Originally created 05/16/04

Brooklyn and beer: A match made in 100 breweries



NEW YORK -- Raise a glass to Brooklyn, once home to more than 100 breweries, former producer of more beer than Milwaukee, the borough where Prohibition was greeted with a wink ... and an ice-cold draft.

Make a toast to William Johnson, who opened Brooklyn's first brewery back in 1822. Lift a mug for John F. Trommer, a 19th-century German immigrant renowned for his all-malt Brooklyn brew.

Strange as it seems, Brooklyn - famed for its churches, cemeteries and Coney Island's Cyclone - was once America's brewing capital. Business finally went flat in the 1950s, but the legacy remains.

"Brewing was one of the most important industries in borough history," Jessie McClintock Kelly, president of the Brooklyn Historical Society, said Wednesday in unveiling a new exhibit on the borough and its beer.

"100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" offers a "case study" of the borough's long history in the suds business. Long before the market was dominated by brewing giants such as Anheuser-Busch and Miller, breweries in Brooklyn were cranking out their own neighborhood brews.

In the 19th century, one section of the borough was known simply as "Brewers' Row" - a 12-block stretch that was home to 58 breweries, in what is now parts of Bushwick and Williamsburg. Many of the breakthroughs in brewing taken for granted today were conjured up right there.

-The Piels brothers were the first to introduce dark colored bottles, which kept the beer from spoiling in sunlight.

-The Rheingold brewery pioneered refrigeration technology.

-The Consumers Park brewery was the nation's first all-electric brewery. As a bonus, it also provided electricity to the neighboring homes.

And then there was Dr. Joseph Owades, a Brooklynite who developed the first light beer in 1967. He was a terrific brewmaster, but a lousy marketer.

"He named it Gablinger's, which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue," said Steve Hindy, current keeper of the Brooklyn brewing flame. "He didn't come up with 'tastes great, less filling.' And the beer ended up flopping."

Hindy, a former reporter, is president of the Brooklyn Brewery. He says the position carries a responsibility to the borough's long-closed breweries: Meltzer Brothers, Interboro, Otto Huber, Hittleman-Goldenrod, Joseph Fallet.

"The history of brewing in Brooklyn inspired me," Hindy said. Among his favorite Brooklyn tales: During Prohibition, the Excelsior Brewery was pumping bootleg beer through a pipe buried 20 feet underground into a neighboring garage.

The tap was eventually shut down, but federal officials never convicted the scheme's reputed mastermind - legendary gangster Legs Diamond.

The exhibit opens Friday, and runs through Oct. 15 at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Each Friday night through August the society will open an old-fashioned beer garden.

Hindy offered an explanation for the lack of respect accorded to Brooklyn's breweries.

"They called Schlitz the beer that made Milwaukee famous," he said. "New York was already famous. It doesn't need a beer to make it famous."