Even With Prohibition, The 1920s Roared In The Old Neighborhood

Frederick HOWER Brewing Company renamed Excelsior Brewing Company We have an amusing story about an incident that occurred during the "Roaring Twenties," which was the period in American history from 1920 to 1930 (the stock market crashed in late October 1929). It was the era of Prohibition, bootleggers, rum runners, flappers, bath tub gin, needle beer, home brew and gangsters. "Scarface" Al Capone, originally from Brooklyn, was the crime boss in Chicago. In New York, we had Arthur Flegenheimer (better known as "Dutch Schultz"), Jack "Legs" Diamond (who paid the ultimate price for warring with Schultz) and Arnold Rothstein (a Broadway gambler who is widely regarded as the person who masterminded the fixing of the 1919 World Series). Prohibition (the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) officially ran from January 16, 1920 to December 5, 1933, when the 36th state voted for the 21st Amendment, which effective immediately terminated the 18th Amendment and national Prohibition. The amusing incident referred to in our opening paragraph occurred in Brooklyn on August 7, 1930, when Dry Squad Agents raided the Hercules Garage on DeKalb Avenue and found eight trucks with a number of empty beer kegs. They then discovered a pipe that was buried about 20 feet underground that went to another garage on Pulaski Street that was located just across the street from what was supposedly an abandoned brewery, but was brewing regular beer which was piped across the street to the garage on Pulaski Street. The men at the two garages and the officers at the brewery were arrested but the case was thrown out of court because the search had been done without a warrant. A newspaper at the time wondered how it could have been possible for these pipes to be buried in the street without anyone noticing. The answer is found in what happened more than 40 years earlier. The Annheiser Brewing Association of St. Louis, Missouri, in about 1875 was the first U.S. brewer to pasteurize bottled beer. This permitted them to ship their Budweiser beer to distant markets and sharply increased their sales of bottled beer. Other breweries quickly copied and sales of bottled beer expanded. The U.S. Congress then suspected the German brewers here in America were not paying the proper revenue tax of $1 per barrel (31 gallons per barrel) on bottled beer. The U.S. Congress then passed a law in the 1870s that required that all bottled beer had to be bottled off-premises and could not be bottled at the brewery. The law further provided that the bottling plant had to be separated from the brewery by a public street. As a result of the law, some brewers contracted out with bottling plants to handle this operation for them. Other brewers preferred to handle their own bottling and shipped kegs of beer with the revenue stamp pasted over the bung hole, to their off-premises bottling plant where the beer was drained from the kegs and bottled. On June 18, 1890, Colonel Pabst, the head of the Pabst Brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, travelled to Washington, D.C. and testified before Congress’ powerful Ways and Means Committee. He mentioned that in 1889, he had shipped about 75,000 kegs of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer from his brewery to his off-premises bottling plant, where it was then emptied and bottled. This was a great waste of effort and he asked if this could be corrected. As a result of his testimony, the committee drafted a bill which was passed by Congress permitting brewers to transport their beer to the bottling plant through a pipe, provided there was a meter on the line and that the pipe would only be open when a revenue agent was present and the proper amount of revenue stamps would be paid. This system remained in effect until Prohibition started. The history of the brewery shown in the photograph begins in 1890, when the Frederick Hower Brewing Company was established at 253-269 Pulaski Street in Brooklyn with an annual brewing capacity of 50,000 barrels. In 1896, the ownership of the brewery changed. It was renamed the Excelsior Brewing Company. The layout of the plant was changed and the capacity was reduced to 35,000 barrels per year. By 1913, John Reisenweber, who owned a popular restaurant Reisenweber’s on Columbus Circle in Manhattan, was president of the brewery. When Prohibition came in 1920, the plant closed. Some brewers produced "near beer" which the U.S. government classified as a cereal beverage. The Volstead Act, which detailed the law for Prohibition, defined an alcoholic beverage as one with an alcoholic content of 0.5 percent or more by volume (which was equivalent to about 0.4 percent by weight). Near beer was produced and brewed in the same fashion as regular beer except that one process was added, namely, the de-alcoholization unit which lowered the alcohol to the legal limit. However, near beer was a bland beverage and was not very popular with the public. The only successful brewer of near beer was the John Trommer Brewery at Bushwick Avenue and Conway Street in Brooklyn. He brewed an all-malt product and possibly his near beer was better than others, but he had a superior marketing effort. When Henry Ford lowered the price of autos, families bought cars and one of the popular pastimes was to take a drive on a Sunday afternoon. A number of fast food roadside restaurants opened up selling hot dogs, hamburgers, etc. George Trommer financed a number of these stands which then offered Trommer’s White Label All Malt Brew on draft to go with their hot dog or hamburger. In May 1923, the Excelsior Brewing Company property was placed up for sale. L.N. Lessor bid it in at a public auction for $189,000. The plant was placed in operation and the regular beer which it produced was sold through the Jack "Legs" Diamond organization, which sold the beer to speakeasies. Most of the speakeasies charged 50¢ for a glass of beer. As noted, the Dry Squad closed the operation down in August 1930. With public opposition to the Volstead Act increasing month by month, in 1932, the former Excelsior Brewing Company plant was sold to Irving Friedman. When Prohibition ended, he spent about $2 million modernizing and expanding the plant, which was renamed Kings Brewery, Inc. at 225-279 Pulaski Street, Brooklyn. They resumed brewing beer. Their motto was "Kings Beer"Fit For a King." In the mid-1930’s, local delicatessens and groceries in our neighborhood sold Kings Beer in 12 oz. bottles at four for 25¢, plus 2¢ per bottle deposit. It was the lowest priced bottle beer on the market. In December 1935, the Kings Brewery was the first brewer in New York City to offer beer in cans. However, the shelf life of the early attempts to can beer was poor and it was only after aluminum cans were used that canned beer became popular. The Kings Brewery closed down in April 1938. The photograph was taken in April 1948. 27 February 2003. Excerpt from the "Ridgewood Times" Back To BUSINESS Main Return to BROOKLYN Info Main Page