Philly Beer

RIP famed Pa. brewer Bill Moeller, who made history at Ortlieb’s, Schmidt’s and Dock Street

You could call him the last great beermaker of the Pennsylvania German tradition.

Bill Moeller, left, and author Lew Bryson in 2014

Bill Moeller, left, and author Lew Bryson in 2014

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
Lew Bryson, photographed at New York Distilling CompanyMandatory Credit: Photo by David Handschuh

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Pennsylvania lost one of its great brewers last week. Bill Moeller died on Jan. 26, in Valley Forge. He was 95.

Bill was the last unbroken link to the great German-American brewing history of Pennsylvania, with a legacy that loomed large in both the old days of brewing and the modern beer renaissance. He was truly a fourth-generation brewmaster: his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father (and even two uncles) were all brewmasters, in Germany and America. His grandfather brewed during Prohibition for the notorious Reading, Pa., bootlegger Max Hassel.

Bill started as a sailor in the Merchant Marine in World War II, serving in both the European and Pacific theaters. He got a business/engineering degree at the University of Cincinnati and apprenticed for his brewmaster uncle, Adolph Robert Moeller, at Drewry’s in Indiana for three years. Then he got his brewing diploma from the U.S. Brewer’s Academy in New York. He would be involved in brewing from 1950 into the 2010s.

His resume reads like a table at a Pennsylvania breweriana show. He worked at Reading Brewery, then took a position as assistant brewmaster at Horlacher Brewing in Allentown. From there he moved up to Brewmaster at Philadelphia’s beloved Ortlieb’s.

There, he was not only responsible for “Joe’s Beer,” as Ortlieb’s signature product was known, but also Neuweiler’s, a popular cream ale; Olde English 800 malt liquor (which I was drinking at the time as a college student; thanks, Bill…I guess); and McSorley’s light and dark, the house beers of the iconic Manhattan bar.

He next took a job with the last pre-craft Philadelphia brewery, Christian Schmidt’s, as special products brewmaster. That’s where he took over a beer that still stirs memories for older area drinkers, Prior Double Dark. He didn’t invent the beer, but he made it what we remember: a smooth, soothing schwarzbier in a day when it was hard to find any beer darker than a light gold.

Schmidt’s, which operated for more than a century at the Northern Liberties site that now bears its name as a residential and retail complex, closed in 1986, marking the first time Philadelphia was without a brewery in over 300 years.

Luckily for Bill Moeller — and for us — new opportunities were opening for a skilled consulting brewer. When people who wanted desperately to make beer with more character and flavor than the dominant light lagers needed someone to develop those beers, Bill was who they turned to.

He had a huge influence on early East Coast microbrewing. Bill helped design beers for many of the craft pioneers in the Philadelphia and New York region. He designed the first, classic iterations of Dock Street’s Amber, Bohemian Pilsner, and Illuminator Doublebock, and Brooklyn’s Lager and Brown Ale. He also designed beers for Tun Tavern, Poor Henry’s, Sunnybrook, Hoboken, and others.

Bill wasn’t just a brewer. He was actively involved in civic and cultural life, belonging to several museum and historical boards, and the Reading Symphony. He was an avid collector of German ceramic steins and antique early American furniture. He was also an active Rotarian and a Mason. His life was full from beginning to the end.

Bill Moeller, right, with author Lew Bryson and then-Sly Fox brewmaster Brian O'Reilly in 2014

Bill Moeller, right, with author Lew Bryson and then-Sly Fox brewmaster Brian O'Reilly in 2014

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

I met Bill in 1994, at a tasting of lambic beers organized by John Hansell, then the publisher of Malt Advocate. We were joined by Ed and Carol Stoudt, and then-Dock Street brewer Nick Funnell. Bill’s first experience with lambic was a shock. “This is infected!” was his immediate reaction. After a quick chat about the style, which relies on open fermentation with wild yeast, Bill amended his reaction with a grudging allowance I still recall: “Probably good with some stinky cheese, then.”

We ran into each other quite a lot after that. I was lucky to get to know the man, and that he considered us friends, even colleagues, will always be a source of pride for me. He was a rare brewer who firmly had feet in both the good old days and the exciting new days of American brewing, and was an influential and respected character in both.

Bill’s death brings to mind the recent loss of Pennsylvania distiller Dick Stoll, who was the long unsung master distiller at Michter’s in Lebanon County. In the mid-1970s, he quietly made what would be known as A.H. Hirsch 16 year, now considered one of the best bottles of American whiskey. Dick had come out of retirement in his 80s to help create Stoll & Wolfe rye whiskey, being made in Lititz today, not ten miles from where he made Michter’s.

I wish I’d thought of getting those two together: Dick Stoll, the rough-spun Pennsylvania outdoorsman, and Bill Moeller, the German-American lover of classical music and antiques. Both masters of their craft, and both giving it their all, till it was all they had left.

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