jazzhaus, featuring live jazz every night of the week, ranging from local house players to the internationally renowned. (The brewing facilities adjacent to the tavern were finally razed in 2002). A recipient of numerous awards, Ortlieb's was listed as one of top 50 jazz clubs in United States by Downbeat magazine. Sold to new owners in 2007, the revered club endured through two decades of demographic changes and real estate development in its Northern Liberties neighborhood. In April 2010, Ortlieb's Jazzhaus closed its doors, and Philadelphia lost one of its most unique homes for jazz.
Philadelphia's long brewing history dates back to the colonial era. The 19th century marked the heyday of Philadelphia brewmasters. Traditionally, Americans consumed English ales due to the availability of the yeast. In 1840, Bavarian brewmaster John Wagner brought lager yeast from Bavaria and brewed the first lager on St. John Street (now North American) near Poplar. Lager beer was very popular among German immigrants and fueled the growth of the brewing industry in Philadelphia. In 1850, the majority of the German immigrants in Philadelphia involved in the brewing trade lived in Northern Liberties. Most breweries started out as small family operations and expanded as demand for lager increased. By 1869, there were 60 breweries in Philadelphia, and many of them were located in Northern Liberties and Kensington. In those early days of lager brewing, there were at least 20 other breweries in the vicinity of Ortlieb's. Coinciding with the immigrant population explosion and the growth of Philadelphia's industrial might, the brewing industry created jobs for newcomers already familiar with the business—usually German immigrants. German Americans' dominance of and association with the brewing industry gave them a sense of community and social identity.
In the 2000s, Philadelphia’s beer scene (both drinking and brewing) is once again thriving, thanks in part to local brewers like Yards (Delaware Poplar streets) and the Philadelphia Brewing Company (in the old Weisbrod & Hess Brewery building at Amber and Hagert Streets in Kensington), whose brews can be found on tap at the ever-increasing number of taverns and “gastropubs” all over Philadelphia. The city that boasts a neighborhood named Brewerytown now even has its own annual Beer Week, the “largest festival of its kind in the world,” featuring “hundreds of events and thousands of beers in America’s best beer-drinking city.”
- Dubin, Murray. "Old Brews; History of Philadelphia Beer-Making is Traced in Exhibit." The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 1987.
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania. "Northern Liberties." Self-guided walking tour printed guide, Philadelphia, PA: Historical Society of Pennsylvania Summer History Institute, 1984.
- Kazal, Russell A. Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004.
- Sixpack, Joe [Don Russell]. "Right in their own back Yards: Kensington again gets a brewery." The Philadelphia Daily News, May 3, 2002.