Hiccuping through history

Hiccuping through history
Photo by Christopher D. Brazee

The brewpub opening in Greenpoint next month might be the first in Brooklyn, but anyone familiar with the borough’s history knows that brewing beer is nothing new around here.

The borough has a high-calorie history of vast amounts of beer production that dates back to the early Dutch settlers and it was a regular Milwaukee East for much of the late 19th and early 20th century, eons ahead of when the first indie rocker settled down in Greenpoint to start a Midwestern-themed bar. The last decade has seen a handful of beermakers set up shop in the borough and scene veterans say that the newcomers are just building on a proud tradition.

“It does not surprise me that there are so many breweries popping up in Brooklyn,” said Brewery Brooklyn owner Steve Hindy. “People have made beer here for decades.”

There were a whopping 48 breweries in Brooklyn in 1893, according to Hindy, many of them clustered in Bushwick and Williamsburg.

Bushwick’s Ulmer Brewery pumped out 3.2-million gallons of brew per year in the early 1900s, and helped Bushwick account for 10 percent of the entire nation’s beer production. It was landmarked by the city in 2010. Across Bushwick Avenue, long before its footprint was at ground zero for a hot-button redevelopment, the Rheingold Brewery churned out much of the state’s beer from 1893 to 1963.

But the number of suds crafters declined over the next century as the borough’s small brewers were left behind by shifts in production and transportation technology and Prohibition took a big bite out of the booze industry. And when the Schaefer factory shuttered in 1976, it left the borough brewery-less — but not for long.

High volume: The Ulmer Brewery on Beaver Street cranked out 3.2 million gallons of beer in the early 1900s.
Brooklyn Historical Society

The 1980s and ’90s saw at least two dozen breweries open only to quickly close, according to Hindy, whose Brooklyn Brewery became the first with staying power when it set up shop in Williamsburg in 1996 after brewing in Utica since 1983.

The new batch of Kings County keg creators has a DNA that is closer to the small-scale tendencies of its 1890s counterpart than the can-favoring mass producers of the mid-20th century.

So-called “craft beer” made in small batches now comprise 10 percent of the ale market in Brooklyn, up from less than one percent two decades ago, according to Hindy. When Dirk the Norseman opens in Greenpoint in December, there will be five small-scale hops houses in the borough, and Hiindy says that the newcomers’ decision to open now is a no-brainer.

Other malt mixers we spoke to said they welcome new faces, so long as there are not too many of them.

“Eventually, you can have a glut where they are too many, but we are nowhere close to that,” said Jeff Gorlechen, spokesman for SixPoint Brewery in Red Hook. “The beer that’s coming out now is definitely better than it was in the past and we could always use some more.”

Reach reporter Danielle Furfaro at dfurfaro@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2511. Follow her at twitter.com/DanielleFurfaro.
Hops to trot: Brooklyn was once home to 48 breweries, many with their own beer gardens, like the former Trommers Evergreen Brewery on Bushwick Avenue.
Brooklyn Historical Society