A look at Brooklyn, then and now.
Beer helped make Brooklyn. Beer also enabled the German American community in Bushwick, Williamsburg and beyond become the most successful immigrant group in New York. At its peak, at the turn of the 20th century, Brooklyn was called the beer brewing capital of the country, with over fifty breweries in the borough, half of them in Bushwick alone. The two by seven block stretch of Bushwick, between Scholes and Meserole Streets and Bushwick Place to Lorimer Street was called “Brewer’s Row,” with twelve breweries on that stretch of land alone. As Bushwick’s blocks filled up with buildings, later breweries began appearing in other neighborhoods, in part because they couldn’t fit in Bushwick, but mostly because outlying neighborhoods presented more space for growth, and for some, new local customers.
The brew of choice in Brooklyn was lager beer. The Germans introduced lager to America in the 1840s and 50s, when they began immigrating here in large numbers, and the frothy brew was welcomed like water to parched throats. Lager beers are bottom fermented. The yeast sits on the bottom of the tanks and does its magic at lower temperatures, in a process that takes about six to ten days. Before lagers came to the US, beer had been top fermented, in the English manner, which did not depend on cold. The yeast rose to the top of the barrel in a process that took about five to seven days, and produced stouts, ales and porters. Lagers are a lighter beer, with a very different taste, and in no time, they became the most popular beers in the city, as popular with non-Germans as with German Americans.
The Excelsior Brewing Company was one of the later breweries to come out of this tradition. The first Bushwick breweries were built in the 1850s, this brewery, as shown in the older photographs, wasn’t built until the 1890s. The company was founded, at least in part, by John Reisenweber, a well-known restaurateur and hotel man. In 1856 he opened Reisenweber’s at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, a restaurant that soon became one of the city’s best known popular dining institutions. He followed that up by establishing the Hotel Shelbourne, one of the great giant resort hotels on Brighton Beach, and then the Excelsior Brewing Company. The brewery went public by the late 1890s, and was offering stock. Reisenweber was president for many years, then handed it over to others.
According to a 1904 map, the Excelsior Brewing Company took up most of the center of the block of Pulaski Street, between Throop and Sumner (Marcus Garvey) Avenues, in the northeastern part of what is now Bedford Stuyvesant. The complex had the main factory, ice house, bottling plant, office and stables. At least one part of the plant had been designed by an architect named P. Bradner, out of Manhattan. As Excelsior grew, they also operated another plant on Hart St. in Williamsburg.
In 1906, Excelsior was one of seventeen breweries that consolidated into the Breweries Bond and Securities Company, a publically held stock. This consolidation created the largest brewery concern in the world. Each brewery still operated independently, but the consolidation enabled them to expand their markets, and offered saloonkeepers the opportunity to be sign up and be serviced by this conglomerate.
The Excelsior Brewery made the news a couple of times for all the wrong reasons. On two separate occasions, two different drivers killed a pedestrian on the street with their delivery wagons. The first time a little girl was killed, the second an adult man. In its early days, Excelsior also spent some time in court defending itself in a law suit brought by another brewery. Excelsior was accused of stealing customers. The outcome was unclear. Local papers loved to cover this stuff, but they were bad at following up on the results.
However, brewery stories tend to have similar endings because of one thing – Prohibition. After beer and other liquor were made illegal in 1920, Excelsior, like several other breweries, made a switch to near-beer, and began bottling other beverages, but it wasn’t the same. By 1923, the company was offering its large plant for sale, for use as another manufacturing concern, or as a storage facility. There were no takers.
The plant limped on, still making what the government called “cereal beverages containing not more than one and one half percent alcohol,” or what the manufacturers and the public called “near-beer.” But was that all they were doing? In 1926, government agents found a pipe coming out of a garage across the street from the brewery. It was traced back across the street to the brewery, where it was attached to tanks making real beer.
According to local legend and newspaper reports, “Legs” Diamond, the notorious Depression era gangster and bootlegger, was in charge of this little operation. The beer was piped into kegs in the garage, and then distributed right under the noses of the authorities. The government took away Excelsior’s license, but had to give it back when it could not be determined who authorized or was running the operation. Plant officials claimed they knew nothing about it, and it could not be proved that they did. They had no proof to charge anyone anything, and had to drop the case.
In 1932, after Prohibition finally ended, so too did the Excelsior Brewing Company. On the financial rocks for many years, they finally found a buyer for the plant. From 1932 to 1938, the plant became the Kings Brewery Company. After Kings went belly up, the buildings seem to have been abandoned. Anything that happened near or in there was always referred to as “Kings Brewery.” They were the second, and the last owners. The abandoned site became notorious as a gang hangout for kids during the late 1940s.
The entire Excelsior Brewery Complex was torn down sometime in the 1950s. In 1960, the Parks Department and the Board of Education acquired the site and built a playground for PS 304. The playground was expanded and renamed the Pulaski Playground; named, like the street, for Casimir Pulaski, the Polish-born general and hero of the American Revolution. Today, only an occasional bottle or promotional tray from the old Excelsior Brewery remains, up for auction on line, a piece of memorabilia for one of Brooklyn’s great breweries. GMAP