Following a national trend that has seen the domestic beer market all but monopolized by three large corporations, the number of Rochester beer makers has dwindled over the years. Now only one of the old-timers, Genesee Brewing Co., is left, and its future is in doubt amid financial problems.
At one point a century or so ago, though, there were as many as two dozen breweries in the city, and even after Prohibition ended in the 1930s, there were five breweries in town, Rochester city historian Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck says.
The first local brewery opened in 1819, shortly after Rochester became a village. Nathan Lyman was Rochester’s pioneer brewer, opening Aqueduct Spring Brewery in his home on Water Street.
Lyman hauled water from a spring on what now is Central Avenue near St. Paul Street to concoct his brew, which he sold to neighbors and others around the village.
He soon was joined in the beer-making business by Amos Sparks, who opened his brewery at what now is South Avenue near Marshall Street.
Lyman and Sparks had the market to themselves until 1834, when John and Gabriel Longmuir opened another brewery on Water Street.
Rochester’s beer industry flourished in the mid-1800s with an influx of German immigrants, Rosenberg-Naparsteck says. By 1855, one of every seven Rochesterians was German, and roughly 20 breweries–many small, home-based operations–existed in the city.
The arrival of German brewers–and beer drinkers–gave rise to competition between the Germans’ brew, lager, and the English favorite, ale. Lager was thought to be an acquired taste, and the Germans brought that taste with them to America, Rosenberg-Naparsteck says.
Rochester was a natural spot for breweries to sprout up for other reasons: a good grain-producing region that provided a plentiful supply of crucial ingredients, barley and malt, and a readily accessible source of water in the presence of the Genesee River, says Mark Leunig, Genesee Corp. vice president and secretary. Genesee Corp. owns Genesee Brewing Co.
Several breweries opened along the river, and at one time or another four breweries have been on the site of the Genesee Brewing facility on St. Paul Street, he says. The river gorge provided a good spot for breweries to construct ice houses and cellars to age beer at lower temperatures.
Two of Rochester’s first large breweries, Bartholomay Brewery Co. and American Brewing Co., opened in the 1850s, according to the Brewer’s Exchange 1907 book, “A History of the Brewery and Liquor Industry of Rochester, N.Y.”
Bartholomay, which was along the river near the current Genesee plant, had 150 employees and was the seventh-largest beer maker in the United States in the 1880s, producing 300,000 barrels of beer a year.
American Brewing Co. produced 200,000 barrels annually out of its six-story plant, which covered a full city block on Hudson Avenue near Drayton Street.
By the early 1900s, the list of Rochester breweries had dropped to nine–American Brewing, Bartholomay, Enright, Flower City, Genesee, Hathaway & Gordon, Monroe, Standard and Charles Weinmann.
The arrival of Prohibition in 1920 put the vast majority of the remaining Rochester breweries out of business.
Bartholomay shifted directions and began bottling another drink–milk–while American Brewing and Malt Brew Co. remained active during Prohibition brewing under legal limits imposed by the federal government, Rosenberg-Naparsteck says.
Rochester’s beer industry, like the rest of the nation’s, was reborn in 1933 as Prohibition ended. Five breweries produced beer in Rochester at the time: American Brewing, Cataract Brewing, Genesee Brewing, Rochester Brewing and Standard Brewing.
Louis Wehle, who reopened Genesee in the 1930s, celebrated the end of Prohibition by parading a Genesee beer wagon in Washington, D.C., and throwing a party at the Powers Hotel in downtown Rochester, Rosenberg-Naparsteck says.
Gradually, the list of Rochester brewers grew even shorter. Cataract closed in 1940, and American followed 10 years later. Standard and Rochester Brewing merged in the 1950s.
Karl Nauratil went to work at Rochester Brewing in 1947 and remained at the company, which became Standard Rochester Brewing Co. after the merger, until it closed in 1970. The company brewed Topper ale and beer.
Nauratil started out cleaning equipment at the plant on Emerson Street and, within five years, had become a brewer.
“I really enjoyed it,” Nauratil says. “It paid well, and we thought we made good beer. The only sad part about it is seeing the big breweries pushing the little ones out, gobbling everything up. The small ones can’t compete. You’ve also got imported beers to compete with now.”
Genesee, which has been around since the 1870s, is the sole surviving major brewery in the city. Despite the fact that Genesee is the fifth-largest domestic beer producer, with an annual output of 1.6 million barrels, its future is in doubt because heavy losses–$10 million over the last two years–have forced management to cut employment from some 500 to 450.
“What used to be an industry composed of several national brands and some strong regional players has evolved over time into an industry dominated by three national brands,” says Genesee’s Leunig, referring to Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., Miller Brewing Co. and Coors Brewing Co., which collectively control approximately 80 percent of the market in the United States.
“They’re driving the others out of existence or into consolidation,” he says.
Despite Genesee’s tenuous situation, beer making continues in Rochester, and, in a sense, has come full circle.
Many people make beer in their homes, similar to what Lyman, the city’s first beer maker, did 180 years ago.
And a new generation of Rochester beer makers has evolved in the presence of microbreweries such as Rohrbach Brewing Co., Empire Brewing Co. and Custom Brewcrafters.
Custom Brewcrafters, which opened in Honeoye Falls in 1997, designs more than 40 custom beers for restaurants and pubs in Western and Central New York, owner Mike Alcorn says. His clients include Hogan’s Hideway, Jeremiah’s Tavern and the Old Toad on the city’s east side.
Custom Brewcrafters, which brews 1,500 barrels annually, also produces an English pale ale and a golden ale, which it sells at its retail room in Honeoye Falls, he says. Custom Brewcrafters also makes a root beer.
The company does not bottle its products, however; it only sells its brew from the tap or in kegs.
“We’re reinstating, if you will, an old tradition of going to the local pub and getting fresh ale,” Alcorn says.
(Richard Zitrin is a Rochester-area free-lance writer.)