Numerous Brooklyn breweries died of thirst after the National Prohibition Act went into effect in 1920. The industry revived after the act’s repeal in 1933, but was again badly damaged by a labor strike in 1949, which allowed big national Midwestern brewers like Anheuser-Busch and Miller to invade the New York market in force.
By 1952, just four Brooklyn brewers were left, and in 1976, the borough’s last two, Rheingold and Schaefer, were shuttered, done in by high local costs and the inefficiencies of their aging plants. Housing, some of it very upscale, has been built on former Rheingold and Schaefer sites.
After a decade-long dry spell, Brooklyn Brewery brought the brewmaster’s art back to King’s County, selling its first batch of Brooklyn Lager in 1988 and opening a factory in Williamsburg in 1996. The company’s retro label — designed by Milton Glaser with a looping “B” evocative of both classic German beer labels and the Brooklyn Dodgers — projected a renewed pride in Brooklyn.
Today the borough is a place of special ferment, home to 25 breweries, according to the New York City Brewers Guild. Many operate in the same neighborhoods as their forebears: six in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, and another seven in Bushwick and in the adjacent Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood. Seven more are clustered in and around the greater Gowanus area.
Many of these new brew houses are small, niche operations, another echo of the late 19th century.
“I have a collection of old New York City brewery bottles, and lots of the brewers were tiny, selling to their neighborhood,” said Steve Hindy, a co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery. “What’s happened today is, I think, a back-to-the-future of that model: The breweries that came back are making most of their money at that location in their tasting rooms.”
The William Ulmer Brewery, by contrast, grew to be a major producer.
Ulmer, a German native, immigrated to America around 1850 at age 17 and took a job at a New York City brewery owned by two uncles. He rose to the position of brew master at a second family firm before cofounding the Vigelius & Ulmer Continental Lagerbier Brewery in the early 1870s.