Today, the rise of craft beers is an undeniable phenomenon — with countless new breweries, festivals, and beer halls springing up in Brooklyn and beyond. But our borough’s love for artisanal brews is far from a recent fad.
By the end of the 19th century, the city of Brooklyn alone was home to 48 breweries. Many were smaller operations, creating what we might call craft brews, serving only a small population, or catering to specific pubs or beer halls. Others were huge, with block-wide brewery complexes. Together, all of them greatly contributed to the financial health of the city, provided hundreds of jobs and made their owners very wealthy men.
Today, brewery buildings are prized for their repurposing as housing. In the early 1900s, Bushwick — now known for its artsy industrial spaces and startup offices — had more breweries than any other part of Brooklyn. And although most of them are no longer standing, the land they stood on is today more valuable than ever — and sometimes controversial.
Here is the story of one of the largest, most nationally known breweries dominating Brooklyn’s golden age of beer — Liebmann’s Brewery, the maker of Rheingold beer — and how the 6.4-acre site has lately become a magnet for neighborhood controversy.
Brooklyn’s brewing traditions: The Liebmann Brewery
Ulmer’s, Trommers, Excelsior, Nassau, Consumer’s and Liebmann’s breweries: All were Brooklyn-based and among the largest in the New York City area. They were all owned or founded by German immigrants who began coming to America in the late 1840s, when the German states were embroiled in bloody civil wars.
The town of Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart, was home to a brewery and inn called Zum Stern. It belonged to Samuel Liebmann and his sons, members of a prominent Jewish family. The inn became a favorite gathering place for free-thinkers and revolutionaries — so when conflict erupted in 1850, and Zum Stern was banned, Samuel Liebmann and his family came to America.
They settled in Bushwick. Samuel and his three sons, Joseph, Henry and Charles, opened a brewery on the corner of Forest and Bremen streets. Charles was the family architect and engineer. His brother Henry became the master brewer, and Joseph was the financial manager. By the time Papa Liebmann died in 1872, the brewery was a solid success.
By the early 1900s, the third generation of Liebmann sons had taken over the brewery. Joseph’s daughter Sadie married Samuel Simon Steiner, one of New York’s leading hops importers. His family’s company is still in business today. With access to superior hops, Liebmann’s Brewery was able to grow even larger. By 1914, it was producing 700,000 barrels, or more than 21.7 million gallons of beer a year.
World War I and Prohibition were almost the kiss of death for Liebmann’s. Americans were not fond of anything with a German name during and after the war, and then Prohibition passed in 1920, curtailing the company’s production of beer. They limped through those lean years producing lemonade and “near beer.”
The introduction of Rheingold
When Prohibition was lifted in 1933, Liebmann’s Brewery began an ascent back into big-time production. Hitler’s persecution of Jews in Germany brought Dr. Hermann Schülein to America. His father had overseen the growth of two of Germany’s largest breweries in Munich, and Hermann joined them together under the Lӧwenbrau name. He joined Liebmann’s Brewery as manager, leading them to their greatest success: Rheingold beer.
The name had been coined in 1883, after a Metropolitan Opera performance of the Ring Cycle. The conductor, taken with the beer, held it up to the light and declared it the color of “Das Rheingold.”
Philip Liebmann, great-grandson of Samuel, and Hermann Schülein began marketing Rheingold to the New York public. Beginning in the pre–World War II years, the city of New York began to see and hear a new ad campaign for a new beer: Rheingold Extra Dry.
Accompanying the new brew was a new radio jingle, “My beer is Rheingold, the dry beer.”
Most important, they began the Miss Rheingold Contest, in which beer drinkers chose a pretty neighborhood girl to be Miss Rheingold for a year. She appeared in print, radio and TV ads, and made local appearances.
The contest lasted from 1940 to 1965. Over the years, millions of ballots were cast. Miss Rheingold was a city celebrity. The first Miss Rheingold was Spanish-born Jinx Falkenburg, a model and actress. She set a standard for the choice of elegantly coiffed and attired Miss Rheingolds for years to come.
