The abandoned factories of East Williamsburg might not be as stroll-worthy as so many finial-finished brownstones, but Cindy VandenBosch and David Naczycz regard the neighborhood’s proverbial pint glass as not just half-full, but overflowing with Brooklyn’s breathtakingly big brewing history.
History nerds with an inner-city emphasis, the pair founded the walking tour company called Urban Oyster in 2008, and while we’re sure the bicycle tour of the Navy Yard is marvelous, we opted instead for Brewed in Brooklyn, a pearl of a pedestrian-minded trip that celebrates this nabe’s once-bustling beer industry.
Today our beloved borough is a blossoming beer haven with three commercial craft breweries and three homebrewer outfits, but a century ago it led the charge on mass-produced lager. In 1907, Brooklyn’s 48 breweries drafted 2.5 million barrels a year, says VandenBosch. Long before canning and bottling became mainstream, in fact, homesick immigrants churned out enough kegs for each Brooklynite to consume 60 gallons of beer a year. Williamsburg saloons and beer gardens—the real kind, not the hipster version—were swimming with lager, a then-new brew brought over by German immigrants who longed for their homeland’s signature tonic.
Speaking of swimming with lager, the guided walk begins with a tour and tasting at the venerable Brooklyn Brewery, but that’s the only stop that might be found in any mainstream travel guide. The dusty destinations of Brewed in Brooklyn were all but forgotten until VandenBosch and Naczycz combed through the archives at the Brooklyn Historical Society, studying old real estate maps and scouring 19th-century issues of the Brooklyn Eagle.
Their tour sheds light on a section of Meserole once known as Brewers’ Row. Today this stretch is home to rehearsal studios and a dumpling factory, but, back in 1890, you’ll learn, it boasted 11 breweries within a 14-block radius. You’ll stop and squint to make out beer barrel shapes in the brick facades, and pause to dream about beery buried treasure: Before refrigeration, brewers stored their fermenting creations in the underground caves, and rumor has it some barrels are still in place. Yet the day’s not entirely dedicated to the past, either, as you’ll be schooled on how beer gets from brewer to imbiber courtesy of Augie Ayala, owner of ABC Beverage, one of Brooklyn’s oldest distributors, and among the few places you can walk in and buy a keg. (Not that you should attempt to tote one along on the rest of the trip.)
And this is a beer tour, after all. “You’re not stuck listening to us yammer on,” says Naczycz. “It becomes a visceral experience.” Which means drinking, natch-over pizza and old photos of Brewers’ Row at Danny’s in Bushwick, followed by craft ales and cool bites with Stephanie Schneider, co-owner of East Williamsburg’s Huckleberry Bar.
Yes, you were born too late, but don’t go crying in your beer. It’s definitely not time to play Taps for Brooklyn’s rich legacy of brews.