Brewing in New York

This article was written for Syracuse New Times, July 23, 1986, and rewwritten for the Song Mountain Brewfest program in 1997.

* * *

The Empire State’s recorded brewing history begins with the Dutch colonists on Manhattan Island, soon to be home to New Amsterdam and eventually New York City. The settlers’ homebrewed beer, which was mildly antiseptic by virtue of its alcohol content, spared them the ravages of water-borne diseases and enabled them to survive. And in 1633, just seven years after Peter Minuit cut the famous $24 deal with the local Canarsee tribe, the Dutch West India Company established the first public brewery.

Writing about the New Netherlands in Brewed in America, historian Stanley Baron notes, “The company manufactured beer in New Amsterdam, the patrons manufactured beer, tavern-keepers manufactured beer and many of the colonists were busy making beer in their own houses. When other things were short, there always seemed to be a sufficiency of inexpensive beer.”

Although the Dutch held the island twice, the English three times, and the rebellious colonists twice, they all drank beer, and during each political transition they took care to spare the breweries. Meanwhile, the colony’s growing population and a lack of good water on Manhattan Island had prompted brewers to move to the surrounding mainland and up the Hudson River toward Albany.

The beers of the era were ales, top-fermented, and Albany eventually became one of the ale-brewing capitals of the East. Because of the cost and difficulties of transportation, brewers preferred to brew where the drinkers were. And because of mechanical limitations, a single brewery could only brew so much beer. The result was a proliferation of small, local breweries. And because successive waves of English, Irish and German immigration provided a growing base of customers, the breweries prospered.

In 1840, German brewers introduced the bottom-fermented lager style to the United States, setting the stage for a new boom. The same year, water from the Croton reservoir was piped into New York City, giving its brewers a tremendous boost. An 1845 census of New York State showed 102 breweries; an 1879 survey showed 365, of which 124 were in New York City, 31 in Buffalo, 20 in Albany, 15 in Rochester, 7 in Syracuse and 5 in Utica. Towns as small as Corning, Herkimer, Lowville and Little Falls had their own breweries.

Syracuse’s first brewery was opened by Johann Mang in 1804, on North Salina near Wolf Street, and the city hosted many more. The longest survivor was Haberle, established in 1855 and sold to Rochester’s Standard Brewing in 1962. Moore & Quinn, founded in 1881, was said to make the finest ales of their day, but John Greenway’s ale brewery was certainly the largest, in both past reality and present-day mythology. Built along the Erie Canal in the 1850’s, it was six stories high, an eighth of a mile long, with 100 employees, 80 horses and 75,000 casks in the cooperage.

Greenway’s Ale was exported as far as Australia, but it is John Greenway’s 1870 New Year’s Day bash that earned him a place in the city’s collective memory. During a severe depression, Greenway invited the people of Central New York to a great barbecue. It is said that 40,000 attended and 10,000 were fed on roast oxen, with a final course of 2,500 pounds of plum pudding that arrived in horse-drawn sleighs.

It was an era of great brewers and grand gestures, but by 1880 the number of breweries had begun to shrink. Changes in technology favored fewer but larger breweries and the eventual triumph of the lager style:

– Steam engines made it possible to do more labor with fewer people. Breweries could brew more beer.
– Transportation, including railway systems, made wider distribution possible. Breweries could sell more beer.
– Mechanical refrigeration, replacing ice and caves, made it possible to brew lager beer anywhere, with more control and consistency. But only bigger breweries could afford the new technology.
– Brewers learned how to use corn and rice in their brews in addition to malted barley. While these cheaper grains added no flavor or body, their sugars fermented into alcohol, and allowed the brewers to make paler, clearer, lighter beers more easily. Lighter beers had added eye appeal and could be brewed more cheaply.
– Because lager was brewed at lower temperatures, it was less likely to develop infections. Ale, brewed at higher temperatures, was more volatile, more likely to develop off-flavors.

The scales tipped, and those brewers who had the resources and vision to think nationally — Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Schlitz — grew at the expense of others. The production of beer in New York State continued to rise, but the number of producers dwindled. It was a trend that continued for almost a hundred years, with an interesting interlude — the Prohibition era, beginning in 1920 — when breweries ceased production, at least on paper.

:: Prohibition ::

Surveying the nation with a wary eye, the Congressional Record reported, “Before Prohibition, there were 1,100 breweries in operation. On September 27, 1923, there were 500 cereal-beverage plants in operation.”

