Over a century after New York City was considered a major player in the United States' beer economy, and many decades after The City’s last brewery closed, the craft beer industry is making a major comeback. With a focus on locally-sourced ingredients, community, and an eye for design, breweries in the New York City area are helping the region regain its reputation as a bonafide craft beer destination.
It’s been a decently long-held convention that if you want fine craft beer, you should head to states like Vermont, Wisconsin, California, or Colorado. But here’s something you might not know: The first commercial brewery in the United States was built by the Dutch West India Company in 1632 in Lower Manhattan¹.
New York City’s brewing history is older than the United States itself; beer had been brewed in the United States before the waves of settlers arrived, but the Dutch West India Company first established a commercial brewery - with beer brewed with barley - in the United States. The founding of that brewery kicked off New York City’s beer dominance that would remain for nearly three hundred years.
Americans imbibed regularly on the ale-style beers that British immigrants served in these early breweries, and in the 1840s, lager-style beer came to the United States with the wave of arriving German immigrants. With the arrival of German brewers and their already-established British counterparts, New York City brewing kicked into overdrive. From 1840 to 1900, New York State grew more hops than anywhere else in the country to meet the exploding demand². And by 1890, more beer was produced in Brooklyn than Milwaukee, Detroit, and the District of Columbia combined³.
Though the first commercial brewery was established in what eventually became the borough of Manhattan, it was Brooklyn that became home to the largest concentration of breweries. “For a while the beer flowed from Brooklyn like a broken spigot,” and the largest concentration of Brooklyn’s 45 breweries were on a street that eventually came to be known as Brewer’s Row⁴.
With at least 45 breweries at its peak, it seems hard to believe that New York City’s beer-market share could be threatened, but by the turn of the century, technology got the better of the industry. With more sophisticated beer bottling, refrigeration, and transportation methods, larger breweries were able to gain greater shares of the market. “By 1910, the number of Brooklyn-based breweries had shrunk to 31 .. and before the start of Prohibition there were 23”⁵. By the time prohibition made its way to New York City, most small breweries couldn’t handle the reduced consumption, and only 9 were able to reopen after Prohibition ended.
Within thirty years of the end of Prohibition, all of New York City’s breweries had closed, victims of dated technology and conglomerate beer giants with bigger market shares. A city that loves to drink was left without a brewery for decades.
It wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s that craft beer started to reappear in New York City. The (long-closed) Manhattan Brewing Company opened in Soho in late 1984, and two local power-houses, Brooklyn Brewery (founded 1988) and The Chelsea Brewing Company (founded 1995), have remained popular since their founding. “In many ways, we stand on their shoulders,” says Joshua Stylman, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Threes Brewing in Gowanus, Brooklyn told me over the phone. But despite their acclaim and the legendary status of both Brooklyn Brewery and the Chelsea Brewing Company, it wasn’t until recently that craft brewing really started to pick up. Save for a few outliers, most of NYC’s craft breweries were founded after 2010.
One of the major reasons breweries (and wineries and distilleries) in New York City and New York State have seen such growth recently is the development of laws designed to ease the pressure on small producers. A 2007 law gives tax incentives to brewers for using brewing ingredients that are grown in state. Farm Brewery licenses allow craft breweries to expand operations by opening restaurants or selling new products, as well as allowing beer to be sold directly from the brewery in their tap rooms. More recently, New York’s Governor Cuomo signed legislation authorizing craft breweries in the five boroughs to receive tax credits for every gallon they brew, up to 15 million gallons a year⁶.
It’s these laws that have allowed brewing in New York City to flourish: there are currently 30 breweries operating in the five boroughs, up from just six in 2011⁷. “The challenges of operating a brewery in New York City have also been the rewards,” Stylman confessed. Brewing in smaller cities or other states don’t come with the challenges of brewing in a densely populated, urban environment, but those complications are often outweighed by benefits that more rural areas don’t have. In New York City, you’re confined by extreme space restraints and high costs, but Stylman and team are lucky to be able to brew “in the neighborhood [where] we live,” which brings value to a neighborhood they already enjoy.
There’s also a lot of urban traffic which “makes it easy to get to the brewery,” Stylman says. Access by subway may not seem like such a novel idea, but if you’re able to get around for couple bucks on public transit, it allows beer lovers to visit more small, niche breweries (and save more money for beer). With concentrations of breweries neighborhoods in each of the five boroughs, New York City beer lovers can easily travel to discover new beers, something that’s not as easy in non-urban areas.
Stylman also sees New York City’s craft beer movement as an extension of the artisan food movement. “If you look at the beer world,” Stylman says, “it’s not a true bubble. Beer is an extension of the local food movement. Craft beer is just a component” In many ways, he’s right. Not only are the food-obsessed looking to consume food that is grown closer to home, but they’re looking for products that are also produced near home. And in a city with a well-defined food culture such as New York City, it only makes sense that local brewing fits right into that mix
One thing that I found interesting — while not a reason for New York City’s craft beer comeback — is a broader trend among some of New York City’s most beloved craft breweries: their markedly design-focused packaging. From bright colors, to unusual animations, to interesting drawings, many of New York City’s craft breweries are minding not only their beer, but also their branding. Stylman suggested that for Threes, “There are things we can do as a small brewery to stand out. We knew we didn’t want to look like other beer companies.”
But above all else, New York City breweries are brewing beer that's delicious, unique, and unusual. With many small breweries, we’ve moved away from standard offerings, to using multiple types of hops, adding fruit, or experimenting with different brewing processes. Small breweries allow for the type of experimentation that isn’t as available to large-scale breweries, and in a city like New York, there’s a bottle cap for every bottle, if you will, allowing for broader development in flavor options. Many breweries offer release events for new or limited varieties, resulting in fans traveling from out of state and long, overnight lines forming, all for the opportunity to try a boundary-pushing beer.
So where does the industry go from here? "I don't know," says Stylman. And in many ways there really is no way predict the future of this industry. New York City once dominated the beer scene, and the resurgence of this industry still seems so new that it's hard to think beyond the present. One thing I do know is that as long as NYC breweries keep producing exciting and innovative beers, New Yorker's will keep coming back. And that's something we can all drink to.
Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as the Global Email Marketing Manager at Global Citizen, and tries to travel as much as she can.