The Brooklyn Growler

"Life is all skittles and beer." — Tom Lehrer

Celebrator Good Times

I’m a sucker for little plastic goats. As it happens, the Ayinger Brewery‘s Celebrator Doppelbock just happens to arrive with a little plastic goat on a string. Having picked up a bottle around the holidays, I wondered if it was part of an Xmas promotion. Drink fifty bottles of Celebrator and decorate the tree.

The goat has a greater purpose than just beer-bottle candy, though. It comes from the style of beer – doppelbock.

A bock is a style of German beer that is, essentially, a strong and sweet beer. Not too sweet, mind you. But sweet nonetheless. Bocks are lightly hopped and malty. Bocks were first brewed in the German town of Einbeck in the fourteenth century. Bavarians adopted the style in the seventeenth century. They pronounced Einbeck as “ein bock,” which translates to “a billy goat.”

Goats have since adorned bottles of bock beer. The Thank Heaven for Beer blog notes that the appearance of a goat (or a ram) also indicates that a bock is a strong beer.

And a doppelbock is a stronger version of a bock. Double bock. Doppel bock. Hotcha.

Ayinger’s Celebrator Doppelbock is a mighty fine example of the species. The groupmind over at Beer Advocate gives it an A overall, lauding both its drinkability and complexity. I agree. Served in a bell glass, this doppelbock really opens up. It’s like a buncha monks decided to have a party in your mouth. Coincidentally, monks often drank bocks and doppelbocks during their fasts.

Brooklynites can pick up a bottle retail at Brooklyn Beer & Soda. Watering holes such as the Fourth Ave. Pub, Mug’s Ale House, and Radegast Hall have some Celebrator’s behind the bar.

Filed under: beer history, beer reviews, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

San Francisco’s Anchor Steam Beer: From Cheap Suds to Well-Heeled Duds

Breweries are creatures that need a lot of space.

You can find San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co. down where the streets begin to give up their sidewalks. If you make the trek by foot, as I did, you are reminded that breweries are most definitely objects that occur in the more industrial parts of town. Anchor Brewing is only a few blocks away from San Francisco’s Berry Street Gravel Co. for instance.

This isn’t to say that the neighborhood surrounding the Mariposa Street brewery doesn’t have its share of gourmet restaurants and gyms these days but that in walking my way from Union Square to Anchor Brewing, I was reminded of my wanderings around Brooklyn searching for lost breweries.

Anchor is best known for its Steam Beer. Founded in 1896, the brewery was originally known as the Steam Beer Brewing Co. Steam Beer is a distinctly West Coast beer style. Historically the beer was produced with lager yeast and fermented without refrigeration. It’s a cheap beer, basically.

Steam Beer is also known as California Common Beer. The Anchor Brewing Co. copyrighted the name “Anchor Steam Beer” in the eighties. But the similarities between Anchor Steam and its ancestors are in name only. Anchor Brewing was one of the first U.S. breweries to lead the microbrewing renaissance of the seventies. We’ll get to that.

Steam Beer Brewing was purchased in 1959 by Lawrence Steese and Bill Buck, a duo whose enthusiasm for beer was not matched by their proficiency at brewing it. The only champion of the beer was Fred Kuh who was the owner of the Old Spaghetti Factory, which was a café that served Anchor’s beer.

The beer produced by Steese and Buck could be politely described as foul and inconsistent. By 1965 the two were about to throw in their brewing aprons and call it a day. Kuh wasn’t prepared to let the brewery go. By the fifties and sixties, Anchor was one of the very few “little breweries” still in operation in the U.S. and he wanted to see this tradition preserved.

Enter Fritz Maytag.

Maytag is the great-grandson of Fredrick Louis Maytag who founded the Maytag Corporation. Wanting a challenge that would match his ambition, Fritz Maytag was attracted to the brewery. At Kuh’s urging, he purchased a fifty-one percent stake of it in 1965. What he now had was a dilapidated brewery known by locals for producing a sour and undrinkable concoction.

His intentions were to make the best beer in the world. Noticing that many of his friends bought expensive imports when out at bars, Maytag realized that he needed to aim his product at people who were willing to spend a little more for something a little better than a Budweiser.

After finding himself unsuccessful at peddling Anchor beer as it was, Maytag also realized that for the brewery to succeed it would need to brew beer using only the highest-quality ingredients. San Francisco was also an important component to the beer and by naming his particular brew something that heralded back to the city’s brewing traditions, Maytag could look forward as well as back. It’s a move that you see again and again in the microbrewery world where some form of a pre-Prohibition recipe or style is updated with high-quality ingredients. It could be argued that Anchor was the first U.S. brewery to figure this one out.

The end result was Anchor Steam Beer – steam beer for the well-heeled.

Maytag has often been dismissed as a rich kid who used his personal resources to keep a brewery afloat that would have otherwise completely failed. It’s not something that Maytag has ever denied. But as Maureen Ogle notes in Ambitious Brew, “a focus on Maytag’s name and inheritance obscures the brewer’s prescience. The signs were everywhere for those who took the time to look.”

