The Good Old Days of Beer in New York
Historians can and do argue which is the oldest bar in New York City but they all agree that
beer was always an integral part of life in the former New Amsterdam. Indeed, as early as 1612
New York was able to boast that it was the only city in American that had three flourishing,
commercial breweries. One, owned by the Governor of the state, Otto Van Twiller, was actually
erected very near the site of the present NY Stock Exchange. The good Governor was a
hands-on owner known far and wide as someone who, if nothing else, was his own best
customer. According to one newspaper account of the day, “our Governor is the foremost
drunkard of the colony” which was perhaps one reason he served for over a decade to great
Although partial to beer, Governor Van Twiller was also fond of other kinds of drink. One day,
his friend CorneliusVan Voorst, received a cask of wine from the relatives in England. Van
Twiller and two companions immediately set out in a rowboat for Van Voorst’s home on one of
the islands in the Upper Bay. It didn’t take long for the thirsty visitors and gracious host to
empty the cask, swearing oaths of eternal friendship with their final glass. As the Governor’s
party left, an emotionally moved Van Voorst looked about for a fitting way to show his devotion
to his departing comrades. Then suddenly true inspiration struck. He would fire a salute from
the large cannon that guarded his island dock. He quickly loaded the artillery and a
thunderous blast shattered the quiet of the Bay. But, as Van Voorst waved proudly to his
friends, wadding from the gun dropped on his house. In minutes it was nothing more than a
simmering pile of embers. The fire was duly reported in the newspaper as one of “sad
consequence from unavoidable circumstance.” Left unsaid was the moral lesson of the event –
forget the wine and stick with beer.
As generation succeeded generation in New York, the number of breweries multiplied.
But two New York brewers stood out among the rest in the city and indeed, from the rest in the
young nation. They were George Ehret and Jake Ruppert.
Most beer historians consider George Ehret the first great brewer in America. Ehret came to
New York in 1857 armed with an impressive knowledge about brewing thanks to intense training
in his homeland of Germany. He found work at a local brewery and rose to the position of head
brewer. A frugal man, he soon saved enough money to eventually buy the brewery.
Ehret’s goal was to make a beer in America that was a match for his beloved Munich lager.
Using water from a self-drilled 700 foot artesian well he produced Franziskaner. It proved to be
an instant hit despite the fact that lager was a beer style not yet common in the US. In his first
few months of production Ehert sold 34,000 barrels, a large amount for a new beer. Customers
found that the crisp, flavorful lager went well with the extensive free lunch of sandwiches,
sausages, cheese and pickles, that came with their beer purchase at most of the city’s taverns.
It was truly a good time for brewer and customer.
Ehret’s beer, as was true of most beers of the time, was dispensed only in bars, directly from
the keg. During the summer months the demand for Franziskaner was so great that city pubs
were hard pressed to keep their supply chilled. In an era before refrigeration their solution was
to build large ice tanks directly on the bar. The heavy kegs of beer were hoisted up by teams
of bartenders and carefully placed in the tank. Many establishments even went so far as to hire
special “Franziskaner tenders,” teams of youths whose sole job was to replace the quickly
emptied kegs. Keeping beer ice cold was hard, hot work.
With sales nearly doubling every other year Ehret plowed his profits back into the business and
built a huge new brewery that sprawled over 75 city lots. He had become the acknowledged
leader in the beer business. His reign however only lasted until bottled beer became popular.
It was his rival, Adolphus Busch, who was the first to see bottling as the future of beer. Bush’s
foresight would lead to his ultimate domination of the beer business and a national consumer
base. For his part, Ehret steadfastly refused to ever install a bottling department in his
brewery. Good brewer, bad forecaster.
By the end of the 19th century Ehret’s annual production of 600,000 barrels made him the
second largest brewer in America, behind only Busch’s one million. However closing fast on
Ehret was his fellow New Yorker, Jake Ruppert.