Rheingold became the beer of working-class New York. At its height, it had a 35 percent market share in the city. The beer was produced at its Bushwick plant, which by now took up almost two city blocks of space. The original buildings had been augmented by annexes and additions, all built between 1854 and 1933.
Rheingold also had the support of the city’s minority communities. Rheingold was a regional sponsor of Nat King Cole’s groundbreaking variety show, when most advertisers shied away. They also featured black and Hispanic actors in their commercials as early as 1965. They were the official beer of the Mets, and featured Jackie Robinson, Sarah Vaughn, John Wayne and the Marx Brothers in their commercials and ads.
The end of a legendary beer — or was it?
But despite its huge popularity, Rheingold beer began losing its market when the large mega-breweries like Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors began nationwide marketing, driving many smaller regional beers out of business. In 1963, the Liebmann’s sold Rheingold to the Pepsi Bottling Company of New Jersey, owned by Seagrams Liquor owners, the Bronfman family.
The last bottle of Rheingold was sold in the New York area in 1978. The huge plant, which had provided so many jobs to Bushwick residents, was torn down in 1981.
In 1996, the dormant brand was resurrected for another go. Samuel Liebmann’s descendant Walter Liebmann was recruited, as was old-time Rheingold brewmaster Joseph Owades, and partners. The beer was brewed in Utica, N.Y., and was once again made the official beer of the Mets.
But with all of the nostalgia and hoopla, they were not able to connect with the huge 21-to-27-year-old demographic. They brought back the Miss Rheingold contest, but now, instead of crinolines, she was sporting tattoos and was marketed as “badass.” It failed to connect and the company was sold.
As of 2010, the new company, owned by the same people who made Trump vodka and Dr. Dre cognac, was set to relaunch. Rheingold, with a new formula, is still available in the metropolitan area at a limited number of places.
From brew house to housing
The Rheingold site also underwent a lot of changes in the early 2000s. A new, award-winning complex of affordable housing championed by State Assembly member Vito Lopez — including 62 multi-family dwellings, 30 condos, and two 93-unit apartment buildings — was completed at the former brewery site.
In the years that followed, Bushwick continued to grow in popularity and coolness.
In 2013, the City Planning Commission met to discuss a rezoning of the Rheingold site. Developer Read Property Group had an ambitious plan to put up a 10-building complex across five large city blocks. The mixed-use buildings would bring 977 new apartments to the neighborhood, 20 percent of them affordable housing. After negotiating that up to 30 percent, Councilwoman Diana Reyna and local housing advocates approved the rezoning.
But then Read sold a portion of the rezoned site for $53 million to Rabsky Group the next year. The community protested that Rabsky was under no obligation to follow through with the affordable housing component of the development.
Rabsky said in 2015 that it has every intention of including affordable housing in its developments, and Council Member Antonio Reynoso and community group Rheingold Construction Committee continued to protest.
One of Rabsky’s new rental buildings — designed by ODA New York and seemingly inspired by cliff dwellings — will have nearly 400 apartments, with 20 percent at the most recent count (not 30 percent) reserved for affordable housing. The building is quite modern, with storefronts along Monteith Street.
In September, Read Property Group sold another piece of its Rheingold land for $72.2 million to developer Yoel Goldman.
With acres of rezoned land yet to be developed at the former brewery complex, the site’s next chapter is only just beginning.
Remarkably, the history of the Rheingold site and Bushwick mirrors that of larger Brooklyn: An industrial powerhouse rich in working-class jobs gave way to a neighborhood defined by its publicly subsidized affordable projects. (Bushwick had more than usual, thanks to affordable housing champion Vito Lopez.)
Now, thanks partly to the drying up of federal funding for affordable housing, we are entering a new era of privately developed, for-profit mixed-income rentals in Brooklyn — bringing affordable housing and luxury apartments under one roof.
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