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Welcome to Amazing Tap Handles - The Tap Handle Museum. Here you will find photos of the Museum's collection of beer taps, along with brewery info. Have a look around the Museum, and use the contact form in sidebar to leave me feedback about the site, talk about taps, or if you have a rare tap handle you'd like to sell to the Museum. I'd love to hear from you! Please, no inquires about buying taps - they're not for sale.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Tap Handle #478: Lion Brewery - Lionshead

Tap size:  10.5"
Rarity:  Uncommon
Mounting:  internal 3/8 nut

When I first received this tap, it was pretty beat up, with paint loss all over, but fortunately it had no chips or breaks. Due to the color scheme, one of my friends referred to the tap as "Chewbacca". Kelly, the museum's resident artist (and also a Leo), decided to repaint it, but made some enhancements along the way that really make the tap pop. Notice the eye pupils and the pink nose...Kelly studied photos of real lions to get the details down right, even adding tartar to the teeth! The results are a subtle yet amazing new look for what was once a worn-out tap. The Lionshead tap was made in decent numbers and is easy to obtain, making it uncommon rather than rare.

Click through to read more about the proud Lion Brewery, their Lionshead Beer, and to see more photos of this now one-of-a-kind tap...

The Lion Brewery was originally called the Luzerne County Brewing Company and was founded in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1905. The land was purchased from the Delaware and Hudson Railroad for one dollar, on the terms that the company would build a brewery capable of producing 100,000 barrels per year in just the first year and sell each barrel for no less than a dollar a piece. If the terms were not met, the land would return to Delaware and Hudson. The brewery survived the terms of sale and was able to remain strong through the ensuing Prohibition period by brewing near beer. Ted Smulowitz purchased the brewery after Prohibition in 1933 and renamed it Lion Brewing Company, brewing under the Gibbons brand. When renaming the brewery, it is not clear whether Smulowitz knew of the Lion Brewery in New York, which did not survive Prohibition. By the 1940s Smulowitz's brewery had grown to produce an average of 200,000 barrels of beer per year, and in 1954 the company installed a new 390-barrel copper brewing kettle to further boost capacity. The Smulowitz family would privately own and operate the brewery until 1993.

Post-Prohibition, the beer brewing industry as a whole grew by leaps and bounds until around 1960, when the big breweries began to take control of the market. In an attempt to stay competitive, the company acquired 3 other brands: Bartels in 1967, Stegmaier in 1974, and Esslinger in 1977. These brands helped make Lion the largest brewery in northeastern Pennsylvania. Stegmaier had been one of the largest independently owned breweries in North America as well as a gold-medal winning local brewery.

Selling beer at cut-rate prices to a diminishing local audience was not an easy way to turn a profit, and in 1982 Lion sought out and won a contract to produce a different kind of beverage called malta. The sweet, nonalcoholic drink brewed from grain mash and molasses had first been developed in the late 19th century by Germans living in the Caribbean islands. Malta had become popular among all age groups in the region and was viewed by some as a health drink. It also enjoyed strong sales in New York City, where many transplanted Caribbean nationals lived. Lion soon began making malta for several different firms under brand names such as Malta Goya and Malta Vitarroz, and over time this work became its main source of revenue. In 1987 the company added production of specialty soft drinks. In the early 1990s Lion offered contract brewing, which saved start-up costs for microbrewers such as Blue Hen and Neuweiler, and Lion also did contract bottling on their bottling line for other brewers such as Stoudt. In 1993, Lion was purchased from the Smulowitz family by the Quincy Partners, an equity firm.

In the mid-1990s Lion began a plant upgrade that boosted its capacity from 340,000 to 400,000 barrels, while converting an unused seven-ounce bottling line to 12-ounce, the most popular craft beer and soft-drink size. In 1994 the firm’s Stegmaier 1857 beer won the Gold Medal for American Premium Lager at the Great American Beer Festival, while Liebotschaner Cream Ale won a gold medal in its category. The company’s beers, as well as some of those it produced under contract, won many other such medals over the next few years.  In 1996, the Quincy partners took Lion public by selling shares on the NASDAQ to help pay off debt and boost production and marketing of its craft beers, selling 1.8 million shares at $6 each. In the spring the firm began producing a lemon-flavored alcoholic drink called One-Eyed Jack, and its initial popularity caused contract production to surge as its distribution reached 30 states. The firm also began contract production of another alcoholic lemon brew, called Hooper’s Hooch, for Bass Beers Americas.

