John Frederick Wiessner (1831–1897) immigrated to Baltimore from Germany in 1853. The son of a brewer, Wiessner continued the family business; in 1863, he founded John F. Wiessner Brewing Company on the 1700 block of North Gay Street with an initial production capacity of 1,000 to 1,500 barrels a year, on land leased from Charles Rogers. The capacity increased to 20,000 barrels a year by the mid-1880s when Wiessner initiated a period of expansion, including building a new brewery in 1887, designed by architect Charles Stoll.
Wiessner’s sons, John Jr., George, and Henry, also joined the business, which was renamed J. F. Wiessner and Sons Brewing Company in 1891. With the completion of the new state-of-the-art brewery, production increased to 100,000 barrels a year. In 1896, the company added a department to bottle its own beer rather than contracting with an outside company.
At its peak, the brewery employed 61 workers: 16 in brewery work, 17 drivers, 14 in the bottling house, 8 garage men, and 6 office workers. The central tower of the building housed a 10,000-bushel grain elevator.
The passing of the Eighteenth Amendment led to the company’s sharp decline. Although they tried to remain in business producing “near beer,” J. F. Wiessner and Sons ceased operations in 1921.
The FitzSimmons family who owned the American Malt Company purchased the brewery in 1931 and moved its operations from the nearby Baurenschmidt Brewery.
After the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, American Malt Company began brewing beer as American Brewery, producing American Pilsner, Old Baron, and Nut Brown Ale. Modernization and plant expansion occurred in 1933–1949, and included the conversion from steam to electric power in 1936. Allegheny Beverage Company acquired American Brewery in 1967, continuing operations until 1973 when Queen City Brewing acquired the labels and rights. Queen City sold off the equipment and donated the brewery complex to the City of Baltimore.
The main brewery building is an imposing, five-story, brick and stone structure with an iron frame. A wildly eclectic late Victorian building, it has been archly described as “Teutonic Brewery.” The facade features decorative brickwork and round and arched windows masking the industrial process contained within. Two six-story towers flank the central seven-story tower. As was typical of the time, the interior was laid out for gravity flow processing. Malt storage towers were located in the central tower. The complex also included a four-story stockhouse, built from plans by the Frank Wolf Company in 1901.
Bottling facilities were added in 1900–1901 and a garage in 1910. There was also an office building, boiler house, engine room, and cooperage. The large Wiessner residence across the street was built to house the family and provide temporary housing for workers newly arrived from Germany.
American Brewery used state-of-art technology, including two Linde ice machines for artificial refrigeration, reportedly the first use of these machines in a Baltimore brewery. Following the increase in popularity of lager, which required longer periods at low temperatures, the installation of refrigeration equipment became necessary in American breweries. Prior to the development of mechanical refrigerating, brewers relied on underground storage areas or ice houses. In the United States, German immigrant Fred W. Wolf (1837–1912) acquired the rights to the German-manufactured Linde ice machine. Thus, while Charles Stoll is named as the possible architect of the brewery, the Fred Wolf Company was undoubtedly also involved in its design.
Currently this rare surviving nineteenth-century brewery stands beautifully adapted to twenty-first century use. The building was rehabilitated and restored by Cho Benn Holback and Associates for the non-profit Humanim in 2009. The rehabilitation won the 2011 National Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.