Friday, January 31, 2014

In Heaven There Is No Beer . . .

Location:   Brooklyn
Year: 1822

Beer is even more "Brooklyn" than bagels, pizza, or Brooklyn Dodgers baseball. Beer brewing in Brooklyn goes way back to the Dutch settlers of the 1600s, though for 200 years or so, beer was a homebrewed concoction not a commercial product. The first commercial brewery in Brooklyn opened in 1822. 

Beer became one of Brooklyn's preeminent products, especially with a massive influx of German immigrants in the mid-1840s.  The Germans brought lager with them, a smoother, lighter drink than the ale or "bitter" popular among the English colonists-turned-Americans. 

At peak, there were 48 breweries in Brooklyn (including 11 in one 12 block stretch of Williamsburg), each turning out a unique local product with a dedicated following. Brooklyn beers dominated the region around New York City, which in effect meant that Brooklyn beers dominated the industry. 

But industrialization began to take its toll on Brooklyn's beer business in the late 19th Century.  The Midwestern beer producers, particularly Anheuser-Busch stole a march on Brooklyn's brewers with the innovation of shipping fresh and cold product in "reefers" or refrigerated cars. Then, too, the invention of Budweiser---that not-too-anything-and-a-little-bit-of-everything generic brew---allowed Anheuser-Busch to become the first "national" beer company. 

It says a lot about Brooklyn's beers that they were able to remain locally popular to the extent that Budweiser was a novelty---at least until Prohibition. In 1919, there were 23 breweries in Brooklyn; in 1933, there were only nine. And when Governor Alfred E. Smith celebrated the end of Prohibition by publicly drinking a Budweiser, the writing was on the wall. 

Local Brooklyn brands like Rheingold ("My beer is Rheingold the dry beer") and Schaefer ("Schaefer is the one beer to have when you're having more than one") hung on valiantly until the 1970s, but even redoubtable Schaefer shuttered its shop in Brooklyn in 1976, becoming nothing more than a label of one of the big Midwestern manufacturers. 

Beer, like baseball, vanished from Brooklyn---but Brooklyn is nothing if not resilient. In 1996, the Brooklyn Brewery opened its doors, and Six Point Craft Ales and The Greenpoint Brewery have more recently followed suit. And it's a good thing. 

"Because in heaven there is no beer. That's why we drink it here."    

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