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New York's Beer History on Tap in New Exhibit

This Currier & Ives lithograph from the 1800s will be on display at the New-York Historical Society's new exhibit,
This Currier & Ives lithograph from the 1800s will be on display at the New-York Historical Society's new exhibit, "Beer Here: Brewing New York History" from May 25 until Sept. 2.
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New-York Historical Society

UPPER WEST SIDE — The New-York Historical Society is celebrating the Big Apple's legacy of suds in a new exhibit opening next week called “Beer Here: Brewing New York’s History.” 

The exhibition will showcase turn-of-the-century brewing recipes, beer advertisements by Currier & Ives, anti-prohibition signs and other historical artifacts — as well as beer tastings.

New York’s brewing history is also an immigration story, organizers explained. According to curators Debra Bach and Nina Nazionale, an influx of German immigrants to New York City in the 1830s led to a boom in the city’s brewing industry.

“Simultaneous to the growth of Manhattan's breweries, an active industry grew in Brooklyn, particularly in Williamsburg and Bushwick,” said Bach. “By 1898, when the five boroughs of New York consolidated, over 100 breweries were active in the city.”

Those breweries were home to some of the biggest names in beer. Frederick and Maximillion Schaefer established the Schaefer Brewing Company in 1842, which stayed active first in Manhattan and then in Brooklyn for more than 100 years.

George Ehret’s Hell Gate Brewery, located in Yorkville, was the nation’s largest in 1877. And Jacob Ruppert, Jr., who took over Ruppert’s Brewery after his father’s death in 1915, was so successful that he went on to become a majority shareholder of the New York Yankees.

But a number of factors led to the eventual decline of breweries in New York, organizers said.

Though prohibition put a lot of breweries out of business, some survived by selling “near beer,” with an alcohol content of less than half of 1 percent. 

“Breweries that survived Prohibition and were doing well tended to expand, either by acquiring existing plants or building new, modernized ones,” Nazionale said. “Sales often didn't offset the cost of expansion and modernizing.”

The exhibition, which opens May 25 and runs through Sept. 2, will also feature a tasting session on Saturday afternoons, when patrons can sample one of a rotating selection of 10 local beers.