From Boom to Bootlegging: The Excelsior Brewing Company of Bedford Stuyvesant

Images via the Brooklyn Public Library

The Excelsior Brewing Company of Bed Stuy was not the best, biggest, or most well known of Brooklyn’s historic breweries, but it did have one of the strangest schemes to survive Prohibition. Unfortunately, Excelsior got caught.

At its beer-brewing peak in the early 1900s, Brooklyn was the country’s brewery capital, with more than 50 breweries in the borough — half of them in Bushwick alone. When Bushwick got too tight, breweries began setting up shop in roomier nabes — like Bed Stuy.

Lager was the city’s brew of choice.

The Germans introduced lager to America in the 1840s and ’50s, when they began immigrating here in large numbers. In no time, lager became the most popular beer in all of New York.

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 10 days. Before lagers came to the U.S., beer had been top fermented in the English manner, producing stouts, ales and porters.

But lager had a lighter, more appetizing taste.

The Excelsior Brewing Company was the brainchild of a master hotelier.

The Excelsior Brewing Company was one of the later breweries to come out of the Brooklyn-German tradition. Built in the 1890s, the company was founded by well-known restauranteur John Reisenweber — creator of one of the city’s most popular dining institutions, Reisenweber’s at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, and one of the greatest Brighton Beach resorts, the Hotel Shelbourne.

He decided to parlay his previous successes into a brewery. By 1900, the Excelsior Brewing Company went public and was offering stock, with Reisenweber as president.

The brewery was enormous — almost an entire Bed Stuy block.

According to a 1904 map, the brewery took up most of the center of the block of Pulaski Street, between Throop and Sumner (Marcus Garvey) avenues.

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 opened another plant on Hart Street in Williamsburg.

Excelsior joined one of the largest brewery concerns in the world.

In 1906, Excelsior was one of 17 breweries that consolidated into the Breweries Bond and Securities Company. This consolidation created the largest brewery concern in the world — their powers combined, the company was almost unbeatable.

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 brewery made headlines a couple of times — for all the wrong reasons.

On two separate occasions, 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.

Excelsior also spent some time in court defending itself against accusations of stealing customers from another brewery. Did they win the suit? We just don’t know. Local papers loved to cover this stuff, but they were bad at following up on the results.

And then came Prohibition.

In 1920, beer and liquor became illegal. Excelsior, like several other breweries, made the switch to “near beer” — a low or nonalcoholic substitute. But it didn’t have the same popularity.

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 brewery limped on, still making what the government called “cereal beverages containing not more than one and one half percent alcohol.”

But that wasn’t all they were doing. In 1926, government agents found a mysterious pipe coming out of a garage across the street from the brewery. Its origin was traced to the Excelsior plant, where it was attached to tanks making real beer.

A bootlegger was in cahoots with Excelsior. Or was he?

According to local legend and newspaper reports, this little operation was the work of “Legs” Diamond — a notorious Depression-era gangster. He piped the beer from Excelsior into kegs in the garage across the street, and then distributed the brew 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 nobody could prove that they did. The authorities had to drop the case.

1948 photograph, showing abandoned brewery. Brooklyn Public Library

1948 photograph, showing abandoned brewery. Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

The Excelsior Brewing Company closed in 1932 — just before the end of Prohibition.

On the financial rocks for many years, the company finally found a buyer for the plant.

From 1932 to ’38, the Kings Brewery Company operated out of the buildings. But after Kings went belly up, everything seems to have been abandoned. During the late 1940s, the site became a notorious gang hangout for delinquent youth.

The entire Excelsior Brewery Complex was torn down sometime in the 1950s and about a decade later was acquired by the Parks Department and Board of Education. It became a playground for P.S. 304 — the Pulaski Playground — named 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 online, a piece of memorabilia for one of Brooklyn’s great breweries.

Pulaski Playground. Googlemaps

Pulaski Playground. Photo via Google Maps

1904 map. New York Public Library

1904 map. Photo via New York Public Library

This story has been edited and updated since its initial publication.

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