A Sip of History
Drinking in New York Before It Was New York
The history of New York City is surprisingly intertwined with the history of brewing beer in New York City. From the earliest Dutch settlers, who came to make a profit selling beaver pelts in the mid 17th century, the capitalistic atmosphere and the lack of prominent religious institutions incubated a culture of drinkers. Breweries were built before churches and, in fact, it is thought that breweries were some of the very first structures of New Amsterdam. At this time in Europe, the majority of the drinking water was polluted, so people drank copious amounts of beer to stay hydrated. This was true even amongst children. Children drank near beer which contains 0.5% alcohol and was considered healthy and nutritious and referred to as “liquid bread.”
Aside from the climate of drinkers in the region, New York State also has an excellent climate for brewing beer. The soil is great for barley and hops and New York tap water is thought to be one of the best in the county. The unfiltered water is a huge ingredient in beer, but is also what distinguishes New York bagels and pizza. The tap water comes from the Croton Aqueduct in the Catskills.
This water system is also the main reason that Brooklyn became part of New York City — to join up with their water system. Before 1898, Brooklyn got their water from natural sources, which eventually became polluted. Unlike the other boroughs who wanted to be incorporated into New York City, residents of Brooklyn were fiercely opposed, and the vote to join New York City passed by less than 200 votes.
By the turn of the century, amongst all the immigrants coming through Ellis Island, there was a huge flow of German immigration helped out the brewing industry when light lager beer became popular. Not only was this beer delicious and crisper than the heavier warmer English-style beer that New Yorkers had been drinking, lager beer could be consumed in large quantities, and day drinking in New York was normalized. It was now the culture to drink outside in beer gardens, and not just dark beer halls like the earlier days. Drinking was very popular, and New York became the brewing capital of the country with 45 breweries in Brooklyn including national distributors, Schaefer, Piels, and Rheingold.
The brewing industry was born and died in Brooklyn. After prohibition, the majority of the breweries shut down. It wasn’t until 1996 when Brooklyn Brewery opened that the brewing was revived in Brooklyn. Today, there are dozens of micro craft breweries popping up, and the historic tradition carries on!