The New York City ‘Beer War’ of the Mid-1980s
In the fall of 1984, Richard Wrigley, a British transplant from Manchester who once likened Michelob to “a soft drink,” opened a 5,000-square-foot brewpub called the Manhattan Brewing Co. It was located in its namesake borough, in an old electric-company station at Watts and Thompson streets in the not-quite-fashionable-yet Soho neighborhood. Wrigley sold two ales and a lager at $2.50 a mug.
Barely two miles uptown, in West Chelsea, another area of Manhattan awaiting its gentrification, Matthew Reich, a Bronx native and former business executive at Hearst, was putting the finishing touches on what would become the New Amsterdam brewpub. The capacious 110,000-square-foot facility would not only make as much as 30,000 barrels of beer annually, but serve as the backdrop for numerous events, including wedding receptions. Its menu included a 16-ounce sirloin for $15.95.
The two breweries, Manhattan and New Amsterdam, brought brewing back to the nation’s largest city, which had lost its last brewery, Brooklyn’s Rheingold, in 1976. They just couldn’t agree on who was first.
It was the Big Apple “beer war” of the mid-1980s and it presaged much of what was to come in American brewing—something to keep in mind as New York City Beer Week gets under way.
First, though, let us acknowledge that even being able to discuss a localized beer war in the mid-1980s set New York City apart from the vast majority of towns across the United States. The number of breweries nationwide had dwindled significantly since World War II; the trend was toward fewer breweries, not more; and certainly not more than one in a single city, however large.
As for Manhattan vs. New Amsterdam specifically, the animosity hinged on who was actually brewing in New York and when—a preview of not only the controversy over contract brewing that would soon envelop smaller breweries, but a preview, too, of the craft vs. crafty debate so familiar to the industry today.
Both Manhattan and New Amsterdam contract brewed. That is, they paid other, larger breweries to make their recipes, though each also brewed in-house. In Manhattan’s case, it was with the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, PA. For New Amsterdam, it was with the F.X. Matt Brewing Co. in Utica, NY.
This allowed New Amsterdam to claim New York parentage on all its beers (as in New York State), a reality that rankled Manhattan. “We were brewing [in the city] first, and Reich copied everything we did,” one of Wrigley’s partners told New York magazine in early 1987.
The copycat claim seemed especially thin in New Amsterdam’s case: Reich had contracted with F.X. Matt way back in 1982, well before the West Chelsea brewpub, the New Amsterdam brand hitting the streets of Gotham that fall. “We didn’t deceive anybody,” Reich told New York. “The label said, ‘Made in New York,’ and we always intended to open in the city.”
And on it went for years, New Amsterdam and Manhattan circling each other warily, often in the media, a development that itself was unusual: Much ink then might be spilled about wine, but not beer—New York, the New York Times and the New York Post all had regular wine critics; none, as now, employed regular beer critics.
In the end, the New York beer war turned out to be immensely beneficial to smaller-scale brewers nationwide. Reich in particular got consumers thinking of beers made with traditional ingredients as something to savor, akin to wine in its worthiness of serious assessment. “It’s the beer to have,” Reich would say of New Amsterdam lager, “if you’re having one. With dinner.” (A conscious spin on the Schaefer’s tag, “Schaefer is the one beer to have when you’re having more than one.”) More generally, the breweries and their feud spilled smaller-batch beer into the media in the media’s capital, whetting the curiosity of untold numbers.
Alas, neither Manhattan nor New Amsterdam survived much beyond the 1980s. The costs of doing business proved too formidable as did keeping up with the growth in demand for these once-novel beers. Such challenges, of course, would also be familiar to the industry today.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.