Brooklyn’s Historical Mega Breweries

Schaefer Brewery riv vu

The Schaefer Beer Brewery on the bank of the East River in Williamsburg.

 

Beer here! Right here in Brooklyn. The borough is a major center of hops mashing and beer brewing, and the industry is growing rapidly. These days, the borough is dotted with microbreweries, with popular beers cooking in Williamsburg, Bushwick, Gowanus, Greenpoint, Red Hook, and even Coney Island. Some are big, like Brooklyn Brewery, the first and probably best-known of the present-day crop, but most are small, like Threes Brewing in Gowanus and Greenpoint Beer and Ale, the latter of which makes their beer just five barrels at a time.

Piels_1-323x404

A promotional sign for Piels beer, featuring the marketing characters Burt and Harry Piels.

Today’s local brews continue a long tradition of beer brewing in Brooklyn. In the mid-nineteenth century, the politics of Europe sent many German immigrants to the United States, and they brought their taste and talent in beer with them. Many settled in Greenpoint and East New York, and by the turn of the twentieth century there were almost 50 active microbreweries in the borough. Those small labels had to compete with what became the three major-label beers that were brewed in Brooklyn in the last century: Schaefer, Piels, and Rheingold. For several decades those three large Brooklyn breweries pumped out beers that quenched the thirst of the entire east coast.

During the prohibition era, most of the micro taps went dry. The larger companies limped through the era selling legal “near beer.” When America’s dry period ended, the larger companies ramped up production quickly, and Schaefer and Rheingold beers were popular again from Maine to Florida and as far west as Ohio. The Piels brothers’ pale lager, brewed in East New York, was popular throughout New York and south to at least Philadelphia.

Miss Rheingold Contestants, 1958

The Miss Rheingold contest captivated New Yorkers throughout the 1940s and ’50s.

The Rheingold brewery took up several blocks in Bushwick on Forrest and Stanwix Streets from 1854 until 1976. At its peak, the brand had a 35 percent market share in New York City. More than for its beer, Rheingold is most remembered for its annual Miss Rheingold contest, a marketing phenomenon that allowed customers to vote for one of six finalists for the crown. In 1956, over 23 million votes were cast into ballot boxes in bars, beer distributors, grocery stores, and wherever beer was sold. (Voting multiple times was allowed.) The contest ran from 1940 to 1964. By that time, the company was feeling the pinching encroachment of the national brands that eventually forced all three of Brooklyn’s mega-breweries out of business, and the annual cost of running the contest–$8 million at one point, about $60 million today–became more than the company could afford.

Over in Williamsburg, the Schaefer brewery sat on the East River at Kent Avenue and South 10th Street, which became known as Schaefer’s Landing. Schaefer began production in Manhattan, on Broadway and 18th Street, in 1842, but the popularity of the Schaefers’ lager beer, which was a new type of beer to America at the time, caused the company to outgrow Manhattan, and they moved to Brooklyn in 1916, just four years before the start of prohibition. The company survived and grew to be the fifth largest brewer in the country in 1950 and again in 1970. Over the years, the company had built breweries in Albany and Baltimore, and in the 1970s opened a modern plant near Allentown, PA. The company then began closing its older, less efficient breweries, and the Brooklyn plant shut down in 1976, the same year as Rheingold’s Brooklyn factory finally shut down. By 1981, despite remaining a popular brand, the company sold out to the Detroit-based Stroh Brewing Co.

PielsSign1947

The Piels Beer sign over its East New York brewery was the largest beer sign in the world when it went up and featured a gnome bowling in neon lights.

The Piels Factory, at Georgia and Liberty Avenues, through years of modernization and innovation, became world renown, attracting visiting brewmasters and scientists who came to examine the refrigeration and storage techniques developed by the Piels brothers. In 1936, the company installed the largest beer sign in the world on the roof of their brewery, complete with neon lighting.

These three breweries were as big as any in the country for several years, but through the 1950s, the Midwest beer companies, including the big three Miller, Anheuser-Busch, and Pabst, found it easier to ship to the growing West Coast market than could the East Coast breweries. Conquering that area, they could pump unlimited advertising dollars into the new and burgeoning TV advertising industry, and by the late 1960s had knocked our locals off their stride. After a change in ownership in 1963, the Piels brewery shuttered in September 1973, having been in continuous operation for ninety years. Schaefer bought the rights to the Piels name and continued the brand for another dozen or more years until their sale to Stroh, which went down in the 1990s and licensed the Piels name to Pabst, which kept it alive until 2015.

When Schaefer closed its Brooklyn brewery in 1976, it ended a 134-year run of commercial beer making in Brooklyn. Twenty years later, the Brooklyn Brewery opened, also in Williamsburg, and ushered in a new era of microbrewing here. Today there are once again dozens of craft beers brewed in the borough, and there are rights holders working on bringing back both the Piels and Rheingold brands. We can only hope for now that if and when they come back, they will be brewed right here in Brooklyn.

Three Logos copy

The logos of Brooklyn’s historical big three beer brewers.

 


 

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