The art of brewing has a long history in New York City, and particularly in our neighborhoods. To that proud history, we have decided to add a small chapter. Before we tell you how we ended up opting for this mid-life career tangent (and how it furthers our longstanding mission of celebrating local history and preservation), we’re going to first briefly revisit the long and storied journey of local beer-making that brought us to this point.
In the Beginning
Beer making arrived on our shores with Dutch colonists, who were prodigious brewers (as well as consumers) of beer, and continued under British rule. Brewing assumed special importance in our neighborhoods during the mid-1800s, when a surge in immigration transformed the portion of the Lower East Side now known as the East Village into a German-speaking enclave. The area’s new residents brought with them their own brewing style and provided the neighborhood with dozens of beer gardens, beer halls, and saloons, as well as a few breweries. Most New York City breweries at the time were located in Brooklyn, where they had access to a better water supply (indeed, by the end of the century, Brooklyn was the largest beer producing spot in the country, at the time when the United States was the largest beer producing country in the world). Nonetheless, Greenwich Village and the East Village contained about a dozen breweries and distilleries during this period. We created a map that identifies some of them. Highlights include a bar that held a patent on “steam” brewing, which ferments lager yeasts at warmer than usual temperatures to yield a unique, effervescent beer generally associated with the west coast; and a brewing establishment of the sort that catered to those wanting a beer in an environment free of the Irish and German immigrants prevalent in the neighborhood.
Prohibition and Beyond
Breweries as such disappeared from the city during Prohibition. The few that resumed operation after the conclusion of the national temperance experiment produced a pale, watery, lower-alcohol, flavorless lager that was cheaper to make than traditional beer. It became by far the most consumed beer variety in the country and remains so to this day. The dramatic local and national contraction in the number of breweries only began to see a reversal during the last decades of the 20th century, with the growing popularity of craft brewing. While New York has certainly seen a proliferation of craft breweries in recent years, Manhattan had no breweries as recently as a couple of years ago. That changed earlier this year, when the Bronx Brewery launched one in the East Village.
We caught up with the Bronx Brewery shortly after they opened and profiled their operation, highlighting the impressive list of community-oriented efforts and the events and collaborations they had already undertaken with neighborhood artists, activists, and organizations. This formed part of their standard programming in the Bronx, and they soon followed suit at their East Village locale. As strong supporters of initiatives that strengthen the synergies between local businesses and organizations, we were thrilled when the Bronx Brewery invited us to collaborate with them in the brewing of a limited-release beer. After coming up with a plan and agreeing on a beer recipe, Village Preservation headed down to their brewery with boots on, ready to brew.
Our beer would be a witbier (pronounced [wɪtbɪə], because “wit” is Flemish for white). This refreshing beer style originates in Belgium and is made with up to 50% raw wheat malts, as opposed to all light barley malts — a variation accounts for the beer’s characteristic cloudy, pale color.
The traditional recipe also calls for Belgian ale yeast, noble hops (which refers to a few select varieties of German and Czech hops), and two adjunct ingredients: coriander and orange peel. Perhaps inspired by our many Japanese neighbors in the East Village, we decided to also add the Japanese hops Sorachi Ace and to substitute yuzu for the orange peel and sansho pepper for the coriander.
Brewing begins with the malting and milling of the raw grain. That is done at specialized facilities, from which breweries purchase milled malts. Our first step was to pour the grain mix or grist into a vessel where hot water forces the grain to release its fermentable sugars.
In order to ensure the efficient breakdown of the malt’s complex sugars into simple, fermentable sugars, one can, at this stage, lower the pH levels of the grain/water mix or mash with the addition of an acid. We used phosphoric acid. You can smell the sugars in the mash as their levels increase; but a refractometer, a device that measures the gravity of the liquor, helps determine whether the mash has reached the necessary level of sugar concentration.
Once it had reached this level, we circulated the liquor from the bottom of the vat to the top, in a process called vorlauf, in order to make the spent grain pack at the bottom of the vessel, where it would filter grain particles and husks during the extraction of the liquor or wort.
The clarity of the circulating liquid let us know when it was time to transfer the wort into a kettle, where it would be boiled in order halt enzymatic activity, and sterilize and condense the liquor. The hops are generally added during the boil. The sooner they’re added, the more bitter the beer. Our beer is not supposed to be very bitter at all, so we added hops late in the process.
When the boil concludes, one must wait for the wort to cool down before it can be transferred to the fermentation tank (the use of a wort chiller can expedite the process). After doing the transfer, we added yeast to the wort (or pitched the yeast) and let the magic begin. The fermentation of our beer would take about two weeks. Along the way, the adjunct ingredients would be added. Then, toward the end, the beer would be carbonated. Although this can be done in a number of ways, we would opt for a controlled and efficient technique involving the introduction of CO2 under high pressure into the chilled beer. And that’s it!
We look forward to sharing with our supporters the fruit of our first collaboration with the Bronx Brewery.
A Name To Remember, A Taste To Try
Our witbier with shasho pepper and yuzu will be called Sansho Panza, in reference to our loyal service to our quirky and sometimes impossibly idealistic neighborhoods, and to the relentless pursuit of our advocacy goals, no matter how uphill the battle might seem. Because far from tilting at windmills and thinking that they might be giants, we have had to contend with actual real estate giants more often than we would like, in order to preserve the special architectural and cultural heritage of the Village. As a result, like many of you no doubt, we could use a beer!
If you want to be among the first to sample the Sansho Panza Village Witbier, we’re holding an event for the occasion.
Wednesday, September 14
6:00pm – 8:30pm
Bronx Brewery East Village
64 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003