In the days of old, New York used to be called New Amsterdam, and it was a crazy trading port where all adventurers discovering the new world unleashed their energies and found solace in one of the first breweries in town. There were three as a start, in the middle of the 17th century, and their number reached more than a hundred as american pioneers from the biggest brewing nations, Germany, Ireland, UK, joined the new nation. The NYTimes tells the tale of hop and malt along the ages in the New York area: the “liquid bread” production in the area was the biggest in America by mid-nineteen century. At that time Brooklyn breweries were blooming, as water from Long Island was purer and abundant. Beer is indeed bound to water: the purity of the later is paramount, as Germans duly noted when they proclaimed one of the most enduring laws in history, Reinheitsgebot. Thus NY beer making thrived for more than two hundred years, before gently bowing to the rising Midwest mass brewing and reach a historic low in the 1970s. By then, the last New York brewery closed (note this didn’t happen through prohibition), before the notable revival of our age.
Indeed, what happened to food in general afflicted beer: faceless, tasteless mass production, in cans, with ads, loads of them, and efficiency ruled for decades, before people realised the bad taste. All indicators were negative in the 1980s: high concentration, with the ten biggest brewers doing nearly 94% of the brewing, cans and bottles overtaking draught beer by a similar proportion, and brands like Coors and Pabst booming (I took the numbers from an excellent article on beer statistics across the ages). Luckily you cannot fool people for too long, especially on such a subject, and by the turning of the century micro-breweries and inventive beer entrepreneurs were on the rise again.
In our days, where mass production and industrial efficiency are still the general rule, diversity has never been so striking, and small is beautiful comes back in fashion, especially when it comes to brews. Craft beer overtakes wine as the fancy drink in NYC, and beer gardens selling unique ales, or restaurants with a stunning choice of brews isn’t a rare sight.
In Brooklyn, beer has its temple: the Brooklyn Brewery. Set up in the 1980s in North Williamsburg by two white collar visionnaires, it has become a great success story and the proof that American beer is so much more than Bud. Which is hardly a beer.
Many other places boast an amazing choice of ales: the Radegast, a beerhall of its stature, is a good example of the beer cult, with its high wooden and glass ceilings and Prague-style ambiance, hidden in North Williamsburg backyard. Bearded locals overtaking the long bar, boasting a mid-nineteen century hairdo style, match perfectly this beer revival. Or check the Kent Ale House, with a stunning choice of draughts, changing as often as a capricious chef would change the daily menu, and with knowledgeable barmen who would talk beer flavors as easily as a sommelier would praise his wine list.
As a conclusion, ale power revival is a good sign of going local, getting (probably) more sustainable, putting away the everlasting price to quantity equation. But ales who thrived in the perfect climate of New York four centuries ago, and come back in force today, are fragile, and dependent on how nature evolves, and the long term outlook isn’t bright. Climate change affects beer, and water is not a finite resource. If we don’t take action, droughts may put a lasting end to draughts for real.
Thanks to Lorcan who inspired the subject of this post!