BORN TO BREW
Bill Moeller’s career spanned the rise and fall of post-war mainstream brewing and had a dramatic effect upon the early days of craft brewing
By Jack Curtin
From the perspective of his 84 years, a milestone he reached last April, William M. Moeller acknowledges the obvious. “I guess you could say that it was ordained that I would become a brewer.”
Bill Moeller calls himself “one of the last of the World War II brewers,” the veterans who came home to enter brewing in one capacity or another. “The so-called Greatest Generation,” he says with a note of derision, not for the appellation itself but for Tom Brokaw, the man who came up with it, because the newscaster is not one who embraces his own deeply held conservative philosophy and because “he left out the services contributed by the US Merchant Marine in World War II” (you’ll see why below). Two beautiful old flintlocks hang on the walls on either side of the living room of his nicely appointed fifth floor apartment in Shannondell at Valley Forge in Audubon, a retirement community to which he moved this summer. “I can use those to pick off invading liberals from the balcony,” he says with a laugh, chiding an interviewer of decidedly different political views.
His grandfather and father were brewmasters at Seitz Brewing in Easton when he was born in 1926. When he was six the family moved to Boyertown where he spent most of his life and his father was the first brewmaster at the Boyertown Brewery, from 1934 to 1937. He grew up listening to his grandfather, father and uncles talk brewing around the kitchen table; all four had been a brewmaster at one time or another. “Through all that time, I began learning about brewing by osmosis,” he says. “Every time my father and my uncles got together, they talked about beer, about its production, about breweries that existed or had ceased to exist. I listened, I learned and I was fascinated.” The stories he was not allowed to hear until later were of his grandfather and father’s stint working for notorious Berks County bootlegger Max Hassel during Prohibition. “They were brewers by profession,” he shrugs. By his calculations, the four generations of Moellers have brewed approximately 100 million barrels of beer over the decades.
After high school, Moeller joined the U.S. Merchant Marine toward the end of WW2 and was on his way to Japan when the war ended. He served for three and a half years and earned a degree in Business Engineering at the University of Cincinnati after being discharged in 1946. “At that point, I went to my father and told him I wanted to follow in his footsteps,” he recalls. What he meant was eventually taking over the brewing supply company his father had created following his brewing career, but the old man was a believer in the German tradition that you don’t tell a man how to do a job unless you’ve done it yourself. “You will have to learn this business from the bottom up,” he said and set up a three-year apprenticeship for Bill under his uncle, A. Robert Moeller, at Drewry’s, a Midwest regional chain, from 1950-53. During that last year he attended an invitation-only eight-week seminar at the U.S. Brewers Academy in New York.
“Once I had been introduced to the production side of brewing in some depth, I decided I liked it,” Moeller says. He got a job at the Reading Brewery where he worked as a foreman under brewmaster Elmo Messer (“he was good friend to me who really got me started on my way”) until he was hired as assistant brewmaster (later promoted to quality control manager) at Horlacher Brewery in Allentown on his 30th birthday in 1956 “I really learned to brew at Horlacher. We were turning out 150,000 to 200,000bbls annually. We cut a lot of corners but we never jeopardized the product as far as I know.”
After 12 years at Horlacher, he became assistant brewmaster and later brewmaster at the Ortlieb Brewing Company in Philadelphia, where he would remain for another dozen years. “I’d say the more creative side of brewing for me personally started at Ortlieb’s,” he says. “When you were working for the large breweries in those days, you could not be as creative or take as many chances as most craft brewers can today. When you are making 1,000bbl of beer at one shot rather than 15 or 20, taking a risk could be catastrophic. But we were making some great and very different ales there, specifically Neuweiler Ale and McSorley’s Ale. Probably McSorley’s, which was of course named and brewed for McSorley’s Ale House in New York, is the most well know of those. We got the brand by default from. C. Schmidt and Sons (also of Philadelphia). They picked it up when they bought the Rheingold brands in 1977, but it was selling only 10,000 to 12,000bbl a year. They just did not want to be bothered with something that small and we took it and fell in love with it.”
Ortlieb’s ales were brewed in open wooden fermenters and Moeller believes that helped separate them from the pack. “McSorley’s was one of the few beers being made on the East Coast that was a true ale and had true ale characteristics,” Moeller recalls. “Schmidt’s was well known for its Tiger Head Ale and maybe I’m a bit prejudiced, but it didn’t quite measure up to ours. Fritz Maytag came east and stopped to spend three or four days with us on his way to England to study ale brewing. He wanted to learn everything about our method of making McSorley’s Ale. And I first met Michael Jackson because of that beer, around 1979. He visited Ortlieb’s just to try it and was very impressed. We became great friends and got together quite often when he was in Philadelphia. I loved martinis and after we had finished drinking beer, we would start to talk about the merits of English gin. Michael brought me an autographed copy of “Stirred Not Shaken, The Dry Martini,” by John Doxat, which I still have and showed to him a few months before he died.”
Another product that Moeller is quite proud of from those days was Birrell NA, which Ortlieb’s brewed under contract for Hurlimann’s, the Swiss brewery famous for the original Samiclaus. “They would send us over their proprietary yeast,” he explains, “and we would propagate it and add it to a base of the McSorley’s liquor, taking it down and watering it down to where it came in at about 0.5%. Making a near beer that did not have a washed-out flavor was very challenging, but I think we perfected it. The yeast was the key to it all.” He also notes that he had his shot at doing some high octane brewing at Ortlieb’s, producing 200-300,000bbls of Old English, a malt liquor with an ABV around 8 or 9%, every year.