And they certainly did. Without Maytag’s persistence and vision, not only would a beer tradition have been lost, but the microbrewing industry would have lost an early champion.

Most importantly – Anchor Steam is a pretty great beer.

Filed under: beer history, breweries, , , , , , , , , ,

Federal Brewing Co. Leaves Federal Dust

Some things are here for only a little while and then they’re gone, leaving behind very little. In the case of many former Brooklyn breweries, the buildings that once housed these businesses still remain, while the breweries themselves have long since been forgotten.

Brooklyn’s landscape is constantly evolving. Today, many former industrial neighborhoods of the nineteenth century are now full of luxury apartment buildings.

The old Schaefer plant in Williamsburg is now a community center and could, quite possibly, become condos at some point in the near future. A lesser-known brewery – the Leonhard Michel plant in Gowanus – is empty and who knows what will come of it.

Here’s a real deep cut –

The Federal Brewing Co., located at 83 Third Ave. in Boerum Hill, was a short-lived brewery that closed down operations in 1907. But looking at the building today, one would hardly even believe that was the former home to beer.

This brewery went through a variety of names and owners in its fifty-three years of life. Founded in 1854 by Samuel Duell, the brewery produced ales under the name of the Long Island Brewery. It was a small facility but grew in size over the next few years. In 1872, Duell sold the brewery to Arthur A. Brown who maintained the brewery’s name and production of ale.

By 1887, Brown had expanded the size of the brewery and added a lager to the beers Long Island Brewery produced. Arthur Brown died in 1879, passing the business to his son J.W. Brown who ran the plant until 1902 when it changed owners again and became the Federal Brewing Co. The plant held on for a few more years, closing for good in 1907.

As Quality Cosmetics in 1976, from Will Anderson's Breweries of Brooklyn.

The building still remains standing on a patch of Third Ave. between Dean and Bergen. From the exterior, the only major difference is that its turret has long-since been taken down.

After Federal left, the building was occupied by the Pittsburgh Glass Co., something called the Fred Goat. Co., and Quality Cosmetics. Will Anderson contacted Quality Cosmetics for his book Breweries of Brooklyn in 1975. Quality had no idea that a brewery was once housed inside its building.

Today, Federal appears to be an apartment complex and is little more than a footnote in the history of Brooklyn’s breweries.

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Leonhard Michel’s Long-Forgotten Brooklyn Brewery

A forgotten brewery from Brooklyn’s yesteryear is the Leonhard Michel Brewing Co., which was located in Gowanus. The tale of Leonhard Michel comprises war beers, lawsuits against Yuengling, and the Ebling beer caves.

Leonhard Michel started out as the brewmaster at the David G. Yuengling, Jr. brewery in Manhattan. This was a production plant owned by the Yuengling brewery in Pennsylvania.

Michel worked at Yuengling until 1889 when he left to found the India Wharf Brewery on Hamilton Avenue in Brooklyn.

After seventeen years at India Wharf, Michel opened a new plant on Bond Street in 1907. This plant was to be his crowning achievement.

The Michel plant as it was photographed in the 1970s for Breweries of Brooklyn.

As Will Anderson writes in the woefully out-of-print Breweries of Brooklyn:

“The plant was worth waiting for though: It was seven stories high, solidly constructed of traditional brewery brick and stone, had direct frontage on the Gowanus Canal, and contained the largest ice plant in Brooklyn! Capacity was 150,000 barrels a year.”

The new plant was never to achieve its promise. In 1919 the Volstead Act passed, thus making beer illegal to produce. At the beginning of Prohibition, the Michel plant employed 70 people.

In the same year Prohibition went into effect, Michel produced “war beer” that contained 2.75 percent alcohol by weight (ABW). Testifying before a senate subcommittee in 1919, Michel stated that workers in his plant could put back about twelve of these war beers during a shift and not be too intoxicated to work.

Today, most U.S. states measure alcohol content by volume (ABV). So a 2.75 percent ABW beer has 3.4 percent ABV, which makes it indeed a low-alcohol beer. Drinking one of Michel’s war beers would be about the equivalent of drinking a Yuenling Light (3.5 percent ABV). Putting down half of a case during a shift doesn’t seem all that unreasonable, really.

Many brewers made the same case for their beers while fighting the enactment of Prohibition. It didn’t matter. Prohibition caused a great many of these breweries to close down for good.

Michel’s plant survived Prohibition by brewing near beer. Leonhard Michel did not. He passed away in 1926, a scant seven years before Prohibition would be repealed.

After his death, Leonhard Michel’s brewery was purchased in late 1920s by Samuel Rubel of the Rubel Ice Company.

This is the Michel plant pictured in 2010.

In 1927, Rubel also gained control of the Ebling Brewing Co. located in the Bronx. Seeing a better future with Ebling, Rubel turned his attention fully to this brewery. The Michel plant shut down its operations in 1940.

The Ebling Brewing Co., as many New Yorkers might remember, had a lagering cave in the Bronx, not two miles from Yankee Stadium. The caves were rediscovered last year by construction crews working on new apartment developments. Seven man-made caves were found – some with electricity.

