Today, most mass-market American beer is brewed in the Midwest, but this wasn’t always the case. For most of America’s colonial and national history, New York City was the center of brewing for the entire country.
The early Dutch settlers, who founded New Amsterdam at the southernmost tip of Manhattan Island, were the first to brew beer there. They quickly realized that the New York area has the perfect climate for growing the necessary ingredients of beer, particularly barley and hops. Beer was brewed for the local population, continuing after the English conquered New Amsterdam and renamed it New York, and after the American revolution.
In the 19th Century, large-scaling brewing took off in New York City, spurred by a rising population and the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution. Brooklyn became the heart of brewing for two primary reasons. Until the mid-19th century, local water sources were used in the brewing process. Manhattan, because it was settled faster, polluted its water earlier, leading to Brooklyn having a reputation for purer water than Manhattan. This changed in 1842 with the construction of the Croton Aqueduct, but by that point brewing in Brooklyn was deeply ensconced.
The other factor is the largest-scale settlement of German immigrants in Brooklyn. Germans became dominant in New York’s brewing industry as soon as they started immigrating there, bringing their tradition and techniques from the old country. They introduced lager to America, which quickly became the preferred style of beer in the country, and they had a near-monopoly on its production. They settled in large numbers in specific neighborhoods, particularly Bushwick, Brooklyn, starting in the early-mid 19th century. This led to Bushwick becoming the home of Brewers’ Row.
At its peak, Brewers’ Row contained 14 active breweries within 14 square blocks, loosely bordered by Schole Street, Meserole Street, Bushwick Place, and Lorimer Street. Among the most notable were:
The Rheingold Brewery, which brewed Rheingold, New York’s most popular beer.
The Huber Brewery, which brewed for nearly 100 years under owners Otto Huber and later Edward Hittleman. This brewery still stands as a large and well-preserved example of 19th century brewery architecture.
The Fallert Brewery, which closed under Prohibition. Also still standing, and a very beautiful example of the German round-arch style typical of breweries.
The Ulmer Brewery, a New York City designated historic landmark. Also an excellent example of the round-arch style, this building is special because it still features the original wrought-iron gates that lead into its central courtyard.
The standing breweries of Old Brewers’ Row are a great day trip for any sightseer interested in brewing or history. They can easily be covered in an afternoon, leaving plenty of time to enjoy a few pints in nearby Williamsburg’s many craft beer bars. They are also featured on the New York Beer and Brewery Tour.