When Ortlieb’s shut down in 1980, Moeller was immediately hired at Schmidt’s as brewmaster in charge of specialty products, which meant all those Ortlieb’s products just mentioned (Old English became Coqui; the others retained their names). “It was another great place to work and continue learning about my craft,” he says. “Schmidt’s was a phenomenal training ground for brewers at any level because of brewmaster Bill Hipp, one of the last of the gentlemen brewers. He was bright, thorough and knew how to handle people. One of the great assets at Schmidt’s was the beautiful old-fashioned ale room with open fermenters inside the main plant, a microbrewery inside the main brewery. That was very unusual for a large brewery which needed to make beer in pretty large batches. We had our own ale yeast room too, and 550, 600 barrel horizontal oak casks for the beers. The whole thing was gorgeous; you’d think when you walked through that you were at Bass Ale.” Also coming from the Schmidt’s kettles in those days was Prior Double Dark, one of the best rated American beer in Michael Jackson’s first pocket guide, just behind Anchor Steam and tied with Ballantine IPA; the Bard called it “…the most distinctive dark beer produced in the US.”
None of that mattered in the changing American beer scene. The 1980s were the dying gasp of mainstream brewing in Philadelphia and Schmidt’s brewed its last in 1987. Moeller was already gone; downsized in late 1985, he retired in early 1986. If he thought his brewing days were over, however, he was way wrong. Within a year or so, his good friend and brewery engineer John Bergmann put him in contact with Steve Hindy and Tom Potter, the founders of Brooklyn Brewery, who hired him as a consultant after the trio met for a chat at the Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville. Moeller helped formulate Brooklyn Lager and other early brews, wisely taking his compensation in shares of ownership in the company.
In their 2005 history of Brooklyn Brewing, Hindy and Potter quote a delighted Moeller saying to them early on, “for 35 years I have listened to brewery owners tell me to make a beer cheaper and faster. This is the first time in my career that an owner has ever told me to make the best damn beer I can make.” Hindy and Potter later noted that “Bill had contacts everywhere. We were delighted to take advantage of them.” One of the most important contacts was F. X. Matt, whose brewery became the contract brewer for Brooklyn, with Moeller as the onsite brewmaster, an arrangement that F. X. wasn’t entirely comfortable with but accepted, presumably because of Moeller’s reputation.
Not long afterwards, Moeller helped Jeff Ware develop Dock Street Amber, a contract beer whose success eventually led to the creation of Dock Street Brewery & Restaurant in downtown Philadelphia, an institution which was way ahead of its time in terms of understanding how to operate a brewery and restaurant successfully and in the range of beers offered, small batch styles which were being done nowhere else at the time. “Some people get lost to history,” says Moeller, who helped develop the brewpub as a consultant and helped formulate its famous Illuminator Doppelbock, “and I think Jeff Ware is one of those. He doesn’t nearly enough credit for what he did.” Dock Street was sold and then failed in 2001; Ware’s wife, Rosemarie Certo regained the rights to the brand in court and has created a new Dock Street Brewery in West Philadelphia, a smaller, funkier neighborhood version of the original. Moeller was an honored guest there this past spring when several of the former brewers came home for a special event and brew.
While he was involved to one extent or another in several other craft small start-ups, Moeller claims those two were the highlight of his career. “Working with Brooklyn and Dock Street so early in the game gave me a sense of something big happening, of a new kind of brewing being born,” he says. “The thing that impressed me about them both was that, even when things were tough, they never, ever wanted to stint on quality, God bless them. And God bless F.X. Matt (who was also the contract brewer for Dock Street’s packaged beers), a wonderful man with whom I established a wonderful relationship. We had our disagreements, of course. I dry-hopped Brooklyn lager and we went round and round about that. Why did I do it? Because we had a great nose on that beer, 22-23 IBUs, and after a certain mount of time in bottle, especially for a beer that’s a startup and is going to be on the shelves a while, the nose and hop characteristics can be lost in the bottle. Dry-hopping was pretty much restricted to ales in those days and I was thinking outside the box. F.X. was more traditional and more of a businessman. Our biggest issue was that I always wanted to lager our beers longer than he did.”
Proper lagering of beers is one of the two brewing tenets Bill Moeller cares most strongly about, even today. “I have always, always being fighting this battle. We do not lager our lager beers and some of our pilsners for the extended time they should be lagered in this country. I believe that’s one of the intrinsic reasons why German beers, the best of them, are more mellow and smoother than most American counterparts. Of course a lot of them, at least the last time I was in Germany, still do horizontal lagering and that’s a factor as well. You can make a good lager, even a great lager, in a cylindrical conical tank, but I’m not sure you can make a superb lager in one.”
His other obsession is quality control. “I really worried about that in the early days of craft brewing because, well, I didn’t see much of it. Long before I started working with Jeff Ware, I met him on a talk show in Philadelphia, I was representing the Schmidt’s and Jeff was the guy with the dream. When he recounted all the benefits of a craft brewery, I bought up our ale house and said ‘we can do all that too, and with quality control.’ Many years later, he told I’d really gotten him with that one. Things are a lot better today, but not perfect. The larger crafts, once they hit 25,000bbl or so, have the capacity to add a quality control department and the good ones are doing it. On a personal level, I’ve been very impressed with Victory Brewing (located in nearby Downingtown) in that regard, so much so that I’ve already donated a portion of my brewing library and notes to them. They are very serious about and committed to QC.”
Looking back at the path he has walked, Bill Moeller thinks that brewing was his destiny from the day he way born. Anybody want to disagree with that?