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When The Breweries Went Bankrupt.

What with the American brewing landscape having been dominated by the Midwest for many decades, few know of New York City’s rich brewing history and former status as the brewing capital of the United States. But it’s true. From the early 19th century all the way to the 1950s New York City dominated the brewing industry and in 1898 boasted 45 breweries in Brooklyn and Queens alone, including 11 on one 12 block stretch in Williamsburg and Bushwick. This interesting bit of forgotten history is perhaps made even more interesting by the reasons behind the city’s breweries’ demise.

A huge dent was inevitably put in that 1898 number by Prohibition, the 14-year period when alcohol was illegal in the US between 1919 and 1933. At the onset of Prohibition, there were 23 breweries operating in Brooklyn, but just 9 reopened after repeal. And while prohibition certainly didn’t help the city’s position as the top dog, nothing could compare to an 81-day strike by the brewers and beer truck drivers that took place in 1948. Their demands included a shorter work week and two-man teams for delivery trucks as opposed to one. This provided large Midwestern breweries like Pabst and Blatz with a vital opportunity to flood the New York market and change locals’ tastes away from their old favorites like Schaeffer and Rheingold over to their brews.

Of course, the strike was eventually resolved, and beer production resumed. There was just one problem, the beer didn’t taste the same! No, the local brewers just couldn’t catch a break as they had to get new yeast once the strike was over and couldn’t replicate their signature flavors. Yeast is a microorganism vital to the production of beer and brewers tend to reuse the same strains over and over as they brew. With 81 days of inactivity, all their strains had died, necessitating the purchase of new strains which produced beer that didn’t satisfy local palates.

Add to this the financial crunch the city underwent from the 50s to the 70s, and you have the perfect environment for an entire industry to fall. By 1977, there were 0 active breweries in New York City and the entire industry a victim of bad luck, bad management, and changing times.

By Seth Zakula

The New York Beer and Brewery Tour is owned and operated by Tour Guides of New York/2nd Day Tours of New York, LLC.