In 1857, Charles Stegmaier set up shop in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He started with a bottling business and by the turn of the century had the largest brewing business in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Charles Stegmaier, born October 7, 1821, learned his trade in his home area of Wurtenberg, Germany. At the age of 27, having been brewmaster at several large local breweries, he set sail for America. He quickly found employment at the small Corporation Brewery in Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter, he gained employment with the Louis Bergdoll brewery, where he met John Reichard of the Reichard & Weaver brewery in Wilkes-Barre. This friendship of 1851 sent Charles packing on a 120-mile trip upstate, where he and John formed a short-lived partnership. This business association produced the first lager beer in their section of Pennsylvania. A longer partnership was also formed in 1851 when Charles married Catharine Baer, daughter of George C. Baer.
Several years later, Charles accepted a position in Pottsville with the George Laurer brewery, but he returned to Wilkes-Barre in 1857 to establish a bottling business. He quickly formed a partnership with his father-in-law, George Baer, to build a small brewery on South Canal Street. They brewed with a wooden kettle and stored their beer in an abandoned coal mine tunnel while a new brewery with underground vaults was built on East Market Street. The new Baer & Stegmaier Brewery was opened in 1863 and lasted until the Panic of 1873.
Out of a job, Charles entered the hotel business for two years before buying the Joel Bowkley Brewery on North River Street at the Canal. Forming a partnership with his son, Christian E. Stegmaier, he successfully increased business to the extent that they could repurchase the Bear & Stegmaier Brewery in 1880. Output continued to grow under the name of C. Stegmaier & Son; a new brewhouse and storage facility were built in 1894, increasing annual capacity to 300,000 barrels. By the standards of the time, this was an extremely large brewery. Charles and Christian incorporated the firm in 1897 as the Stegmaier Brewing Co. Charles, who continued active management of Company affairs until 1902, operated the firm with Christian and his other sons, Fred and George. The Stegmaier family were highly esteemed as citizens of the city; they were extremely charitable and contributed greatly toward the growth and development of Wilkes-Barre. Success this time was not short-lived; the company enjoyed many productive years before closing during long years of slow decline of the local brewers in October, 1974.
Between 1910 and 1913 Stegmaier won eight gold medals at expositions in Paris, Brussels and Rome. After prohibition it became one of the largest independent breweries in North America, reaching an output of a half million barrels in 1940. Using a 60-truck fleet and rail services, the distribution areas eventually covered the East Coast from Maine to Florida – a considerable evolution from the days of 1857 when Charles Stegmaier personally delivered each barrel of beer with an express wagon drawn by a husky goat.
The sudden announcement in 1974 by Edward R. Maier, great grandson of Charles Stegmaier, that the Stegmaier label was sold to Lion, Inc. of Wilkes-Barre sent shock waves through the brewery’s work force. The Company’s financial situation was known to be deteriorating, but the notice of sale still came as a surprise to most.
The Company was a family-run business covering four generations, always respected as a “class act” by its loyal employees, many of whom were from families whose parents and grandparents had worked with Charles Stegmaier. About 50 employees, along with Maier as Executive Vice President, were employed by Lion, Inc., but some 150 workers lost their jobs. The vacated Stegmaier brewery, purchased for back taxes in 1978, is currently owned by the City of Wilkes-Barre. The City has hopes of selling it to a developer who will pursue historic restoration of the buildings.
Stegmaier’s many years of brewing brought us not only award winning beer, but a myriad of advertising memorabilia. A room of considerable size could be filled with historic breweriana with the “Stegmaier Brewing Co.” name appearing.
Stegmaier beer is still produced by Lion, Inc., of Wilkes-Barre, and remains one of the firms best selling products. Enjoy a cold, frosty “Steg” and appreciate the history that the Stegmaier Brewing Co. has left behind.
by Ruddy Hechler, published in the Fall 1987 NABA Breweriana Collector