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Nov 27, 2014

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The Doelger breweries

By Gregg Smith

Among New Yorkers the name Doelger is well known as one of the city's legendary brew houses. Well into the 1980's it was still possible to catch a glimpse of an aging Doelger advertisement painted on the brick walls of older buildings. Lesser known is that there were two (related) branches of this famous beer.

As with many breweries in the United States the Doelger story begins in Germany of the 1840's. This was a period of great political unrest when thousands of residents fled from the principalities of the German states to start life anew in America. Joining all those others in this mass migration was Joseph Doelger who arrived in New York from Bavaria in 1843.

A cooper (barrel-maker) by trade, Joseph Doelger was one of the many craftsmen needed to support the day-to-day activities in a brewery. It was in this capacity that Joseph learned the business of making beer and by 1846 he was ready to take a chance on opening his own brewhouse.

It was exactly the right time to open a brewery in New York. Beer's greatest raw material was finally available through the recently completed Croton Reservoir system. The opening of this public works project meant the city was finally receiving an abundant supply of fresh water. Beer thirsty New York, weary of the high price of imported brew, celebrated the opening of each new brewery with an unflagging devotion to brand loyalty. Even more important, it was that period when the revolutionary new style of lager beer was first being introduced. As New Yorkers and the rest of the country tried this new beer, the slow but steady expansion of the American beer industry yielded to unparalleled growth.

The site of Joseph Doelger's first operation was on east Third Street. It was there he joined New York's pioneers in lager brewing, producing eight to ten kegs a day. The easiest measure of success with was the number of times early breweries changed location. The greater their success the more moves they recorded and and Joseph Doelger was among those who experienced immediate popularity. Increasing demand first led him to a new facility on Stanton Street, but this too proved inadequate and in 1853 he purchased the Gillig brewery on Third Street. That purchase also made a link of sorts between Doelger and New York's Ruppert brewing family; Jacob Ruppert Sr. had married Gillig's daughter. Even more success for Joseph Doelger led to the purchase of land at 407-33 55th St. where he erected a storage house. Later this became the site of yet another Joseph Doelger brewery.

During his first years of profitability Joseph did as many of his contemporaries and sent passage for relatives who had been left behind in Germany. Thus it was through his brother's good fortune that Peter Doelger (born in 1832) arrived in New York. Working in Joseph's brewery he followed his older brother's example by opening a small brewery in 1859 followed by a larger facility in 1863.

In 1882 Joseph Doelger died and the business passed on to his sons Jacob and Anthony who renamed the company Jos. Doelger's Sons. They remained a significant brewery in the city for many years. This was also a period of significant change for the brewing industry in which Peter Doelger would find himself at the center of controversy. It was a time of increasing consciousness of social and industrial responsibility, in some ways driven by the new labor movement. Peter Doelger's facility brought the attention of these factions to his brew house when an accident caused the deaths of four employees. Labor organized a boycott and strike against Peter's facility and thus one of labor's first successes was achieved in the brewhouse.

Despite the boycott and strike Doelger continued to thrive and by 1895 he was ranked as the eleventh largest brewer in the country. Peter Doelger was one of those who did not have to experience the devastating effects of prohibition, passing away in 1912 at eighty years of age. His son Peter assumed control of the company and after repeal moved operations over to what was formerly the Peter Hauck Brewery of Harrison, New Jersey.

Unfortunately the Doelgers eventually were hurt by the very thing which made them a large brewery - their reliance on a strong New York market. After prohibition, one after another of the great New York brewers would discover a national base was the strategy needed to survive in the post-prohibition world. The end came for Doelger's in 1947 when they shut their doors for good.

Gregg Smith

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