Beer History: Manhattan Brewing Company, A Lost Craft Beer Pioneer

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Not too long ago, New York City was a difficult place to find good fresh beer. A British expat tried to change that in the mid-1980s, and he succeeded for a time, though his pioneering brewpub is nearly forgotten today. Richard Wrigley teamed with a number of partners to convert a former ConEd substation into Manhattan's first functioning brewery since 1965, and the first post-Prohibition brewpub east of the Mississippi—and initially, things went well.

The brewpub opened at the corner of Thompson and Broome in Soho (then considered a bit of a dodgy neighborhood) in 1984, with its first beers produced by another Englishman, Mark Witty, formerly of Samuel Smith's and Whitbread. The brewery's equipment was also imported from Europe.

The launch spared no fireworks and beer was distributed to other Manhattan locations via horse-drawn wagon. British-inspired ales were the initial focus, and the concept proved an instant hit with the city's college students (the drinking age was still 19) though whether many of them appreciated the work that had gone into the beer is debatable.

Yet a focus on beer quality was a hallmark of the operation; beer engines were installed (and much copied), compressed gas was eschewed and care of the beer beyond the brewing portion of the operation remained a key strength of Witty's operation. Manhattan Brewing Company's beers were well-received by eminent British beer writers such as Michael Jackson and Roget Protz. By 1987, things were running smoothly; the brewpub could manage seven taps, and they even produced their own version of George Washington's porter (yes, the very same recipe that is currently making the rounds).

The brewpub began bottling its Manhattan Gold in 1987, and that led to a PR tussle with New Amsterdam Brewery, which had opened the year before (and, it was claimed by Manhattan Brewing partisans, had simply copied their concept).

New Amsterdam pointed out that Manhattan's bottles were required to bear a label showing that they were contract-brewed in Wilkes-Barre, PA, at the Lion Brewery, while New Amsterdam's offering was 'made in New York'—they left out the fact that that meant Utica, and the F.X. Matt brewery, still going strong today (as, indeed, it has been since 1853). New Amsterdam did eventually start brewing within New York City, but the costs were prohibitive, and they went back to F.X. Matt only a short time later (and their restaurant business closed in 1987). Manhattan Brewing continued to produce all their draft beers on-site at the SoHo brewpub—including, for the first time that October, a pumpkin ale (then something of a novel re-discovery).

Manhattan Brewing Company also got into the contract brewing game themselves; in 1989, they began producing a beer, D'Agostino Fresh, for the local supermarket chain. The pilsner was a popular one, and it won a silver medal at the GABF.

Their Manhattan Gold, still produced by F.X. Matt, took home the gold medal that year in the same category. But despite the awards success, brewing ceased in February of that year, thanks to a financial mess—the business was out of action for nine months, then re-opened that fall with a revamped menu and ten different beers. But continued construction meant that many thought the business was closed.

The early 1990s saw continued turmoil—staff turnover, openings and closings, more money concerns and general malaise seemed to have wounded the business badly. By 1994, Manhattan Brewing was barely hanging on, despite some creative marketing, including offering an M.B.A.—a Master of Beer Appreciation—as a way to encourage beer education and to bring in customers. As the New York Times reported:

Garrett Oliver, the brew master, said he started the M.B.A. program in November because a growing number of patrons, including many women (73 percent of those taking the course are female), were showing an interest in beer beyond drinking it. He also sees the program, he said, as a way to attract more regular patrons.

Yes, that Garrett Oliver. Before the year was out, he left to join a new brewery starting up across the East've probably heard of it. The loss of Oliver, plus financial woes, rumors of sabotage, and simple bad luck did not help, and by 1995, Manhattan Brewing Company was no more.

Richard Wrigley went on to open (and close) brewpubs in Massachusetts and Washington state; Mark Witty moved to California, and you might say that Garrett Oliver has been a bit busy with this and's worth a look back into the recent past to recall that it wasn't always so easy to find a great beer, even in one of the world's greatest cities.