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Oct 31, 2014

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George Ehret

By Gregg Smith

One's heritage can predetermine the events of life. Heritage can serve as the beacon which guides a career, foretell a destiny and map the road to eventual riches. It can serve as a base for success, fame and triumph. But sometimes, in one of life's ironies, it can also lead to downfall.

Like many of America's founding brewers, George Ehret was born in Germany, his date of birth recorded as April 6, 1835. In August of 1852 his father emigrated to the United States. It was common custom in the 1800's for the patriarch to venture to the New World first, establish himself, and after amassing enough savings, send for other family members. Thus was the elder Ehret's plan.

When it was George's turn to come to America the year was 1857. By that time lager beer was not only the new darling of brewing, it virtually dominated the market. There could be no more natural occupation for a German newcomer than the brewing business and so it was with young George Ehret. Finding employment in the brewery of A. Hupfel, Ehret soon distinguished himself and rose to a position of supervisor.

Hupfel was a benevolent employer and watched as Ehret, through careful monitoring of personal expenses and avid saving, was able in only eight years to strike out on his own. A lesser person may have felt somewhat threatened but Hupfel not only encouraged Ehret, he provided advice and support. Although he felt certain George would succeed he did look with skepticism on the location Ehret picked for his brewery, the then rural area near New York's East River known as Hell Gate. In fact, the location lent itself to the name "George Ehret's Hell Gate Brewery."

Established in 1866, the brewhouse was completed in 1867 on a site bounded by Second and Third avenues and 92nd and 93rd streets. Ehret's plan was to create a lager like those of Munich and though hampered by the water available in New York he was able to produce a beer which closely resembled that style. Barrels of this beer first rolled out of the brewery in March of 1867 and was immediately accepted by the harshest of critics - New York's beer drinkers.

Just as things were settling into a comfortable pattern near disaster struck. On September 19, 1870 a fire destroyed both the brewery and accounting books. Despite this near tragic setback Ehret saw opportunity; his beer was selling well and this was a chance to expand capacity. By 1872 the new facility was producing 33,512 barrels, the next year output was 74,497 and in 1874 it topped 101,000 barrels. By 1877 George Ehret had become the largest brewer in the country; in 1880 he sold 220,000 barrels and in the next decade he nearly doubled that to more than 412,000. Through those years Ehret continually expanded his facilities until the plant stretched from 91st to 94th streets. Storage and stables ran from 91st to the main building on 93rd where its elegant clock tower became a neighborhood landmark.

Most notable about Ehret's rise to number one was that the vast majority of his sales were restricted to New York City. For an eighteen year period beginning in 1877 New York made him the leading brewer of the United States. Then, as others developed nationwide distribution systems he was bumped from the number one spot. Yet, despite being passed by the national sales of Pabst, Anheuser-Busch and Schlitz, his regional sales were still strong enough for him to remain number four.

Business couldn't have been better as Ehret entered the new century. Still the aging brewer worked at improving and expanding his brewery. Then, thinking it was time for a much needed rest, Ehret heard the call of his heritage. George booked passage for a vacation to the German land of his birth. It would prove a fateful trip. While Ehret was out of the country the hostilities of World War One broke out and though he immediately returned he was haunted by rumor and innuendo regarding his ill-timed trip. Worsening matters was the prohibition movement which gained support by turning public opinion against the German origins of the country's brewers.

Ehret didn't live to see prohibition's repeal, he died in 1927. In 1935 his heirs sold the brewery to Jacob Ruppert but reentered the beer business later that same year by purchasing the Brooklyn Interboro Beverage Company.

Finally, the great story of Ehret came to an end in 1949 when brewery strikes were crippling New York's breweries. Then Schlitz stepped in and acquired its first facility outside Milwaukee. The old number one was literally replaced by the new number one, and a New York institution was gone. On the waterfront they still say "He could'a been a contender."

Gregg Smith

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