Loving beer is as much about its history as it is about the science and theory behind it. Today, I had a wonderful afternoon at the Brooklyn Historical Society where they celebrated NYC Beer Week with an hour-long discussion of the city (and the surrounding boroughs’) relationship with beer. The discussion was moderated by Robin Schulman, the author of a new book called Eat The City, about NYC’s food and beverage history and featured Jacob Ruppert, an heir of the now defunct Ruppert Brewery, and Robin Ottaway, a vice president at Brooklyn Brewery.
Tomorrow is the last day of NYC Beer Week and though it’s an amazing celebration of the city’s relationship with beer, some of the best events cost a pretty penny. For that reason, I didn’t attend any super cool events but I promised myself I’d attend something. This discussion was that something and it was so much fun! It cost me a total of $4 and Brooklyn Brewery provided free beer (and free bottles for my homebrewing!). On top of everything, I learned some incredibly cool facts! So I served as your eyes and ears and took plenty of notes. Here are a slew of things you may not have known about New York City’s brewing history:
- NYC beer culture actually began with the Dutch who were big beer drinkers but when the English came through and settled the area, they were more interested in hard liquor like rum, which effectively diminished the beer culture.
- At the peak of brewing culture, there were 120+ breweries in Brooklyn and Manhattan alone.
- In the mid-1800s, German immigrants revitalized the brewery scene and began making beer to satisfy the high demand for homeland-style lagers among recent immigrants in the Lower East Side’s Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.
- Before Prohibition, breweries had their hands in the pots of most brewing-related industry and if they didn’t own it, they married into it! This meant owning not only a brewery but a bottling plant, hops/grain farms upstate, beer gardens and even taverns that exclusively sold their product. What’s more, some brewers became heavily involved in politics and ran whole campaigns out of their taverns.
- In the 1800s there was a court case in which a judge decided (after hearing hours of civilian testimony) that lagers were non-alcoholic. It’s one of the reasons why to this day, beer is generally viewed as less threatening than hard liquors and wines and infinitely easier to access (i.e. you can buy it in any grocery or convenience store).
- During Prohibition, the legal limit for beer was 0.5% alc./vol. and the product could not have the word “beer” anywhere on its packaging.
- Growing anti-German sentiment driven by World War I diminished the popularity of beer and ultimately helped advocates of the Temperance Movement criminalize alcohol.
- After Prohibition, many breweries in NYC were unable to get back on their feet because they weren’t equipped to ship their product nationally and the local demand for beer had dwindled as Germans left the city. Meanwhile, Midwestern breweries had been outfitting themselves for transnational delivery for years and thrived after Prohibition.
- 1976 marked the closing of the last major breweries in NYC but it also marked the beginning of the craft brewing industry. In 1978, Jimmy Carter decriminalized homebrewing, which spurred the craft brewery industry. Today, there are 2000+ breweries in the U.S. today and the craft beer industry is experiencing the most growth.
- When craft brewing began, brewers attempted to replicate classic styles of beer. Today, they focus on innovating and mixing different styles. As a result of this innovation, craft beers are becoming popular in countries like Italy where they’ve traditionally been undervalued.
Feeling any smarter?!