The Bronx: a bucolic oasis laden with history, a suburb within city-limits, an urban warzone, and thanks to the recent renaissance, a phoenix of progress rising from the proverbial ashes whence it burned. Literally, burned. But many people are unaware that the Bronx also brewed.
Uncovering the brewing industry of the Bronx not only tells the story of the lost industry, but it also communicates the narrative of the development of the Bronx. The brewers were German immigrants who developed a thriving industry by taking advantage of the natural landscape and the modernizing infrastructure.
The modernization of the Bronx helped the industry of local brewers thrive, but it was also the catalyst of what brought the industry to the Midwest. Ultimately, it was Prohibition that killed it.
The Bronx was Brewing: A Digital Resource of a Lost Industry explains the industry through summaries and photo-essays on Immigration and Industrialization, Failure and Renaissance, including scores of historical maps, original and archival photography, statistics, and illustrations.
There were several reasons why the brewing industry was successful in the Bronx. Prospectors were attracted to the cheap land, thus, beckoning pioneering manufacturing businesses that did not require a lot of investment capital. The modernizing transportation systems linked the Bronx to Manhattan making the area prime real estate for an industrial center; the rail and waterways provided access to the hops and barley being farmed in upstate New York. Scientific development in protecting raw materials and water, and the Bronx also benefited the Bronx breweries. The era’s surplus capital enabled entrepreneurs to make risky but rewarding business risks. And of course, the Bronx provided a huge inventory of immigrant laborers.
For much of the nineteenth century, beer was deemed a lot safer to drink than water. For most Americans, alcohol, and especially beer were a reliable beverage, clear of the pollutants found in local wells. Urban water supplies were often unsafe and could spread diseases such as cholera. Before modern sewer systems were implemented contaminants from local businesses and people’s home were dumped in lakes and rivers. Thus, even children would drink beer as the distillation process killed the germs found in the polluted water.
The Bronx’ geography was perfect for the lager fermentation and industry. Surrounded by fertile land, creeks, canals, rivers, rails, (and later, elevated subways) with a ridge perfect for the cave fermented lager, the German brewers could cart in clean Adirondack water on the Croton Aqueduct, ice from local lakes and ponds and grain from upstate New York.
New York City became one of the country’s largest brewing centers. The majority of these early breweries were in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but they were also in the Bronx where the German immigrants settled; one would not know this by reviewing historical archives –they rarely mention the Bronx, and when they do, it is listed as “New York” because Morrisania was the annexed district of New York, while the rest of the borough was still Westchester.
Digital Bronx resources are few and far between; research on the Bronx is scattered, incomplete, or miscategorized. The Bronx is often an afterthought within New York’s local historical archives when compared to Manhattan and Brooklyn. Even recent mapping projects for New York City ignore the Bronx breweries. Thus, researching the Bronx Breweries is a slow process. Unless you can tell the difference between Third avenue, NY and Third avenue, (with an invisible) “Bronx, New York”, one would not know which was being described as “an important brewing center”. The Bronx Was Brewing views the rise of the Bronx through its beer culture and why it was a catalyst in the evolution of the city and its drinking habits. By beginning with where they were, we can learn how the Bronx, for a time, became part of the lager capital of the world.
Two common threads can be found while researching New York sources: beer is always mentioned, and The Bronx often doesn’t even make it to the index.
By utilizing a multi-disciplinary approach to Bronx history, one can track the changing tastes in, and culture of, Bronx beer, from the evolution of the lager industry, to the failure caused by Prohibition, to the Bronx of today.