Many New York breweries chose to stay open and make cereal beverages, also known as “near beer.” The temptation, of course, was to skip the last step, which is boiling off the alcohol, and make deliveries after dusk. Others chose to sell their breweries to entrepreneurial individuals with a more adventurous spirit. Enforcement of the Prohibition laws by local authorities was lukewarm at best, and federal Prohibition agents, selected via political patronage and paid a paltry sum, were less than efficient and notoriously susceptible to bribery. The result was that breweries all over New York, and all over the country, simply continued to brew.

In 1926, Prohibitionists complained to Congress that there were 991 U.S. breweries, of which 410 were operating without cereal-beverage permits and 581 were suspected of operating without permits.

In Albany, the head Prohibition agent told his Washington superiors that he only had enough men to stake out one brewery at a time, enabling the others to operate at full steam. Prohibition agents would raid a brewery and emerge to find their cars towed away by the local police for “illegal parking.” When Prohibition agents padlocked a saloon’s doors, the owner summoned a carpenter to put in new ones. One Syracuse saloon had four entranceways, three of them sporting padlocks.

New Yorkers also acquired a taste for Canadian beer and ale, which poured through the sieve-like border. In the North Country, bootleggers whisked beer across the ice of Lake Champlain in horse-drawn sleighs. Two enterprising young lads in Rouses Point walked through the woods into Canada, bought a case of beer each and carried it back, doubling their money; after three trips, they had enough cash to buy a horse who could carry four cases in baskets. On a grander scale, a single barge loaded with 93,960 bottles of ale was stopped by agents at Rouses Point. In Buffalo, the Prohibition agents were more accommodating, helping bootleggers unload their boats in broad daylight, a task that could take two to three hours. Canadian beer came to Syracuse across the St. Lawrence River and over back roads, or via railroad freight cars side-tracked at Solvay.

Downstate, special orders of Scottish and British ale arrived on the shores of Long Island from the ships of Rum Row. German beers were available in New York City whenever German ocean liners docked. It was a time of frantic ingenuity.

:: Repeal ::

In 1933, after the Noble Experiment ended in Repeal, many breweries opened their doors to do business above-board. But the closings and consolidation began anew; the historical and economic pressures were too great. The Depression, World War II grain shortages, the costs of new technology and intensifying competition shuttered scores of local breweries, a trend that continued into the 1970’s.

One of the major players in the consolidation trend was the Schlitz Brewing Company. While vying with Anheuser-Busch for national supremacy, Schlitz broke ground for a major new plant in Baldwinsville. In 1896, all the breweries and malt houses in Syracuse had produced 300,000 barrels of beer. In 1976, the new Schlitz brewery would produce 6 million barrels.

In June of 1975, Peter Stamberger, a third generation brewer and plant manager for Schlitz, spoke to a group of Syracuse beer enthusiasts. On the subject of local and regional breweries, he said, “They’re doomed. The game they’re playing is set; it’s like trying to beat the house. If they play long enough, they lose.” In a few years, he predicted, the only survivors would be Anheuser-Busch, Schlitz, Coors, Miller and Pabst, with the possible addition of Stroh’s and Olympia, seven breweries in all.

Asked why Schlitz only made one style of beer, Stamberger replied, “If we could discover that the public wanted more, we’d be happy to make it and make money doing it.”

That’s how it looked from the top in 1975. Major brewers could not fathom the American public wanting anything other than light lager. They scoffed at homebrewing, dismissed the notion of brewpubs, and could not imagine the concept, let alone the reality, of microbreweries.

In 1976, they paid no mind to a youngster named Fritz Maytag, stepping into a closing Anchor Brewery in San Francisco, saving the steam beer style and pioneering craft brewing. In 1978, they were oblivious to a bearded kindergarten teacher named Charlie Papazian starting something called the American Homebrewers Association, about to raise American awareness of beer styles and transform the nation’s beer culture.

Seven breweries left? Not a good guess. As of March 1997, the United States had 34 regional breweries, 380 microbreweries, and 764 brewpubs, plus a few surviving nationals (Schlitz not among them), trying to learn how to sell beer to a growing segment of the public that is learning the difference between lager and ale, pale ale and bitter, stout and porter.

Today in New York State, we are fortunate to live in an era like no other, a time when one can find every category of brewer and brew. How long will it last? As long as beer drinkers support the trend and the brewers who make it possible.

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