What the Hell Happened to All of New York's Breweries?

New York City used to be the brewing mecca of the United States. I visited the brewery ruins (now parking lots, laundry mats, and music venues) around the city and talked to locals about why we're not the American beer capitol in 2014.

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May 13 2014, 9:00pm

Photo by Paul Flannery via Flickr

New York City used to be the brewing mecca of the United States, so what the hell happened to all of the breweries? These days, cocktails and wine bars dominate the libation scene of New York, with pockets of trendy beer bars scattered around the boroughs. We've got some killer labels like Brooklyn Brewery and Six Point, but pre-Prohibition, this place used to be cranking out massive amounts of frothy brews for Americans all around this great nation. I couldn't tame my curiosity about this change, so I started searching for answer as to why New York City isn't this nation's beer center in 2014.

I had to start at the beginning of history—of New York beer history—to try to uncover some evidence. We all probably know about those early Dutchman that settled New Amsterdam. They were fastidious people that got shit done, so much so that they had three successful breweries by 1612 and the country's first commercial brewery by 1632. By the time the German immigrants arrived between the 1830s–1850s, the country was well-versed in the magical mysteries of beer. Upon their arrival, the newcomers set up countless beer factories brandishing an innovative and industrious new German brew at the time: the lager. Voyaging upstate via the Hudson River, these brewers extracted massive blocks of ice from nearby lakes, which allowed for cold storage, a key component when forging their traditional lagers. This German drinking staple quickly dominated the jugs, livers, and hangovers of the New York drinking public at large.

The Rheingold beer pageant ladies... A lot of hot ladies, very hot. But they were always wearing one-piece, not two-piece outfits. It was enough to get you riled up though.

In Manhattan's Upper East Side (then known as Yorkville), Hell Gate Brewery ("Hell Gate" being the nickname for the treacherous East River) and Jacob Ruppert Brewery used to dominate. George Ehret, a German immigrant, created Hell Gate in 1866, a beast of a brewery that occupied the entirety of the area between 91st and 94th Streets, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. By 1877, it was the largest brewery in the country. George's success didn't just apply to making beer: He also invested in 42 saloons around town. No wonder he was known as the "King of Beer Corners." Sprouting out like a conjoined twin, the Jacob Ruppert Brewery set up shop on 3rd Avenue between 90th and 93rd Streets and started to peak around the same time as Hell Gate.

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A laundry mat named after Ruppert Brewery

Today, the area where both breweries once stood is now comprised of a few apartment buildings, parking garages, a small park, a pet store, a Chase bank, and a grocery store, but Ruppert's legacy can still be felt. On 3rd Avenue and 93rd Street, a nonchalant laundromat called Ruppert Wash N' Dry quietly tumbles and cleans clothes.

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Maurine, who grew up in Yorkville

Laundry-doer Maurine remembers her father passing by the Ruppert brewery as a truck driver on his way to Brooklyn, the area that used to be known as 'Sauerkraut Boulevard' when she was a kid.

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Ray Domenech

On 90th Street is an upscale high-rise apartment complex named Ruppert Towers. Concierge Ray Domenech remembers drinking Ruppert beer back in 1962 when he was an eighteen-year-old. "It was good beer… and affordable! They had nice cans and bottles at that time, nice fancy designs on it." He also remembers drinking Schaefer and Rheingold—and the Miss Rheingold contests. In a stroke of marketing genius, the annual Miss Rheingold pageant started in 1940, which paired the Rheingold beer with hot, young, American babes. Every year, Rheingold consumers were persuaded to vote for their beer babe by calling a hotline or tearing off ballots attached to six-packs of cold brewskies. It had a massive voter turnout, more so than the presidential election in some Brooklyn neighborhoods. According to Ray, it was "a lot of hot ladies, very hot. But they were always wearing one-piece, not two-piece outfits. It was enough to get you riled up though." Ray explained to me that he never participated in voting for the contests because he'd rather just drink the beer.

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Parking attendant Anthony Mendez in the garage that used to be part of Ruppert's Brewery empire

In the GGMC Parking Garage on 92nd Street is a series of large color photos of the Ruppert brewery and Colonel Ruppert himself in the twilight of his glory days, pictured with the Yankees and Babe Ruth. Parking attendant Anthony Mendez says that older people like to come in to explain the Ruppert history to their grandkids.

