After months of planning and weeks of preparing and hours of research, it was time. The media had been alerted, the blogs had been hollering it from the rooftops, the various bicycle, beer and history-geek communities had re-tweeted the bejeezus out of it. It was time for the Bike Brooklyn Beer Blitz!
Contrary to popular belief, the Bike Brooklyn Beer Blitz is NOT an excuse to pound a six-pack and then ride wobbly through the streets of Brooklyn. Rather, it’s a descriptive & illustrated tour, via bicycle, of the neighborhoods of Williamsburgh and Bushwick, focusing on the architecture and history of the long-faded German brewing community.
At the very end of the 19th century, Brooklyn was home to more Germans than any other city in America. This is thanks to ethnic strife and an 1848 political upheaval, in which 1.5 million Germans moved to America between 1840 and 1860. 200,000 of them settled in NYC, with most of them in BK.
And they brought BEER! Germany in the 1800s was not one unified country but a gathering of smaller nation-states with their own styles and brewing traditions. It was much like today’s Chinatown, where one can taste Szechuan, Hunanese, Fujianese and Tawainese within 4 blocks; an intrepidly thirsty soul could travel from block to block in North Brooklyn and have wildly varying beers at each brewery – double bocks, hefeweisens, kolschs, lagers and pisners. In 1898 Brooklyn had a grand total of 48 breweries – more than Detroit, DC and Milwaukee combined! Beer was also not nearly as alcoholic as the stuff we quaff today, so everyone drank it, and drank a lot of it. In 1907, Brooklyn had 1.5 million residents, and the 40-odd breweries that existed brewed 2.5 million barrells of beer. Thats 2 barrels of beer for every man, woman and child in Brooklyn!
Sadly, history has not been kind to the Brewers. You had the General Slocum disaster of 1904 (a steamship explosion which killed 1,021 victims, mostly German women and children,) World Wars 1 and 2, and Prohibition in-between. Add to that Eisenhower’s America of the 1950s, in which it was de rigeur to enjoy mass-produced beers shipped via mechanically refrigerated trains. Local beer manufacturing couldn’t compete with breweries which had massive real estate outside of NYC, which meant volume, cheaper costs, less labor problems and more money for advertising. In March of 1976 legendary Brooklyn breweries Schaefer and Rheingold closed within one week of each other.
So our tour aims to celebrate the history of these intrepid brewers and their boisterous community by rolling through Brooklyn and stopping to look at various brewery buildings, a dozen of which are still standing. Each has obviously been repurposed as artist lofts or Chinese dumpling factories or privately owned mysteries, but they look just like they did when they were built, whether in 1868, or 1896, or 1904. Thanks to the awesomeness of the Ipad, Blitzers could compare a sketch from the 19th century with a photo from the 1970s with today’s building.
Of course, it would be a travesty if we just talked about beer for 3 hours without having any, so mid-tour’s bar stop at Matt Torrey’s fit the (mash) bill, for a beer. And the tour ended at Evergreen Cemetery to celebrate the Brewer’s Row of Mausoleums, with a special surprise waiting for us. What was the surprise? You’ll have to take the tour to find out! Cheers! To Beers!
By Matt Levy