How Craft Beer Came to New York City

newamsterdam

The nation’s largest city is now in the delicious midst of its annual craft beer week, which, by dint of Gotham’s mammoth population as well as its 15 breweries and counting, has quickly become one of the biggest in the country. But how did craft beer make a beachhead in New York City and in all-important Manhattan in particular? Time magazine’s Anita Hamilton takes a stab at explaining it in terms of socioeconomics:

Until now, “New York has been considered kind of a wasteland for craft beer,” says Don Bryant, president of Hopunion, a major supplier of hops to the more than 2,000 craft brewers across the country. While some blame the high cost of real estate for the city’s laggard status when it comes to cultivating a craft beer culture of its own, others chalk it up to matters of class and culture.

Simply put: Beer, craft or otherwise, wasn’t high-end enough for Manhattan. It was wine and cocktails country. Which makes it all the more ironic that it was a wine aficionado who got New York’s craft-beer ball rolling.

By the early 1980s, Bronx native Matthew Reich was a clean-cut, thirty-something executive on the business side of Hearst Magazines in Midtown. He was also a budding wine expert, having discovered the allure of the grape on trips to France and eventually teaching wine-tasting classes at the Harvard Club, the Yale Club and the New School in Manhattan. He had also been hearing and reading about the craft beer coming out of the West Coast, particularly Fritz Maytag‘s epochal Anchor Brewery.

It gave Reich an idea.

He traveled to Boston—he had gone to the University of Massachusetts and had co-founded the Boston Food Co-operative in the early 1970s—to meet with Joseph Owades, the brewing consultant who would go on to advise such iconic craft names as the Boston Beer Co., but who then was best-known as the man who invented the formula for light beer; Owades had also once worked at the last New York City brewery to close, Rheingold in Brooklyn in 1976. Reich wanted Owades to help him devise the first craft brewery in New York City.

The physical aspect of that craft brewery would take time, Reich soon found—the commercial real estate costs of New York City were unlike just about anywhere else in North America. Still, at Owades’ suggestion, Reich reached out to F.X. Matt in Utica, 240 miles north of New York City, about a contract to brew what he called New Amsterdam (after the Dutch name for what the English rechristened New York).

“This is the dumbest idea I ever heard,” the formidable F.X. Matt II, head of the brewery his grandfather had founded in 1888, told Reich over the phone.

Nevertheless, Reich, with help from Owades, convinced Matt; and, by the summer of 1982, 7,000 cases of the New Amsterdam amber lager devised by Owades were ready for the streets of Manhattan. Reich hired some truck drivers; rented warehouse space in the Meatpacking District, at a time when it was really a meatpacking hub and not chock-a-block with nightclubs and people from New Jersey; and set about selling this strange, new concoction in a city that had been without local beer for years.

Reich hit upon a hugely influential sales pitch for New Amsterdam: New Amsterdam, he would tell retailers, the media and the individually curious, was “not for the six-pack drinker. It’s the beer to have if you’re having one. With dinner.” It was a deliberate inversion of the old Schaefer‘s slogan, “The beer to have when you’re having more than one,” and it helped set the tone for craft beer as something worthy of wine-like appreciation for decades to come.

Reich’s physical brewery and brewpub, at 26th Street and 11th Avenue, did finally open in May 1986, with Mayor Ed Koch pulling the ceremonial first tap. Both brewery and brewpub lasted but a few years, felled by those high costs of doing business in Manhattan. “How long do you think it takes to unload a truckload of malted barley in New York City?” Reich once asked Steve Hindy, who had come for advice about starting his own brewery across the East River (which became the Brooklyn Brewery). “It takes a lot longer than it does anywhere else.”

The fate of New Amsterdam notwithstanding, it’s possible to draw a straight line from oenophile Matthew Reich 30 years ago to the craft beer week in full swing right now. Cheers.

· New York’s Ale Awakening: How a Cocktail City Learned to Love Beer [Time]

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