At the time of Manhattan's successful breweries, the suburbs of Brooklyn—specifically, a fourteen block radius of Bushwick called 'Brewer's Row'—were teeming with around 50 breweries by 1898. At the very top of the breweries that lingered online in 2014 (and in the minds of the elders in the neighborhood) are Liebman Brewery (creators of Rheingold beer) and the F. & M. Schaefer Brewing Company (creators of the slogan "the one beer to have when you're having more than one").

I got drunk, real fucking drunk on Rheingold and I peed and everything. $1.99 for a six-pack.

Joseph Liebman and his three sons operated a sizable multi-block facility centered at Bushwick and Forest streets, where they were crushing their competition by 1872, so much so that his three sons were able to retire by 1903 and give control to their six children. Joseph's daughter Sadie had the clever idea to marry one Samuel Simon Steiner in 1895—who came from a line of German hop rowers who had expanded their practice to New York around the same time this whole German beer craze was taking shape—eliminating the need to outsource their hops. That Sadie was a smart woman. This union helped the family launch a beer called Rheingold that would later wear the crown of NYC's most heavily guzzled beer from the 40s–70s.

Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, brothers Frederick and Maximillian created F. & M. Schaefer Brewing Company on Broadway between 18th and 19th Streets. They eventually upgraded to a bigger facility nearby on Seventh Avenue before realizing the need to move out of the congested urban neighborhood. They settled upon the wilds of 51st and Park, where they remained for 67 years. Like many other like-minded 19th century beer ventures, Schaefer experienced wild success, jumping ship from Manhattan in 1915 to heavily invest and relocate into a state-of-the-art brewery in south Williamsburg's waterfront at Kent Avenue and S. 10th Street. As their empire expanded, plants were added in Albany, Baltimore, and Allentown.

Thirteen years of Prohibition screwed everybody; brewers and hooch makers around NYC—and anti-German sentiments during WWI and WWII—didn't help to improve the situation either. Then the inevitable, aggressive globalization of larger Midwestern breweries like Anheuser-Busch pushed aside the resilience of New York breweries. What was once the heart of the country's brewing prowess was eventually reduced to total rubble. However, visiting some of these old brewing sites proves there is still some awareness of the city's once proud seat atop the industry's throne, even if it's a lonely picture in a parking garage.

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Mike Garcia

On the the Brooklyn grounds that used to be Liebman/Rheingold turf sits a large empty lot, an apartment complex, and the Diana H. Jones Senior Center. Mike Garcia, who drives the shuttle for the senior center, used to work for a gas station next to the brewery from 1970–1989. He fondly remembers drinking (heavily) one evening at Rheingold: "I got drunk, real fucking drunk and I peed and everything. [Waves his hands around the crotch of his jeans] $1.99 for a six-pack."

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The condos where Shaefer's Brewery used to reside

Schaefer's Landing used to be a brewery, too. Nowadays, it's a bunch of fancy industrial condos. A local woman told me that she is aware that her residence used to be a brewery. "We found out looking it up on the computer," she says. "But it really doesn't make no difference for me." The remainder of the former brewery grounds are made up of Cine Magic Riverfront Studios, a film studio.

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hb Above, the building where E.B. Hittleman Brewery used to produce beers

A receptionist at Schaefer's Landing, Lily Vucic, who has worked in the area for a long time told me, "Back when we took it over, all I remember is hookers and trucks—big, big, big, big trucks. You know the kind with the cabs." Ah, to think of the historical terroir of beer.

But the most preserved space is a former Brooklyn brewery, E.B. Hittleman Brewery on Meserole, just east of Bushwick. There is an "O" and an "H" on the keystones of the entrance archways and several wooden barrels entrenched in the building's front wall. Along the side are enormous painted signs that state "bottling," "Edward B. Hittleman Brewery," and "department." In their early days, Brooklyn Brewery used this spot as a warehouse.

Soon, the space will be retooled into a craft beer-focused bar with an attached music venue called the Wick and the Well, which will pay homage to the building's former self. The bar owner, Joshua Richholt, knows more about the history of the brewery than most of the people I'd spoken to that day. "Otto Huber built it, but Hittleman worked for him and ended up talking it over," he says. "He did something weird at the time, which became their signature. His beer recipe included three different hops, which made it much hoppier than other beers of the time. By today's standards, that's pretty normal, but back then it was considered a creative thing. And that's actually the beer that I'm hoping to find the recipe for."

It's enough to give me hope that the story of the old New York beer scene is not totally dead.

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