The History and Future of Beer in Brooklyn

The history of Brooklyn’s relationship with beer is complicated to say the least. Once one of the nation’s biggest suppliers of beer at the turn of the 20th century, after Prohibition ended very few breweries reopened their doors and from 1976 to 1996 there were exactly zero breweries in the borough. However, the past is the past, and since the blossoming of more and more breweries in the early 2000s, Brooklyn is once again a beer capital of the nation.

But the past does paint quite an interesting picture of Brooklyn during the Volstead Act’s reign. An article in the Oct. 11, 1920 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reads, “The Supreme Court refused today to reconsider its decision of last June 7, sustaining validity of the Prohibition Amendment portions of the Enforcement Act,’ marking the beginning of a 13-year-run of bootleggers, rumrunners and speakeasies in Brooklyn.

Much like the popular, fictional-yet-based-on-historical-characters-and-events HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” that takes place in Atlantic City, NJ during the 20s, real-life Brooklyn was filled to the brim with illegal alcohol from 1920-1933. The constant raids and seizures are reminiscent of today’s quite obvious fact that Brooklynites love their beer.

So much so that at one time citizens would hide alcohol pretty much anywhere they could think of. An article in the Aug. 3, 1924 issue of the Eagle describes a raid on a women’s underwear store in East Flatbush that doubled as a speakeasy. According to the article, a sign that read “Ladies’ Silk Underwear” was attracting too much attention from men as noticed by two Prohibition Agents in the area.

“[The agents] went in and, asking for some of the ‘silk underwear,’ were escorted to the rear of the store, where they say they found an elaborate ‘speakeasy’,” the Eagle reported. “The agents say they found several bottles of whisky and asked persons of both sexes who were giving much attention to the ‘underwear’ to leave.”

But make no mistake; the underground liquor market was no amateur sport in Brooklyn. In fact, many of the biggest and most elaborate bootlegging operations existed somewhere in New York City during the time, several right in Brooklyn.

An article from the May 4, 1927 issue announced the arrest of a lieutenant in the Dwyer Rum Ring and seizure of over $1.2 million in alcohol from a trawler near Fisher’s Island, NY.

“The capture of the trawler, Gabriella, and the arraignment of her officers and crew here yesterday revealed, according to United States attorneys, that the so-called $50 million rum ring once headed by William V. Dwyer is as much alive as it ever was,” the Eagle reported.

Keep in mind, $50 million in 1927 would equal about $675 million in 2015, according to the government inflation calculator.

By 1929 when the end of Prohibition was unknowingly only four years away, it seems as though some Brooklynites could nonetheless feel the end coming. On May 21 of that year the Eagle reported a Bishop asking the children of a confirmation class to make a dry pledge, the first of its kind since Prohibition began nine years prior.

“Bishop Turner explained that church officials dropped the pledge 10 years ago, assuming it to be superfluous under the Volstead Act. ‘With growing evidence that the child must face the same temptation as formerly, I decided it would be well to resume the pledge,’ the Bishop remarked,” as stated in the article.

Finally, on Dec. 5, 1933, the day that Prohibition would be no more, the cover of the Eagle was plastered with headlines reading, “U.S. Permits Imports of Rye and Bourbon”, “Bolan Orders All Unlicensed Places Closed”, “Mulroney Lets ‘Decent’ Speakies Stay as City Prepares to Celebrate”,  “Bar Rolls Up to Drinkers”, and “8,000 Speakeasies Listed for Raids in 24 Hours”.

And although beer was allowed back in Brooklyn (legally, that is), breweries did not take off like they once had. It took over half a century for the popularity of breweries to resurface in the borough. And after they resurfaced, they became unstoppable.

From the ever-popular Brooklyn Brewery located in Williamsburg which produces beers that are available in 25 states and 20 countries, to regional favorites such as Sixpoint Craft Ales in Red Hook and KelSo in Clinton Hill, to the new kids on the block Braven Brewing Company who plan on opening a brewery in Bushwick in the coming year, one thing is clear– Brooklyn has, and always will be a magnet for beer drinkers and creators alike.

Owner and Brewmaster of KelSo Beer Co. in Clinton Hill, Kelly Taylor, says this is due to location and population.

“What happens is you have areas that have a lot of available warehousing and real estate that is relatively inexpensive within proximity to higher population densities so you have the capability of manufacturing somewhere close to where you can sell your high margin product, so you can make it and get it on the market quickly,” Taylor says.

The popularity of craft brewing on the West Coast and Europe spread to the East Coast, paving the way for craft breweries in Brooklyn today, he says.

Some of the newer brewers in Brooklyn have introduced brewery restaurant combinations such as Dirck the Norseman, and the mass production of popular home brewing kits by places like the Brooklyn Brew Shop have also changed the game for craft beer.

“Home brewing really drives the market because, contrary to popular belief, home brewers aren’t sitting around drinking their own beer all the time, they’re exploring, drinking craft beer only, not even cocktails or Sam Adams,” Taylor says. “I see the Brooklyn market and it still has a lot of manufacturing space available, but they’ve got to go east like Brownsville where the space is. In two years I bet there will be 30 breweries in Brooklyn without a problem.”

Samantha Weiss Hills of the Brooklyn Brew Shop agrees that an influx of home brewers will boost the craft beer scene in Brooklyn.

“As brewers become more knowledgeable about how beer is made and continue to refine and perfect their own versions at home, we hope it will give rise to even more craft beer made right here in Brooklyn.”

According to Taylor, population density and available manufacturing space aren’t the only reasons why Brooklyn is such a hot spot for brewing. It also has to do with the culture.

“The reason people are drawn to craft beer in general is because people started to buy local and started to identify with stuff made down the street. People love their local breweries and identify with them. And now the small breweries are right in step with everything else in Brooklyn including the art scene and craft food and the general hip nature of everything.

“That’s kind of what it is, artistic and gritty and encompassing everything that’s hot in Brooklyn, so it has been amplified.”

Even though Taylor believes the future of Brooklyn breweries to be bright and ever expanding, he does recognize that there are some catches. For instance, he says the real estate market for some breweries’ locations, including his own, are starting to catch up with them.

“Craft breweries find these affordable areas and become apart of neighborhood revitalization be using abandoned buildings and warehouses. When you’re doing microbrewery, you lend security and street cred to the area. Then the rent goes up. Craft beer has a direct impact on real estate and our current challenge is what we are going to do in a couple of years when our lease is up. It’s like you’re welcome very much but now we can’t afford to stay here. It’s a double-edged sword, and it’s basically what happened to Rheingold.”


One thought on “The History and Future of Beer in Brooklyn

  1. This is so cool, Katy! I really envy your journalistic research skills. My academic research skills are pretty clunky when it comes to different genres of writing. I’m going to share this with Hamish, he’ll love it, and hopefully we can check out some Brooklyn beer when we’re in NYC next (which will be in early June) 🙂


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