Ebling – and whatever remnants of Leonhard Michel still existed – closed in the 1940s. The Bronx plant was torn down sometime after and turned into a parking lot – leaving the empty caves as the only physical reminder of Ebling’s presence in the Bronx.

Meanwhile, the original Michel plant still exists. When Will Anderson visited the site in the 1970s, he observed that the newer Michel complex still boasted some painted lettering from its days as a brewery. (In the picture, it’s the little, yellowy building on the left of the Michel plant.)

On both street-facing sides of the building was lettering that read “EBC” (for the Ebling Brewing Co.), “That Grand Old Beer,” and “Since 1868.”

All trace of this lettering has long-since been removed.

The Leonhard Michel plant is currently empty.

Filed under: beer history, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Without Victory There Is No Survival

Pilsners, to me, are a distinctly summery beer, which is why I was happy to have a Victory Prima Pils on a recent September afternoon.

The Prima Pils from Downington, Pa.’s Victory Brewing Co. is brewed in the classic German style. Pilsners are a lager beer – historically stored in caves as a form of cold conditioning – that have a straw-like color and a nice but mild bite of hops with a refreshing finish.

Victory’s pilsner is all that and a little more. This pilsner has a 5.3 percent ABV and is double hopped to give it a sharper bite than most pilsners. The Prima Pils a strong-bodied pilsner that is full of flavor that fully embraces the pilsner style.

Pilsners often get a bad rap from craft-brew aficionados due, in part, to the proliferation of American-style pilsners such as Budweiser, Miller, and the like.

It was in the 1870s that pale lagers like Budweiser began to take hold in America, shifting tastes away from the heavy amber Bavarian beers. These new pilsners were made with corn or rice and were, at the time, more expensive to make than the all-malt beers – and these beers satisfied American beer drinkers more than any other beer. (The process for making them grew cheaper as time passed; at the time of their inception, though, it’s important to note that a Budweiser was actually an expensive beer to produce.)

These pilsners formed the backbone of the industrialization of the brewing industry. And as Maureen Ogle notes in her book Ambitious Brew, many local beers of the nineteenth century were made of poor quality and had an inconsistent, sour, or nonexistent flavor. It was Budweiser and its competitors who produced consistent-tasting beers at a high enough volume to break into markets throughout the U.S.

These sweeter-tasting beers came to dominate the market and thereby defined what a beer was to many beer drinkers.

But German pilsners always remained the same – Pilsner Urquell, Jever, and Spaten to name a few – retained that crisp bitter flavor without the sweetness. They’re mass produced in Germany and imported to U.S., sure, but the style is distinct from a Budweiser, which is a sweet, watery beer that doesn’t offend.

I always find it bold of craft brewers to take a shot at a pilsner. The style might not excite many hop enthusiasts. In my mind at least, the first thing I think of when I think about a craft beer is an amber-colored brew with a strong hoppy flavor and a rich, malty taste. While a golden pilsner seems like the antithesis of craft brewing. But it’s all about the ingredients and Victory doesn’t skimp on the Prima Pils.

And so with that said, when a craft pilsner works out – it’s a victory.

Filed under: beer history, beer reviews, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

When Schaefer Put the Lights Out

The F&M Schaefer Brewing Co. is America’s oldest lager brewing company. It was also the longest-running brewery in New York City, and the last to leave in the 1970s.

By the beginning of the 20th century, there were an estimated 50 breweries operating in Brooklyn, by the end of the 1970s – all of them would be gone.

Launched in 1842 by two German brothers – Frederick and Maximillian – Schaefer was originally based in Manhattan. Its first location was on Broadway between 18th and 19th Streets, while the second was uptown on Park Avenue (then known as Fourth Avenue) and 51st Street. In 1914, the brewery moved to 430 Kent Ave between South 9th and 10th Streets in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.

During Prohibition, Schaefer survived by brewing “near beer,” manufacturing dyes, and artificial ice at the Brooklyn plant. But once Prohibition ended in 1933, Schaefer hit New York City with a marketing blitz built around the motto, “Our hand has never lost its skill.” By 1938, Schaefer was one of the few breweries to produce over one million barrels of beer each year. By 1944 (a few years after its 100th anniversary), Schaefer was producing over two million.

By 1971, Schaefer had constructed an ultra-modern plant in Allentown, Penn. It was only a few years later that the company decided to shutter its Brooklyn plant as well as two other plants that were full of outdated machinery and were expensive to operate.

The breweries of Brooklyn were all shutting down by the 1970s. The last two to leave were Rheingold and finally Schaefer, who turned out the lights in 1976.

The building that housed Schaefer’s Brooklyn plant still exists. Here it is pictured in the 1970s from the book Breweries of Brooklyn by Will Anderson (photo by Karen Umminger), next to a photograph of the face of the building as it exists today.

Schaefer of the ’70s and today.

The lettering for the original F&M Schaefer brewery has been covered up by the new signage. Also lost is the logo featuring a barrel and a banner that reads “fine beers.”

There is a developer who has been working to convert the building into eighteen and twenty-four-story residential towers. The project has been stalled, but don’t count it out yet.

Some sign of the building’s former beer glory still exists.

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July 2020