Jake Ruppert was born in NY in 1842, son of immigrants from Bavaria. His father, Franz, owned
a small brewery on the west side of Manhattan. Jake began working there as a child absorbing
everything he could about business and brewing. By the age of twenty he was confident
enough in his knowledge to ask his father’s permission to start his own brewery. The answer
of course was yes, and brewing history was to be made.
Jake bought a piece of property, ironically within blocks of Ehret’s, and built a tiny fifty square
foot building. It was there that he made his first batch of beer. He aptly christened the
structure The Jacob Ruppert Brewery. In his first year he sold just over 5,000 barrels, making
his fledgling business a success. Always proud of that first year’s production, Jake later was to
often brag to his own son, “Jacob, my ambition was to sell 5,000 barrels of beer in a year and I
did it!” “Pop”, young Jake is reported to have answered after hearing the boast once too often,
“My ambition is to sell 5,000 barrels of beer a day!”
Jake’s sales rose steadily every year due not only to his beer’s high quality but also to his
unparalleled salesmanship. He saw the value of social contracts and joined every German
organization he could find. He was especially fond of joining singing societies. He didn’t have
much of a voice but he had great pitch, sales pitch that is. Besides, he concluded, singing
always brought on large thirst.
Making a sale was always the key for Jake. He was one of the first in the beer business to
thoroughly train his salesmen, including lining their pockets with expense money to lavish on
potential customers. He also supplied them with an assortment of stories and jokes to enhance
their sales spiel. Jake was creating his own course in Beer Marketing 101.
In addition to his business acumen, Jake prided himself on being a responsible father. He sent
his son, young Jake, to grammar school, from which he proudly graduated. Immediately after,
however, young Jake was allowed to work full time at the brewery. Young Jake climbed through
the ranks and emerged in 1890 as the brewery’s general manager. He was now in control of a
vast plant that produced well over a half a million barrels a year. He took particular interest in
the refinement of the brewery’s flagship brands, Knickerbocker and Ruppert’s Extra Pale,
tweaking their recipe to ever increasing popularity.
Young Jake also followed in his father’s footsteps by joining every ethnic and civic organization
he could find. His efforts were rewarded not only with record sales but with political clout. His
elite social status was assured when he was personally made a New York State Colonel (rarer
by far than the Kentucky version) by then Governor David Hill.
By the turn of the century the Rupperts were reaping huge profits. In an era before income tax
they had become truly wealthy. Young Jake, now often just called The Colonel, became the
toast of New York. He dressed in the latest and most expensive fashions; he developed a
fondness for valuable antiques; he had a stable of fine (looking, not running) thoroughbred
race horses. Indeed, so deep ran his love of the sport of kings that it wasn’t uncommon for him
to tide over a bar owner who said he couldn’t pay this month’s bill because “I bet on the Colonel’
In 1913 the Rupperts made their final great expansion. On the same site that three decades
earlier old Jake had constructed his first brewery, Colonel Jake built an enormous, modern
plant of 2 million barrels capacity. Speakers at the dedication called it the finest brewery in
world. It was valued at over $30 million and employed more than 1,000 men. The Colonel’s
brewery was now an integral component of the entire New York economy.
The brewery’s workers were sometimes put on double shifts as 1914 saw America drink more
beer than ever before. As the profits rolled in Colonel Jake took a small part of the money and
bought the New York American League baseball team, the Yankees. Yes, those Yankees.
Years later, as the fans came in droves to watch the Colonel’s recently purchased player, one
Babe Ruth, the ballpark became the single largest seller of Ruppert beer in the nation. The
Colonel understood the synergy of sports and beer long before modern advertising agencies.
Sadly, with Prohibition on the horizon things would soon forever change for both Ehret and
Ruppert. The passage of the 18th Amendment would definitively end these golden days of New
York beer. Days that, sadly, have never returned. Need proof? Just try to get a free lunch
with your beer today.
(Historical data courtesy of Pete Tamburro)
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