Brooklyn Lager – A Taste of History

Having enjoyed a glass of Brooklyn lager on draft in France recently, I sought out a can of Brooklyn lager here to test and compare. The canned one was brewed in New York, I assume in Utica at F.X. Matt Brewing Company where Brooklyn Brewery has long made the bulk of its production until its planned large-scale brewery in Staten Island, NY (or possibly elsewhere per last press reports) is up and running.

Brooklyn Brewery is a pioneering, East Coast craft brewer which first marketed its contract-made brews in the late 1980s. Later, some draft production was supplied from the company’s small showcase in Brooklyn, NY.

According to the website, this is the origin of the lager recipe:

… Steve [Hindy] and Tom [Potter] commissioned fourth-generation brewmaster William M. Moeller, a former head brewer at Philadelphia’s Schmidt Brewery, to brew Brooklyn Lager at the FX Matt Brewery in Utica, New York. Moeller pored over the brewing logs of a grandfather of his who had brewed in Brooklyn at the turn of the last century to develop a recipe for Brooklyn Lager. The result was an all-malt lager beer with a tangy aroma created by “dry-hopping,” an age-old technique of adding hops during the maturation process to create a robust aroma. Brooklyn Lager made quite a splash in the 1980’s beer scene in New York City, dominated by the light, rice and corn lagers sold by Budweiser, Miller and Coors.

It was interesting to read this, as when I tasted the beer in France, brewed under license by Carlsberg in Denmark, I immediately thought of my research on the main form of 19th century American lager. It was malty, reddish-brown, hoppy, exactly like Brooklyn lager. This form of lager preceded the paler, Bohemian type which became the template for American adjunct lager. In retrospect, one can see it was a bridge from the pre-1850 top-fermentation days to the new, German-influenced era.

To read this morning the beer was in fact inspired by a c. 1900 brewing log makes perfect sense, everything ties together. I had been aware that Sam Adams lager was inspired by a 19th century recipe, and broadly it shows the traits the research disclosed, but I hadn’t known that Brooklyn brewery’s lager had similar roots.

I’ll admit when I first tasted the beer around 1990, I didn’t like it and didn’t favour the other productions of the brewery either, in any form – bottled or draft. To me, the beers were just not “on”, something wasn’t right. Obviously the market as a whole liked them and the company grew. It now makes a baker’s dozen brands year-round with seasonal specialties and one-offs. Indeed it is reaching overseas with distribution and contract brewing help from the likes of Carlsberg.

So why did I enjoy that beer in France, and the canned one last night no less? (They were virtually identical in character).

I think the beer improved, frankly. It’s probably been that way for some time, but I hadn’t revisited it in a long time due to my initial reactions.

It is my experience that the craft breweries who stay in business generally improve their products unless they are pitch-perfect on release, as Sierra Nevada’s beers were, for example, or Anchor Brewery’s since the 1970s. Few breweries get it right right off the bat though. Time often has a way of bettering the product as the brewer learns with experience, better technical resources, more capital, etc.

In fact, I now recall that I had a glass of the Brooklyn lager at the Dominion pub on Queen Street last year. I liked it a lot and made a mental note to buy it again but forgot later in the general hubbub of the beer scene/beer business. I’m sorry now I didn’t try the East India Pale Ale in Paris when I had the chance – it was on draft in a couple of places, too.

But I’ll catch up with it somewhere before long.