With craft beer production stagnant due to an overabundance of microbreweries and aggressive new marketing campaigns from beer importers and spirit makers, the price of Lion stock slipped to less than $4 per share.  In 1998, Red Bell Brewing Company made three separate offers to buy the firm. Red Bell operated several brewpubs and also distributed its products in five states, and was using Lion as a contract brewer. Lion’s board rejected the offer, however, and several days later announced it would accept the $17.2 million bid of Malt Acquiring, which was led by CEO Chuck Lawson and CFO Patrick Belardi. Red Bell aggressively contested the offer, but after Malt Acquiring raised its bid the board signed a definitive sales agreement. A lawsuit to block the sale was subsequently filed by five Lion shareholders, who included two Red Bell executives, but the judge denied their petition and in 1999 the brewery's shareholders voted to accept the Malt Acquiring offer. Lawson and Belardi became CEO and CFO of the Lion Brewery.

In 2000 the company invested $1.5 million to replace its 50-year-old pasteurization equipment with a faster and more efficient version. Soon afterward, $400,000 more was spent to add equipment that applied clear plastic labels. The expenditures capped nearly $8 million in improvements made over a ten year period. Lion had been named Mid-Sized Brewery of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival and head brewer Leo Orlandini won Brewmaster of the Year. In early 2003 the company won certification as an organic brewery, becoming the first of its type in Pennsylvania. It would enable Lion to brew the nationally distributed Steap Green Tea Soda line. In 2006 the firm replaced its 52-year-old copper brewing kettle with a new stainless steel one that would improve quality while giving better control over the brewing process. In 2007, Lawson and Belardi sold Lion to co-partners Cliff Risell and Ron Hammond with the support of Blackmore Partners and the equity backing from Blue Point Capital Partners.

In 2008 Lion overhauled their signature Lionshead brand, a popular East Coast college beer, giving it a complete packaging makeover with authentic graphics, tongue-in-cheek neck labels (“The Best Head in Town”, “Light Beers Ahead”) and “paw holes” on the six-pack. Lionshead bottle caps display rebus puzzles originally created by Falstaff Brewing. In 2010 a $15 million expansion was implemented which led to the creation of more than 70 jobs, and now has a new can production line and an automated racking system, which cleans and fills half-kegs of beer. The state, Luzerne County and the City of Wilkes-Barre assisted with funding the $15 million expansion. The Lion Brewery is now the second largest in the state after Yuengling. The brewery distributes its products to 17 states, and all of their premium beers are made using only the four basic ingredients allowed by the German purity law. Lion is one of the largest contract brewers in the U.S., brewing for American Honor, BadMonkey, Blowing Rock, Bomb Beer, Christian Moerlein, Holy Brew, Hometown, Hudepohl-Schoenling, Intercourse, Knight's Head, Penn's Woods, New Century, Pabst (including McSorleys and Piels), Rheingold, Ruckus, Van Der Bönerbosch, and Wolf Beer. Lion's non-alcoholic brands include Lion Brewery Root Beer and Olde Philadelphia Gourmet Sodas, and their contract non-alcoholic beverages include Malta Goya, Vitarroz Malta, and Monster Energy. Lion is an amazing success story, surviving not only Prohibition and market downturns, but also the big beer consolidations in the 1960s and 1970s.

Lionshead is a classic American lager that is crisp, clean and slightly dry with some residual sweetness. The finest American two-row and six-row barley and corn are used, and domestic hops add just a touch of bitterness.  A college favorite, Lionshead carries the traditional lion symbol painted on the outside of the brewery since its early days of brewing.

Ratebeer weighted average:  2.21 out of 5
Beer Advocate:  68 out of 100 (poor)

Lion Brewery
700 N Pennsylvania Blvd
Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania 18705

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