Brooklyn has been home to over 100 breweries, making it one of the nation’s largest historic centers of beer production. Many of Brooklyn’s breweries were established in the early 1800’s when German immigrants poured into Brooklyn with recipes—and thirst—for good beer.
Access to water, a work force, Manhattan’s huge market and a convenient port for receiving the necessary raw materials such as barley, malt hops and yeast, destined Brooklyn for beer-brewing greatness. In the 19th century the streets of Williamsburg and Bushwick were saturated with the pungent sweet smell of beer brewing as factories buzzed with Brooklyn workers.
German speakers of all trades and classes gathered in Brooklyn’s beer gardens and saloons to drink the local brews. These beer gardens had stages for German theater performances and meeting rooms for singing societies, clubs, unions, and political organizations. Brooklyn’s most popular beer garden, Trommer’s Maple Garden in Bushwick, could accommodate several hundred patrons for an afternoon picnic or evening of conversation, dancing, concerts and weddings. However, not all Brooklynites embraced the borough’s beer culture; the presence of women and children in beer gardens and patrons’ habit of spending long Sundays there shocked many of New York’s burgeoning reformers.
With Prohibition in 1919, most Brooklyn breweries closed. Others survived by creating “near” (low alcohol) beers, and new products such as soda and ice cream. Some breweries were seemingly retrofitted to help bootleggers skirt the new liquor laws. The Excelsior Brewery on Pulaski Street could not stay afloat on near beer and was sold to a man who implied he would use the factory to make soap but Federal Prohibition agents raided the factory and found a brass pipe inside a drain twenty feet underground that ran to a nearby garage.
When Prohibition ended in April of 1933, beer production soared and Brooklyn’s hometown brews—Trommer’s, Rheingold, Schaefer and Piel’s among them—reasserted themselves for a time. But the resurgence didn’t last long. Local breweries couldn’t compete with the marketing muscle and cost cutting techniques of national brands like Schlitz, Pabst and Miller that had sprouted after WWII. By the 1970’s, Brooklyn could only claim two breweries: Schaefer and Rheingold, and in 1976, they stopped production within a few weeks of each other. For the first time, the people of Brooklyn had no beer to call their own.
Today, microbreweries and brewpubs have cropped up across the country and beer brewing has returned to Brooklyn. In neighborhood spots and historic pubs, Brooklynites again enjoy the strong lagers, distinctive ales, porters and stouts that are a part of the borough’s unique and flavorful history.