Raise a glass to the return of brewing in NYC

(Credit: Emily Johnson)
(Credit: Emily Johnson)

Many New Yorkers can relate to Homer Simpson, who once said, “I would kill everyone in this room for a drop of sweet beer.”

Luckily for them, the city’s once-thriving brewing industry, which declined to nothingness in the 1970s, is enjoying a renaissance.

There are about a dozen breweries licensed to operate in the five boroughs, and that number is expected to increase to 20 by the end of the summer, according to Jeremy Cowan, founder of Shmaltz Brewing and president of the New York City Brewers Guild.

“The average New Yorker is more and more interested in these wonderful projects,” Cowan said. “It just makes life better, and it makes the economy more dynamic.”

The breweries are based everywhere from City Island in the Bronx to the Rockaways in Queens.

Some companies such as Shmaltz, which is known for its “He’brew–The Chosen Beer,” contract brew outside of the city limits. Others, like KelSo and 508 GastroBrewery, make all of their beer here.

A third group, consisting of Brooklyn Brewery and Sixpoint Brewing, operate smaller facilities within the city and larger ones outside it.

“It’s a great cross section of all the different brewing models,” Cowan said.

All receive tax incentives for smaller craft brewers, even Brooklyn, which just completed an expansion in Williamsburg and produces more beer than the rest of its New York City competitors combined.

“There are still extremely few breweries (especially per capita) making beer in New York City,” Brooklyn co-owner Robin Ottaway said via email. “And most of those that do are very small.”

Yet Cowan pointed out that momentum is building.

“It’s an alcoholic refreshment, so there’s that element to it, but it’s also a piece of art and culture,” he said in reference to craft brewing. “That’s a very, very different concept than the assembly line, massed produced, widget philosophy that the big brewers have.”

History of New York City brewing

Ale has been brewed in New York City ever since the first Dutch and English settlers arrived in the 17th Century.

Germans immigrating in the mid to late 19th Century then introduced the concept of lager and turned New York into one of the two biggest brew states in the country.

With good tasting water and hops coming in from upstate, at least 100 breweries popped up in the five boroughs, according to Nina Nazionale, co-curator of “Beer Here: Brewing New York’s History,” an exhibit that ran last year at the New York Historical Society.

“It was a big industry here,” Nazionale said. “A big source of revenue, a big employer.”

Things started to turn south when mildew, spider mites and aphids decimated the New York hops crop.

Then came Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, which proved to be “the near death blow,” Nazionale said.

“It was such a long run of not being able to sell their product,” she added. “They were broken by it.”

A few brewers held on, but New York was easily surpassed in terms of production by such cities as St. Louis and Milwaukee.

When Rheingold and Schaefer closed their plants in 1976, New York City lacked a single brewery.

It essentially remained that way until 1987, when a journalist who learned to brew while stationed in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where alcohol is forbidden, founded Brooklyn Brewery.

Despite originally producing all of its beer upstate, Brooklyn opened a second brewery in Williamsburg in 1996. Since then, it has been joined about a dozen other city brewers, with more on the way.

“Historically, it is really cool to see New York coming back to where it was in the late 19th century,” Nazionale said.


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