A rendition of the New York & Brooklyn Brewing Co., whose brewery once stood on the corner of Scholes St. and Bushwick Ave. — Photos by Diego Cupolo
At the turn of the century, there were 45 breweries in Brooklyn. Today, only three breweries operate in the borough – quite a small number considering Brooklynites used to make one-fifth of the nation’s beer.
But now, thanks to the hard work of walking tour company Urban Oyster founders Dave Naczycz and Cindy VandenBosch, anyone can revisit those foamy glory days by hopping on their weekly Brewed in Brooklyn Walking Tours, which take participants to old brewery sites along the East Williamsburg-Bushwick border. I tagged along for the ride last Saturday and was pleasantly surprised by the tour’s blend of fascinating information, first-hand historical accounts, and delicious beer tastings.
The day began properly with a mild buzz at the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg. After a quick tour of modern brewing techniques and a thorough sampling of the brewery’s products we were shuttled over to the Old Brewers’ Row in East Williamsburg. Once we arrived on Meserole Street, the former epicenter of local beer production, tour guides Naczycz and VandenBosch described how German immigrants brought breweries to the area in the 1800s and built a self-sustaining community.
"Throughout Brooklyn’s brewing days, the people that lived in East Williamsburg and Bushwick enjoyed the benefits of local production and local consumption," Naczycz said. "It was a little circle of life, people would work in the breweries around here and then, at the end of the day, they would drink the beer that was made in this neighborhood."
Americans drank mainly porters and ales before German immigrants brought their irresistible lager recipes overseas. Lagers became so popular that the area exploded with German breweries, supplying locals with steady jobs as businessmen invested heavily in the beer industry.
"At one point, there were 11 breweries in a 12 block area," Naczycz said. "It was kind of like Starbucks is today."
Our first stop was the former Otto Huber Brewery at 260 Meserole Street, one of two 19th-century breweries that are still standing on the old Brewer’s Row. At the peak of its production, the brewery produced 100,000 barrels a year — it may not seem like much compared to the 9.5 million barrels Budweiser-Newark puts out annually, but at the time it was a very respectable number.
The Huber Brewery was later bought by Russian-Jewish immigrant Edward B. Hittleman, who apparently had marriage troubles, and the façade still bears his name today. The Hittleman Brewery was best known for producing Goldenrod Ale and remains a good representation of a typical family-owned brewery in the early 20th century.
After visiting a few more points of interest along Meserole and Bushwick Place, we headed into Danny’s Pizzeria and Cafe. With pizza slice in hand, Naczycz talked about how the German neighborhood saw an influx of Italian immigrants in the 1900s and shared his theory on the birth of one of America’s signature meals.
"We believe, though we have no official documentation, that this area was responsible for creating the infamous pizza and beer combination," Naczycz said. "Mark my words, it all happened right here in this neighborhood when the Italians and Germans got together and had a party."
Stomachs full of that "infamous" combination, we visited the former sites of the Eastern Brewing Company and Schneider’s Brewery just around the corner from Danny’s Pizza. I was most fascinated when we stopped by the Berlenbach House, at 174 Meserole Street, an amazingly preserved structure I didn’t even know existed. The three-story, Queen Anne-style home was built in 1887 and is one of the few landmarked German buildings in the area.
The rest of day included visits to the former Fallert Brewery, which still has unused storage tunnels running below Meserole Street, and ABC Beverage Distributors, where we learned about modern-day beer marketing. Then the tour ended with yet another wonderful beer tasting at Huckleberry Bar.
Over a plate of tapas, Naczycz described the end of local beer production when the Rheingold and Schaefer breweries closed in the early 1970s. As the facilities aged and production costs in the city grew, the companies moved elsewhere to stay competitive. Schaefer, which was famous for its catchy television jingles, is the only original Brooklyn beer that is still in production, but the recent openings of the Brooklyn Brewery, Sixpoint Craft Ales and Greenpoint Beer Works have been reviving the lost art form of urban beer brewing.
"A neighborhood is like a living organism," VandenBosch said. "To make a neighborhood thrive we need to support local businesses and realize the connection between people and the places they live or else the neighborhood will die out, just like the urban oyster."
The next Urban Oyster "Brewed in Brooklyn Tour" is on Saturday, July 11. To sign up or for more information, visit their web site or call them at 347-599-1842.