When New York was king of beer

'Beer Here' explores the lost breweries of New York (Courtesy New-York Historical Society)
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Leah Koenig

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It’s hard to imagine a time in America’s long beer-guzzling history when the Midwest—with its waves of amber grain and lager-producing behemoths like Miller Brewing Company (now MillerCoors) and Anheuser-Busch—didn’t reign.

But up until the turn of the twentieth century, the story of American beer production was largely set in New York City. This is the story told at Beer Here: Brewing New York’s Beer History, a newly opened exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, on view through Sept. 2.

Consider two local American beer giants of the recent past: Schaefer and Rheingold. Both companies were founded by German immigrants in the nineteenth century and enjoyed nearly a century of national brand recognition thanks to Mad Men-era jingles touting them respectively as, “My beer is Rheingold, the dry beer!” and, “The one beer to have when you’re having more than one.” And along with lesser-known breweries like Lion, Hell Gate, Edelbrew, and Otto Huber, Schaefer and Rheingold were among the nearly 100 companies that once brewed beer along the East River in both Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The story of New York beer started much earlier of course, and Beer Here is organized in rough chronological order beginning with artifacts from the Dutch and English gentleman brewers and tavern owners of pre-revolutionary New York. A tavern license granted to William Bradford around 1702, for example, permitted his inn to retail “strong or spirituous liquors,” but prohibited all the fun activities that go with it: “cock-fighting, gaming and card, dice, billiard, or shuffle board playing.”

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Of course, colonial-era brewing was nothing unique to New York. In the absence of today’s plentiful bars and bodegas, many of the country’s founders, including George Washington, brewed their own ales out of necessity. But New York’s unusual convergence of natural and agricultural resources, immigration patterns and entrepreneurial spirit would eventually transform it into a sudsy power center.

The exhibition continues with a look at the impact of the city’s water supply on beer production. According to co-curator Debra Schmidt Bach, until 1842, when the construction of the Croton Aqueduct provided a much-needed source of clean water to city dwellers, “beer was considered safer to drink than water.”

Next up: hops. Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the amount of fermentation bubbling nearby, between 1840 and 1900 New York State grew more hops than anywhere else in the country. The exhibition displays woven hops baskets used by migrant farmers in the nineteenth century and a wooden door from their housing quarters, covered in the sort of graffiti and drawings you'd find on a summer-camp bunk.

Later sections of the exhibition detail the game changing effects that outside forces had on New York’s brewing industry: the massive influx of German immigrants meant that their beloved lagers eventually replaced heavier English-style ales as the national favorite; the temperance movement and the institution of Prohibition, which effectively killed off many of New York’s breweries; and the impact of industrial modernizations like refrigeration, packaging, and shipping. Beer Here itself is sponsored by Crown Holdings—a packaging company that revolutionized the beverage industry in 1892 with its introduction of the “Crown Cork.” The humble invention, which would eventually be renamed the bottle cap, significantly increased beer’s shelf life and allowed it to travel beyond local and regional markets.

There’s also a section dedicated to mid-20th-century advertising—both jingles and the larger creative strategies companies used to buoy their brands, like the annual Miss Rheingold competition. Fashion enthusiasts can get an up-close view of the elegant gold dress worn by Hillie Merritt when she was crowned Miss Rheingold back in 1956.

Lest museum-goers find it disappointing to ogle all those beer bottles and steins through museum glass without a drop to drink, Beer Here’s final section is actually a miniature beer hall, featuring drafts from today’s New York craft-beer-brewing scene. Museum exhibitions do well to have a timely hook, after all, and the recent resurgence of home brewing, heirloom-hops cultivation, and artisanal-beer production, both in New York and throughout the country, delivers accordingly.

The beer hall will offer weekly tastings on Saturdays and a rotating draft selection from sponsors Heartland Brewery and Brooklyn Brewery, as well as from Blue Point, Keegan Ales, Ithaca Beer Company, Kelso Beer, and several other New York beer companies.

95 percent of the beer consumed in this country may still be produced by those few (and getting fewer) massive Midwestern beverage corporations, but inside Beer Here’s galleries and its little beer hall, the spirit of New York craft brewing—past and present—is alive and bubbling.