Fermenting Evolution

Fermenting EvolutionFermenting Evolution

H umanity’s love for beer traces back many thousands of years ago to Mesopotamia, when malts and barley became fermented in water and brave individuals dared consume the result.

New Haven’s love for beer traces back to founding times, not long after English Puritans began brewing the city into existence. Believing the water here was tainted, early settlers often hydrated with beer instead, serving it as commonly as they did loaves of bread. (It had a lower alcohol by volume than what we usually drink today.) The first-known mention of beer in town records occurred in 1646, when “liberty was given to Stephen Goodyear to brew beer for this town.” Goodyear was the deputy governor and had exclusive brewing rights, which he put to use on his property at the corner of Chapel and College Street. In colonial days, an “ordinary” was a tavern, sanctioned by the town to sell liquor and provide room and board, and the Goodyear house became the site of New Haven’s first ordinary, run by John Harriman, in 1659. (That location is now the site of Ordinary, a bar named for those buzzy beginnings.)

Brewing required the cultivation and milling of grains, but those were prioritized for use as food, not drink, especially during lean times. So colonists increasingly looked for another means of getting their fix: hard cider, made possible by apple trees planted shortly after Colonial settlement, which, by the early 18th century, were producing fruit in abundance.

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After several decades, around the time of the American Revolution and afterwards, beer made a comeback. Newspapers mention a short-lived brewery established in 1775 on Water Street near Olive. In 1798, an enterprise was built on what we now call Brewery Street by upper-class English brothers William & Benjamin Bakewell, making and selling a “New Haven Ale” as well as stout and porter ales. In 1803, the site experienced a disastrous fire, putting an end to the city’s only brewing operation.

New Haven had gotten to the bottom of its glass, and it wouldn’t get a refill of the local craft until 1852, when German immigrant Philip Fresenius set up his own brand, named after himself, at Congress Avenue and West Street in the Hill. To start, Fresenius hand-delivered kegs by strapping them to his shoulders. Between the showiness of the delivery method and the quality of the beer, he found great success, prompting him to build a larger brewery on the same site in 1874, adding new sections to satisfy the city’s growing thirst. A giant statue of the beer-soaked European folk legend Gambrinus was constructed three stories up, imploring all of New Haven to drink and be happy.

Like today, people liked to drink, and popular brewers could make bundles of money. In 1862, John J. Phelps and John Solly saw opportunity and started their own self-named breweries, followed by George Basserman, also a German immigrant. Basserman built the Rock Brewery at the base of Snake Rock (on the southern edge of East Rock) in 1868. The demand for beer was so great that he dug a 200-foot-deep cellar for lagering (storing lager beer at low temperatures), invested in an artificial ice machine to keep the beer cold and created a terrace garden for parties and weddings.

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Other breweries opened up shop along the way, making New Haven a bonafide beer center in the northeastern US. Frederick Kutscher began his self-named brewery on Broadway in 1867. Charles Nichlas began a brewery on Oak Street in 1874 and was joined by Joseph Weibel in 1884, naming it Weibel’s. Other breweries that opened during this time included Quinnipiac Brewing Co., Lion Brewery, Yale Brewing Co. and The New Haven Brewing Co. In 1900, there were 11 breweries operating here, in a city of less than 110,000.

Perhaps the only historical beer brand operating in New Haven that anyone alive today will remember is the Hull Brewing Co., established in 1872 by William Hull. He started the business on Whiting Street near State, at what is now the old Coliseum site. Most knew it simply as “Hull’s,” which is how it appeared on the label, and after a hiatus during prohibition from 1920 to 1933, the company moved into the old Fresenius brewery on Congress.

While other local brewers folded under the weight of the Great Depression, Hull kept going, and for forty subsequent years, it was Connecticut’s only brewery. It made a variety of types but its most popular recipes were the Export Lager, the Cream Ale and the Bock. Eventually, Hull’s was done in by the rise of monster breweries in St. Louis and Milwaukee that had succeeded in homogenizing America’s tastes, shuttering its doors in 1977. Adding insult to injury, the old brewery caught fire the following year and had to be torn down, a seemingly final blow to a once-proud local industry.

In the late 80s, that industry began showing signs of life. The New Haven Brewing Co. started selling in 1989. The New England Brewing Company, now in Woodbridge, got going around the same time. The Brü Room at BAR started turning hops and malt into liquid pleasure in the heart of New Haven in the mid-90s. The Southport Brewing Company opened up its first restaurant/brewery in Southport and, in 2003, opened up a location in Hamden. In 2011, Stony Creek Brewery was founded in Branford, and in 2012, another Branford startup, Thimble Island Brewing, sold its first bottle. Meanwhile, in 2012, home brewers got their own community hub with the opening of the Luck & Levity Brewshop downtown.

With a little luck and levity and support from the community, the area’s latest beer renaissance might just be here to stay.

Written and photographed by Colin Caplan. The second image originally appeared in the 1868 edition of the Beers, Ellis & Soule Atlas of New Haven County and is displayed here courtesy of Colin Caplan.

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Colin M. Caplan is a New Haven native, published author, architectural designer, historian and owner of Taste of New Haven Food and Drink Tours. He received his Masters of Architecture from Tulane University, is an Arts Award recipient from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven and runs Magrisso Forte, which offers historic building consulting and vintage photography services.

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