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Park Avenue Between 50th and 51st: America’s First Lager (PART 1 OF 2)

With the huge influx of German immigrants in the first half of the 19th century, Manhattan was introduced to a wide range of new foods that would go on to become staples of the American menu. Immigrants from Frankfurt and Hamburg would bring their taste for wursts and ground beef that would evolve to the all-American hot dog and hamburger. And in 1842, two brothers from Wetzlar, Germany would introduce Manhattan to a new beer to wash it all down.

New York was no stranger to beer, of course. The earliest brewery dates back to 1633 at Bridge Street and Whitehall, and the New Amsterdam taverns that dotted lower Manhattan were central to Dutch and English society. New York is still covered with references to old family names who began as brewers: Bayard, Cortlandt, Kip, and Beekman to name just a few. In the early 1800s, New York bars predominantly served British-style beers, light on hops but heavy on malt, with a low amount of carbonation and a high alcohol content. Think of today’s brown ales and English porters and you’ll have a good sense of the turn-of-the-century American palate.

That all changed with the arrival of Frederick and Maximillian Schaefer. The Schaefers emigrated to New York separately, Frederick in 1838 and Maximillian in 1840. With only a dollar to his name, Frederick began working at a small brewery run by Sebastian Sommers on Broadway and 19th. Beer brewing was hard work in the 1800s. Brewers typically worked 14 to 16 hours a day for little pay, and most breweries required their employees to sleep on the premises. Nonetheless, Frederick quickly rose through the ranks. Maximillian came over two years later, bringing his recipe for a German-style beer. By 1842, the brothers had saved up enough money to purchase Sommers’ brewery and began brewing the first German lager in the United States.

Schaefers’ lager bier was a light, golden-hued beer that used bottom-fermenting yeast rather than top-fermenting. With bottom fermentation, the yeast consumes more sugar and excretes more carbon dioxide, resulting in a crisper, drier beer. The brewing process was much more difficult, requiring colder temperatures and longer brew times than other beers of that period. Ultimately, the trouble was worth it. Schaefer’s was a hit with Manhattan’s booming German population. Their fellow countrymen guzzled down this taste of the old country in East Village saloons, in Financial District lunch rooms, at picnics in Harlem and the Upper West Side, at new beer gardens like the Atlantic Gardens in the Bowery, and brought home by the growler from bars and grogeries. Demand was so high, the Schaefers would open up a larger brewery and tavern on 7th Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets only 6 years later in 1848.

Native-born Americans were slower to take a liking to their lager. This New York Times quote is representative:

Americans, hearing the praises of the new beverage and seeing their Teutonic friends roll their eyes and smack their lips in ecstatic contemplation and enjoyment of it, used to make bold essays at its consumption, with the almost universal result of being intensely disgusted by its novel, bitter taste.

Yet Americans eventually embraced the new, crisp beer. The carbonation and low sugar made it a refreshing drink in the hot New York summers, and the lower alcohol content (4-4.6%) meant it could be imbibed in greater quantities without leaving the drinker too inebriated. Appropriately, their slogan was “the one beer to have when you’re having more than one.” Only a year later in 1849, “the Deutscher’s delight” was so popular that the Schaefers had to expand once more. This time, they purchased an entire city block in the relative wilderness of Park Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets.

For the next 67 years, the F. & M. Schaefer Brewing Company would be Manhattan’s most successful brewery, no mean feat in a city that produced over 9 million barrels of lager a year. The brewery’s location was key to their success, situated next to “a spring of exceptionally pure water” according to an 1899 guidebook. “Even after the introduction of [the Croton Reservoir] the water from this spring commanded a price of two cents a pail from many who were strongly prejudiced against water that had been supplied through pipes.”

The Schaefers’ timing couldn’t have been better. Land in Midtown East in 1849 was cheap, past the heyday of Turtle Bay’s shipbuilding industry but before the boom of slaughterhouses and factories in the late 1800s (Heinrich Steinweg would build a factory across the street just 9 years later, building pianos under his Anglicized company named Steinway & Sons.) Frederick and Maximilian were shrewd real estate speculators, wisely buying up plots of land between 50th and 52nd in anticipation of the industrialization boom and the construction of Grand Central in 1871. By the time Maximilian’s son moved the brewery to Brooklyn in 1914, just one of those plots would be sold to St. Bartholemew’s Church for $1.5 million. F. & M. Schaefer continued to brew lager (and “near beer” during the Depression) until 1981. The Schaefer name is now part of the Pabst Brewing Company.

Be sure to check out part 2 for the history of the structure at Park and 51st today, St. Bartholomew’s Church!

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