The fact that Duane Reade now sells growlers is deeply unsettling - it defies some cosmic division between craft beverages and personal hygiene. But it also speaks to how seriously New Yorkers take their beer. With a boozy 400-year precedent and one of the country’s most engaged beer communities, here’s a brief look at the history of beer and brewing in New York City. (Illustrated by Clementine Swan)
As you might expect, beer arrived in New York City with hard-drinking Europeans. Early Dutch settlers opened ample breweries and in 1657 - to better accommodate keg traffic - Brouwers Straet (Brewers Street) became the country’s first paved road. The name was changed to Stony and later Stone Street, and the narrow, still-cobbled way now accommodates the Wall Street happy hour set.
Despite being perfectly competent boozers, the Dutch didn’t sink enough wells to satisfy the English taste for taverns (clean water being essential to the brewing process and all). England officially took over the New York Colony in 1664 and remedied this immediately. The city’s beer culture thrived and by 1810 New York City had nearly 50 breweries, mostly brewing precursors to modern pale ales, stouts and other English styles.
Then came the Germans. So many Germans. More than a million poured into the US in the mid-19th Century. Most headed west (including just about every successful mega-brewer ever: Eberhard Anheuser, Adolphus Busch, Adolph Coors, Frederick Miller, Frederick Pabst…) but plenty stayed in NYC creating a market for the crisp lagers they left behind in the homeland. By 1900 there were over 40 breweries in Brooklyn alone, with eleven on Meserole Street in East Williamsburg (aka, Old Brewers’ Row). Various buildings from the Schaefer Brewing Company still stand back on Kent Street near the river, but much of the brewery met its fate as another high-rise condo complex called Schaefer Landing.
Prohibition ruined everything. The 18th Amendment was passed on January 16, 1919 banning the "...manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors…” Lots and lots of beer was literally dumped into the Hudson. After extreme public outrage, prohibition was repealed in 1933 but by then it was too late for New York – and American – beer. Only the bigger breweries survived, often by producing other beverages like soda and, in some cases, malt extract which was definitely not intended for illegal home brewing. Throw in the financial strains of World War II and most breweries were forced to cut back on quality ingredients and swap out barley for cheaper corn and rice. The result was the standard issue light American lager that many of us mass-consume on a fairly regular basis.
The Dark Years
The few New York breweries that were able to hang on eventually met their match too. Out-competed by the likes of Bud, Rheingold shuttered in 1976 (original cans from guzzling construction workers were discovered in the World Trade Center ruins), though the brand was re-launched in 1999 and later credited by the Village Voice as having “the best marketing campaign co-opting hipster drinking habits” (more on this later). Schaefer was bought by Stroh Brewing in 1981 and later Pabst in 1999. But a new brew kettle would soon be boiling away – appropriately – in Williamsburg…
Enter, Brooklyn Brewery
In 1987 war correspondent Steve Hindy partnered with his Park Slope neighbor Tom Potter to launch the Brooklyn Brewery. Initially contract-brewing in Utica, they later expanded, opening the current Williamsburg location in a former matzo factory. Better yet, the pair hired dapper Brewmaster Garrett Oliver who’s now one of the country’s foremost beer authorities and whose love of sport coats is legendary in beer circles (we’re talking the classy and/or republican kind with the gold buttons). Gradually the brewery’s flagship Brooklyn Lager fought for tap space alongside Midwestern heavyweights to the point where finding an NYC bar that doesn’t carry it is now fairly difficult.
In the 1890s, Pabst Blue Ribbon (then Pabst Select) was the best selling beer in the country. But 100 years later PBR was mostly left in the hands of a few fat guys in Wisconsin. Around 2000 a Portland sales rep noticed that “alternative people” had embraced the dwindling brand. Hip kids in Portland and other Bohemian centers like Brooklyn needed a drink to pair with their various badges of faux working class authenticity, or something. Marketers vehemently dissected the “hipster” and concluded that this scraggly-bearded demographic responded to anti-consumerism, not football bro-downs in the snow; the illusion of no marketing was the best marketing of all. They’d figured it out! PBR’s return has also been partially credited to David Lynch’s enduring indie cred: in Blue Velvet Dennis Hopper proudly opts for a PBR over the presumably snooty import Heineken. In the 80s Heineken was snooty.
Low-brow can appreciation is still alive in NYC with brands like Rheingold, Schlitz, Schaeffer and Narragansett cherry picking PBR drinkers and angling for the title of most proletariat. Rheingold's in a tough spot here, being owned by the same company as Trump Vodka and Dr. Dre Cognac.
With Brooklyn Brewery propping the door, craft beer pushed ahead. The Chelsea Brewing Company opened in 1995; Sixpoint, Kelso and Long Island’s Blue Point followed. Garrett Oliver launched his experimental Brewmaster’s Reserve series, attempting among other feats, to duplicate a Manhattan in beer form. Better still were/are Oliver’s ridiculously outstanding large-format Belgian-style ales: early German beers excluded, which were probably really really good, Oliver’s Sorachi Ace saison has to be one of the best beers ever brewed in New York City.
A Beer Frenzy
While independent brewing took hold in New York, so did beer bars and retailers. Trailblazers like d.b.a., The Gate, Blind Tiger, and Gingerman all opened in the mid-90s. Respected beer seller Bierkraft came next, encouraging a more contemplated, post-collegiate inebriation by offering events like their popular beer and cheese pairing class. Dives upgraded their taps. Bodegas stocked Belgians. Beer gardens flourished while bars like Spuyten Duyvil and Beer Table approached beer with wine-like curation. Now most of us are a short walk from at least 25 specialty IPAs.
Locavore, homegrown, blah blah
The degree of locavore evangelizing in this city sometimes calls for a KFC Double Down and a six-pack of Bud Light Lime. But we’re well-intentioned and it’s no surprise that, along with chocolate, moonshine, and just about every other consumable that can be made in one’s kitchen, beer caught the attention of apartment artisans. Home-brewing competitions were born, like the Sycamore’s Brooklyn Wort. A nice couple started selling beer making kits at the Brooklyn Flea and aspiring brewers were now able to spend Saturday afternoon sifting through bins of grain at Brooklyn Homebrew.
And finally, the newcomers
Established local breweries keep surprising – see Sixpoint’s line of tallboys, or Brooklyn’s excellent new Radius saison. But something’s brewing in the Bronx. The Bronx Brewery launched last summer, as did Jonas Bronck's Beer Company, named for a Swede who worked for the Dutch, lent his name to the borough, and probably enjoyed a few beers on Brouwers Staet. Also buzzy Long Island newcomers Greenport Harbor and Barrier are making headway. Only 40 or so more breweries to go and we’ll be back in business, circa 1810.