The Bushwick Beer Industry

Before prohibition was enacted in 1920 Brooklyn produced by some estimates thirty percent of the Nation’s Beer. Ground zero in the Brooklyn beer industry was Bushwick whose heavily German population quickly helped redefine America’s taste for beer. During the 1850s Bushwick began to lose its rural character. Large numbers of Germans immigrated to Bushwick following the failed revolution in Germany in 1848. Many Germans who settled in Williamsburgh and Bushwick began the development of the area’s most famous local industry: brewing. The area boasted a number of features conducive to brewing: an abundant water supply, soil suitable for the construction of underground storage chambers, convenient water and rail transportation, as well as strong local demand.

Henry R. Stiles, the notable Brooklyn historian, wrote in 1870:

“That quarter of Brooklyn, the Eastern District irreverently designated as Dutchtown, has been for some time the centre of the lager bier manufacturing interest in the Metropolitan District. Here are located some of the largest breweries in existence in the country. Surrounded by a population almost exclusively German, they all enjoy a local patronage to a considerable extent…”

A second wave of development in Bushwick began after the construction of the elevated railroad along Myrtle Avenue in 1888, making the area an attractive alternative to congested downtown Brooklyn and lower Manhattan.More Gemans arrived as development, consisting primarily of three-and four-story multiple dwellings, spread eastward toward the Brooklyn-Queens border during the following decade.

However, beer brewing was nothing new in America or in New York. The earliest European settlers were beer lovers, but they were dependent on imported English beer. However, the enterrprising and self-relaint colonists quickly developed their own brews. Many of the founding fathers, in fact, were also home-brewers with their own recipes.

In Colonial New York beer was considered safer to drink than water, and was consumed by all ages at all times of the day. Sickness, death and failure of some settlements were often attributed to a lack of beer. In New Amsterdam, the Dutch, who were “even more partial to beer that the English, soon discovered that the ingredients for beer could be grown locally.

Brewing began as a Brooklyn industry as early as the 17th century, with small-scale commercial, home, and municipal breweries, including one operated by The Dutch East India Company.

By the 1770s, New York City and Philadelphia were established as the colonial brewing centers. At least two documented commercial brewers operated in Brooklyn during the 18th century, and despite the advantage of abundant fresh water, that number grew very slowly in the early years of the19th century. Most brews were produced only for home consumption or by mall scale brewers for sale in nearby taverns. The few commercial brewers produced English style brews,such as ale, porter, stout, and common beer, using top-fermenting yeast.

In 1840 the European influence on American brewing Changed dramatically when a former brewer from Bavaria, John Wagner, brought lager beer yeast to this country for the first time. Wagner opened a small brewery in back of his Philadelphia home,supplying a nearby tavern. This seemingly unimportant event, however, eventually led to a major switch in the American beer palate, from English to German brews

While the industry did not change overnight,the introduction of lager beer to the American market coincided with a massive influx of German immigrants to America and Brooklyn, specifically. In the 1840s the arrival of these thirsty Germans with a taste for their native style beer revolutionized the brewing industry in New York City, Brooklyn and other cities where they settled in large numbers. The Germans provided a huge new market for German style lager.

“Lager beer is an effervescent malt beverage, brewed by using the bottom- fermentation process, in which a special yeast settles as residue at the bottom of the brewing vats. Because the process of making this light, crisp brew demanded storage and cool temperatures to achieve fermentation it was termed ‘lager,’ which is derived from the German verb lagern, meaning to stock or store.” While two New York City breweries (George Gillig and F & M Schaefer) began to brew lager in the 1840s, S. Liebmann and Sons Brewery (later renamed Rheingold), founded in 1854, was one of the first to use the bottom fermenting process in Brooklyn. As lager gained popularity in the mid- 1850s, the cities where most German immigrants settled became lager producers and also the largest American brewing centers These places including Cincinnati, Milwaukee and St. Louis, as well as Philadelphia, New York and of course,Brooklyn.

Several articles in the Brooklyn Eagle from the 1860s and 1870s documented the growing popularity of lager, with the Eagle even calling it our “National Beverage,” This satisfying brew appealed to people of all classes and to different ethnic groups. Using Long Island lake water supplied by a new gravity-fed water system, Brooklyn in the 1870’s had become a major American beer brewer. Dozens of establishments, largely run by Germans, flourished in Williamsburg and Bushwick. Between the 1850s and the 1880s, many settled in a 14-square block area known as “Brewer’s Row, which covered Scholes and Meserole Streets and extended from Bushwick Place to Lorimer Street. This area was rightly called “Brewers’ Row” because within this 12-block area at least a dozen separate breweries flourished.“By the 1880s, 35 breweries had been established in Brooklyn, generating an estimated $8 million in revenue annually. The majority of these firms exclusively brewed lager beer, while the remainder brewed ale or weiss (wheat) beer.
By 1898, nearly fifty breweries operated in the Brooklyn area [which came to be known as the Brewing Capitol of the United States]. Probably the most prominent of those companies established in Brewer’s Row was Leibmann’s Rheingold brewery, although there were other well-known or colorful firms such as F. & M. Schaefer, George Ehret’s, John F. Trommer’s and Piels. Bushwick, which was considered a major brewing center from about 1890 until the late 1940s, was supplying almost 10% of all beer consumed in the United States during the height of its production.

In 1920, the 18th Amendment, the National Prohibition or Volstead Act, sadly closed many Brooklyn breweries.Brooklyn brewing never fully recovered from this stupid law and national tragedy. With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, only 23 of the New York City’s (including Brooklyn’s) breweries resumed business, with most targeting the local market. Over the next half of a century, brewing in the city declined drastically. Brooklyn’s last two breweries closed in 1976 (Rheingold and F & M Schaefer), marking the end of an era. However, about a decade later, during the micro- brewing revolution of 1980s, two Brooklyn entrepreneurs opened the Brooklyn Brewery in 1987. Although their first beers were contract brewed in Utica, New York, the opening of their new brewery in Williamsburg in 1996 revived an industry that once flourished in the borough.

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