Old School Brewing in Brooklyn

In 1900 Leavey & Britton were among some 50 breweries in Williamsburg and Brooklyn, New York. A 1923 letter in the Brooklyn Standard-Union listed almost all, in a memorial spirit.

By then it was Prohibition, and the writer wished he had sampled more variety than he had. We don’t know what we have ’til it’s gone, as the truism has it.

According to One Hundred Years of Brewing (1903) the brewery started in 1842 as the Johnson Brewery at Front and Jay Streets. Some accounts have the origins in 1830, see the  Old Breweries timeline. An image appears here via Brooklyn Public Library.

Later the brewery operated as Leavey & Kearney. From 1877 Britton, a New York banker, intervened, taking sole control with his sons after Leavey died in 1887.

Britton’s two sons both died in the 1910s and the brewery closed after bankruptcy in 1911.

J.P. Arnold’s History of the Brewing Industry and Brewing Science in America (1933) records that in the 1890s the business had installed a lager facility.

For this reason, I suspect the inability to make brilliant ale was not itself the reason for its demise. I turn now to focus more on how the ales were made, a picture of which is handed down to us via a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article of December 1884. It lays out the classic lines of pre-brilliant ale, pre-refrigeration, ale-brewing in America.

Leavey & Britton were among the larger of the Brooklyn breweries, a minority of which still produced ale, but all ale-brewers before about 1900 operated in a similar way: infusion mashing, fairly long boiling, open air wort-cooling later supplemented by a heat-exchanging cooler, top-fermentation, and unrefrigerated storage in wood.

Matthew Leavey explained his ales further for the journalist: the stock variety was aged three months to a year. The new ales, from three weeks to a month. His cream ale was “rich” and “nutritious”, due evidently to retaining a good proportion of unfermented extract.

The article gives a floor-by-floor description of the red brick brewery with dimensions of its aging vats, mashing capacity, boil times (2-3 hrs.), and annual production (60,000-70,000 bbl/yr, a high point from our review).

Fermentation was eight to 10 days for the younger ales but up to 15 days for some stock ale, probably to attenuate well his India Pale Ale.

He claimed the cream ale was “Scotch” in style. This is probably because, as I discussed in recent articles in Brewery History, Scottish “sparkling” ale was a premium import type in America then. The nomenclature “sparkling” and presumably the fizzy, rich nature of this beer seem to have influenced a range of American ales variously styled golden, cream, and sparkling.

Those American beers had their own nature and classification* but as ever, the lure of the import is strong. American brewers often sought to lend cachet to their productions by a foreign reference, just as today New England-style I.P.A. can be found wherever craft brewers roam.

Despite the best efforts of American ale producers their market declined in the period leading up to WW I, even in former strongholds like upstate New York. The reason is, the beers simply did not offer, when all was said and done, the quality of lager.

The following paragraph, from a 1906 article on top-fermentation brewing in American Brewers’ Review (via HathiTrust), explained why:



From a connoisseur’s viewpoint, nothing can beat a well-kept brew of the older style despite such dismissal in a respected tribune of American brewing. How to explain the dichotomy? I can’t really. Perhaps the American hops then lent the beers, even at their best, the “execrable” taste mentioned.

Many are the accounts, as I’ve discussed earlier, that attribute ill tastes to American hops, e.g., aloes, garlic. And they were used in quantity in American ale which to boot usually was drunk warmish, certainly the barrelled staple in the saloons.

Less hops was used in lager-brewing, and all lager was served cold which would diminish any objectionable taste. Moreover, fine European varieties were often added to American lager, Saaz, or Hallertauer, say, a practice not as frequent it seems for American ale.

Finally though I think the Zeitgeist, an appropriately German term in this context, had its result. Once fashion deems you out of touch, whether a beer, wine, food type, anything in gastronomy, you are, well, out of Schlitz(!)

That’s what happened to old-fashioned ale-brewing in America by 1906. The tradition continued in altered form – the brilliant or sparkling ale lauded in the above article. It’s a form that continues to this day and partly influenced craft brewing, but the older still or flat ales, as termed in American practice, were history by WW I.** Cream ale, for its part, finally merged with the brilliant ales to make any distinction bootless.

Fortunately, the small brewery revival that took root in the 1970s ensured the survival of cask-conditioned ale in the U.K., and its return to a North America long innocent of its existence.

Note: Source of image(s) above is identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Fleming’s Golden Ale though in Albany, NY had more connection to Scottish brewing doctrine. I showed this in my article “Fleming’s Golden Ale” in said journal last year.

**I documented earlier one of two isolated cases of an attempt to bring back still ale after Prohibition, but by all evidence it fell, well, stillborn.



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