Brooklyn Beer

Williamsburg, Brooklyn is now known among the city's hipsters as a good place to go out for a beer. What most people don't know is that the eastern part of Brooklyn was once one of the country's largest centers of beer-making.

A new exhibition tells that story, and WNYC's Alicia Zuckerman was there for the opening.

Two beers the lightest and the darkest

AZ: The exhibition at the Brooklyn Historical Society is named after the most repetitive of all school bus songs: One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall. And of course, the curators couldn't resist actually putting one hundred bottles of beer on the wall.

Bill Wander: Most of these bottles are embossed bottles the raised lettering, the designs, the logos, that was not for the consumer. That was for the bottler, that was to get the bottle back to the brewery. The bottles had a paper label on them.

AZ: Beer historian Bill Wander explains that some of these bottles were recovered from the Prospect Park Lake where people tossed them overboard decades ago.

In the 1800s, a major influx of German immigrants arrived in Brooklyn. They brought with them secret family recipes and a considerable appetite for beer.

Wendy Aibel-weiss co-curated the exhibition.

Aibel-weiss: There was a great sense of social gathering. It was very festive, beer was very important. The beer garden was very important. Some people were quite shocked that women went to beer gardens in the 1800s, but it was the community gathering spot. There were singing societies and oom-pah bands, poetry centers and it was a cultural center.

AZ: Trommers, Piels, Schaefers (the official beer of the Brooklyn Dodgers), they were all born in Brooklyn. Rheingold was the largest and longest-running of the Brooklyn breweries. Its factory took up 20 acres in the middle of Bushwick, right across the street from P.S. 145. Aibel-weiss says the location might well have been a boon for the teachers.

Aibel-weiss: Scores of years ago, all of the teachers were allowed to go to the Rheingold cafeteria and have a hot lunch for free, and they could drink all the beer they wanted on their lunch break. But I'm not sure how true that really is (laughs).

AZ: Over time, local breweries couldn't compete with the mass-marketing of brands like Budweiser and Miller, who could sell their beer for less. And by 1976, even Rheingold was gone. That was the end of brewing in Brooklyn until 1988, when a guy who was born in West Virginia opened the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg.

Today it's the only brewery in the borough of Kings (and the exhibition's main sponsor). Garrett Oliver has been the brewmaster that's like the chef of the brewery, he says for ten years.

Oliver: A good beer should be like a story, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. So I like something that starts with a certain kind of snappiness, plays through smoothly, and then has a nice aftertaste.

AZ: And, Oliver says, it should leave you wanting a few more pints.

For WNYC, I'm Alicia Zuckerman.

The exhibition opened this weekend at the Brooklyn Historical Society. An indoor beer gardens will feature live music on Friday nights through August.