The Brooklyn Growler

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

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 He passed away in 1926, a scant seven years before Prohibition would be repealed.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.

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Prohibition Ale: Speakeasies and Craft Beer

Before Prohibition, American brewery companies often purchased saloons in order to ensure that their beers were on tap. Saloons in the nineteenth century could be rowdy, unlawful places. Gambling, prostitution, grifting, crime – you name it, it probably went down in one of these wretched hives of villainy.

So after the first World War, as the Anti-Saloon League and temperance movement grew, these organizations could point to saloons as examples of how alcohol caused depravity, thus placing brewers at fault and eventually helping to cause the sale of alcoholic beverages to be prohibited by law. (The now-defunct Brewing Techniques has a great history of Prohibition that’s worth a read.)

But, Prohibition (also known as the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act) didn’t prevent people from drinking. If anything, it made them drink more. Speakeasies opened up around the U.S. in the early-20th century to serve alcohol made at illegal distilleries and breweries. Weirdly, a lot of the illegal booze came from Canada and was shipped to the Midwest, specifically to Detroit and Chicago, two cities where the gangster Al Capone controlled liquor distribution.

Before Prohibition many lagers and bocks were popular both with brewers and drinkers. These beers were known for their rich flavors and high ABVs. But during the thirteen dark years of Prohibition, a new generation of beer drinkers grew up on soda and other sugary drinks.

So when beer production kicked back into business, the breweries that had toughed out Prohibition were confronted with people who didn’t want the old hoppy bitters of yesteryear and instead wanted something lighter. Much less, once free to produce and distribute beer again, the large industrial brewers still in existence flooded the market with their beers. Hence, the industrialized, mass marketed, watery domestic that we all know and love to bash. (For more info on the history of industrial brewing in America, I highly recommend reading Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.)

A beer that has happily pounced on the notion of Prohibition and the edgy glamor of the speakeasy is Prohibition Ale brewed by San Francisco’s Speakeasy Ales & Lager. The bottle even has some shifty eyes on its neck. It’s a cute presentation. Prohibition Ale

Other beers from Speakeasy (past and present) have included a Bootlegger Black Lager, Public Enemy Pils, Molls Mild, the Mickey Finn Imperial Red Ale, and the Untouchable.

This is a nice and smoky beer, with an amber color and a really thick head. It’s definitely made by some hop fanatics as there are some nice floral and bitter notes going on as well. It reminded me somewhat of a Bass Ale, except with more bite. It’s still very smooth and drinkable.

After Prohibition many breweries were forced to shut down and their recipes were thus lost. That why whenever a craft brewer comes across a pre-Prohibition recipe, they are quick to recreate the beer using traditional techniques. As near as I can tell, Prohibition Ale is not one of these beers. It’s a new recipe, made in a contemporary style but one that looks back to the sweet and flavorful American lagers that went extinct during Prohibition.

The result is a really nice beer – very drinkable, very refreshing, very complex flavor profile – and it’s worth tracking down. The marketing is a little silly.

Speakeasy’s beers can be found in some select locations in New York. You can find bottles at saloons like the Fourth Avenue Pub, the Keg and Lantern, Toast, and at Tom Colicchio’s Craftbar. The Prohibition Ale is also available at retailers, such as Grab Specialty Foods.

Pictured at the top of this post is the Anti-Saloon League in San Francisco. Historically, the Anti-Saloon League was one of the organizations that led the way for Prohibition. Pay no attention to the sign, though. This is actually the location of the faux-speakeasy Bourbon & Branch. We’ve come a long way.

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