Thursday, October 1, 2009

Awash in Beer History: Tapping into the Little Germanies of the 19th Century in New York and Brooklyn

Illustration: “A German Institution” Featured in, “Bowery, Saturday Night.” Harper's New Monthly Magazine, April 1871. New York, NY. p.679. Courtesy of Harper's Magazine on-line archives.

Today, a special guest-blog by Cindy VandenBosch, founder of tour company Urban Oyster and beloved former Tenementer.

The history of American brewing is usually associated with cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, but New York City's history is also awash in beer.

Germans flooded into New York starting in the 1840s, and they brought with them their taste for the beverage as well as their own techniques to brew it. By the end of the century, some of the country's largest brewers were located here in Manhattan and across the river in Brooklyn.

Breweries employed thousands of workers across the city, brewing millions of gallons of beer enjoyed by the city's residents. Germans brought two important innovations to the making and enjoyment of beer in America.

First, they brought a new style of beer – lager. Lighter than the ales and porters of this period, lager could also be stored for longer and transported farther, making it ideally suited for the American palette and the country's vast distances.

Second, they introduced a new way to drink beer – rather than swilling booze in dank saloons, Germans enjoyed their drinks in more social surroundings. Beer drinking was done at singing competitions, the theater, sporting clubs, and outdoor beer gardens or beer halls; it was rarely an end in itself. This practice soon spread to the rest of the American population, who began flocking to the gardens to drink beer among family and friends.

Atlantic Gardens
Celebrating the Capitulation of Sedan at the “Atlantic Garden.” Featured in, “Bowery, Saturday Night.” Harper's New Monthly Magazine, April 1871. New York, NY. p.679. Courtesy of Harper's Magazine on-line archives.

In 1864, just one year after Lukas Glockner opened up 97 Orchard Street to tenants, John Schneider published an official announcement in the German-language paper New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung to invite “friends and acquaintances as well as the honorable musicians” to the opening party for his new saloon, located in the basement of the tenement.

John Schneider's Official Announcement of the Opening of His Saloon:


Hotels and Wirtschaften
“The undersigned makes announcement to his fine friends and acquaintances as well as the honorable musicians, that he has taken over by purchase the saloon of Mr. Schurlein, 97 Orchard Street. Invited to the opening, Saturday, November 12th, with a superb lunch, respectfully.
John Schneider
97 Orchard Street”
While far smaller than the nearby Atlantic Gardens (see above), a massive palace-like establishment on the Bowery that opened its doors in 1858, Schneider's saloon bore little resemblance to the city's traditional barrooms. Women and children were a common sight, and the purchase of a beer included a free lunch, as was often the case in German-owned saloons.

Just a ferry ride across the East River and a three-cent train ride away, another John Schneider (no relation) was hard at work in Brooklyn's “German Town” - what is today the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick. This John Schneider was also in the beer business, perfecting his next lager recipe, training brewers, many of whom would go on to become beer barons in their own right, and operating a beer garden and hall adjacent to his brewery.

With the extension of the railroad line from downtown Brooklyn out to Bushwick and Williamsburg in the late 1850s, many more visitors could enjoy a day in the beer gardens of German Town for less than ten cents. The Brooklyn Daily Times declared about Schneider's hall in 1861,

“Schneider’s brewery is known far and near as the largest one making the best lager and having the jolliest, best-natured proprietor of any in this city. His gardens and his halle are also the largest, finest, and most aristocratic of any in the State. During the warm weather thousands daily visit them, lounge around, play billiards, listen to the sweetest of music and – drink lager of course.”
Schneider's business was so successful in those days that by 1870 his brewery, beer gardens, and hall had expanded to nearly an entire block, taking up 20 lots in the heart of a neighborhood that had over 300 saloons and more than 10 breweries at the time.

Today, only one building remains from John Schneider's old brewing business, but there are remnants of other breweries from that time period still standing (see below), as well as historic structures associated with beer drinking and the German community of the 19th century.

Once one of the city’s largest breweries, this 19th century brewery building still stands and is being used for recordings studios. Photo courtesy of Nathan Kensinger.

After a long absence, breweries and beer gardens have started to return to New York. No longer owned by German immigrants and their descendants, many establishments still try to reflect the city's rich brewing history.

For example, Brooklyn Lager, one of the most popular beers in the city, includes an old recipe from Brooklyn's pre-Prohibition days. Beer gardens serving fine craft beers and traditional German dishes (though the lunches are no longer free) are growing in popularity again – places like
Radegast Hall & Biergarten in Williamsburg and the Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens.

Just one year from now, the Tenement Museum will open an exhibit dedicated to telling the story of John Schneider's saloon within the context of the German immigrant community on the Lower East Side in the mid to late 19th century.

If you would like to learn more about the story of beer brewing in New York, both past and present, join us for our
Brewed in Brooklyn tour on Saturdays and Sundays between March and December.

This tour begins with a visit to the Brooklyn Brewery and a sampling of various beers on tap, and then we head over to the heart of the old Brewers Row in the eastern part of Williamsburg where we explore what it was like to live, worship, and work in the '”Little Germany” of Brooklyn in the mid to late 19th century.

Along the way, we visit a couple of mom and pop businesses and a beautiful church that was built by German immigrants; hear the stories of residents past and present; and, of course, taste some of the finest food and beer Brooklyn has to offer today. For more information and to make a reservation, please visit

Cindy VandenBosch is the co-founder of Urban Oyster, a company dedicated to creating tour experiences that explore the past and present of neighborhoods in New York City with an emphasis on local consumption and production, historic preservation, cultural diversity, and sustainability. She was formerly the Education Coordinator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

1 comment:

  1. Cindy, this is former Eldridge intern Stephen Baron. The atmosphere in the beer halls sounds like a blast! And I'm surprised that families went to them.

    Also, I read that German-Americans comprised about half of NYC's population c. 1900. Did they welcome other ethnic groups into the beer halls? And the story of Americanization includes Americanizing food -- was this the case with beers?


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