Until we return from vacation Jan. 3, enjoy this daily series of longer pieces in which we unravel the histories of storied buildings. Presenting: A Lot About a Plot.
If you’ve ever hoisted a bottle of Brooklyn Lager and really looked at its Milton Glaser-designed logo, you may have noticed the words “Pre-Prohibition Style” hovering above the baseball-style “B.” And you may have asked yourself: how exactly can a brewery founded in 1988 claim to make “The Pre-Prohibition Beer”?
The answer lies miles away from Brooklyn Brewery’s Williamsburg headquarters, at 670 Bushwick Avenue. That’s where a three-story home resembling the mansion from Royal Tenenbaums – cast in deep red brick, with a conspicuous rounded tower – lurks behind a chain-link fence and a “No Trespassing” sign.
You wouldn’t know it today, but the two German families who lived here on either side of the dawn of the twentieth century made this building – today known as the Catherina Lipsius House – famous. In the dying embers of the Gilded Age, these two sagas of brewing and polar exploration cemented their family names, and this house, in New York history.
Catherina Claus was only 20 when she arrived in the United States in 1853, hand in hand with her husband Henry. They set up a new life for themselves in Brooklyn, right as it was going through a monumental population shift. Two years after their arrival, in 1855, the city of Brooklyn – still independent – annexed the two towns of Bushwick and Williamsburg, which collectively came to be known as the German District of Brooklyn. German immigrants like the Clauses dominated the population growth in these districts, accounting for a quarter of those not born in the United States who lived in the borough at the time. And many of them, including Henry, wanted to brew beer.
One addition in 1859 would prove enormously important for those brewing dreams: the newly opened Brooklyn water works connected the city to a reservoir that could pump 7.8 million gallons of fresh water per day. The New York Times called it an “epoch in the history of Brooklyn,” breathlessly reporting a procession five miles long with fireworks to celebrate the arrival of fresh water into the city. The soft water that came from the reservoir, in contrast to the cholera-ridden wells that preceded them, was perfect – not only for health, but for brewing.
Rudolph Schaefer, head of Schaefer Beer, describes the state of breweries in Brooklyn after 1860 in the foreword to Will Anderson’s beautifully bound 1976 tome, The Breweries of Brooklyn. Although the number of breweries in Bushwick exploded with the introduction of a freshwater source, “many of them were very small – little one floor affairs on the main level or in the basement of a loft building.”
Henry Claus moved quickly to establish himself as a brewer who offered more than just a basement joint, opening the Henry Claus brewery in 1865, at 471 Bushwick Avenue, near the intersection of Forrest Avenue. It quickly expanded, covering the plot at 493 Bushwick, with a bottling facility on Garden Street. An 1870 inspection record shows that Claus had invested $5,000 of capital into the brewery, producing 3,000 barrels of beer at a value of $25,000. With his wife and four children, he took up residence just down the block. Claus, however, died in 1872, leaving the fate of the brewery to his wife, Catherina.
She kept the brewery competitive, ably managing amidst fierce competition, before remarrying in 1876. Her new husband, Rudolph Lipsius, another brewer, changed the company’s name to reflect the union of two brewing families. By 1877, twelve years after the founding of the brewery, the long-term prospects for the new Claus-Lipsius Brewery appeared to be good. Lipsius oversaw the construction of an eight-story tower, “the top of [which] surmounts the building… 150 feet from the ground.” The Brooklyn Union-Argue called it “an imposing structure.” Inside, the business of beer production was humming along nicely. In its first full year with the new name, it had sold a “healthy” 12,460 barrels of lager, good for 16th overall out of the 34 breweries in Brooklyn at the time, as calculated by Anderson. By 1879, just two years later, its production had increased by a monumental 8,300 barrels, with sales totaling 20,775 barrels.
Each of these barrels was distributed either through kegs – delivered to restaurants, saloons, and bars in the city – or by bottle. Claus-Lipsius bottles were inscribed simply with the name of the brewery, and “Brooklyn, N.Y” in bold letters below. The central logo, however, draws attention. Seemingly a Star of David with an overflowing mug of beer inside it, the logo would have been known as the Brauerstern, or “brewer’s star,” among fellow German brewers. The six-pointed star, writes Jeff Platt, embodied the three elements of brewing (fire, water, and air) and the three ingredients of brewing (malt, hops, and water). In essence, the symbol was a mark of purity.
Yet whatever the purity of the Claus-Lipsius beer, Catherina found the golden age of Bushwick brewing increasingly difficult. In 1882, after only six years of marriage, Lipsius also died, a passing felt keenly throughout the close-knit German brewing community. The Brooklyn Eagle reported that all of the breweries in the city hung their flags at half-mast during his funeral service.
What’s more, the brewery’s larger, richer neighbors were simply outpacing the Claus-Lipsius facility. In the period between 1877 and 1879 when Lipsius had overseen a barrel production increase of 8,300 per year, S. Liebmann’s Sons, which was “but a stone’s throw” away from Claus-Lipsius, increased its production by 18,000 barrels. Overall, Liebmann produced almost three times as much beer per year as did Claus-Lipsius. Anderson speculated that the smaller brewery might have suffered from a “down-the-block kid brother complex.”
Nonetheless, the Claus-Lipsius Brewery persevered, again under the control of Catherina, who by this point was turning 50. In 1889, she used part of the brewery’s profits to purchase a plot of land – at 670 Bushwick Avenue. For a combined $12,000, she combined two plots in March of that year, and by June had the city’s approval for the construction of a three-story brick dwelling with mansard tin and slate roofs and iron cornices, at a cost of $25,000. It was to be completed by the architect Theobald Engelhardt, born in Brooklyn to German parents and responsible for countless buildings in the area at the time. Indeed, on the June day that Catherina’s application was printed in the real estate record and builders’ guide, Engelhardt was listed as the architect for another project, on nearby Flushing Avenue – a $28,000 home for none other than the Liebmann family.
Catherina, along with her son Henry (who had taken his father’s name to become Henry Claus), moved into the home at 670 Bushwick Avenue in 1890, and the two ran the brewery side-by-side, with Henry taking on an increased role as Catherina grew older. In 1900, however, he was struck by sudden tragedy. The Brooklyn Eagle reported the death of his wife, Elizabeth, in March of that year after heart failure from an earlier operation. They had shared the home with Catherina and had been preparing to celebrate their second wedding anniversary on the day that she died – at only 34 years of age.
Though prohibition would eventually kill off the great bulk of Brooklyn’s breweries, the writing was on the wall for the Claus-Lipsius Brewery long before the “Noble Experiment” began. Their noisy neighbor, the Liebmann operation, had bought the John P. Schoenewald Brewery in 1878 and even expanded to build a distribution center in Cuba in 1900. Partly responsible for this aggressive growth was a pioneering refrigeration system that made Liebmann’s, in Anderson’s words, the “first Brooklyn brewery with its own laboratory.”
This progressive thinking ultimately allowed the Liebmann family to buy out the Claus-Lipsius company in 1902. At the turn of the century there had been 45 breweries in the borough – more than in Milwaukee, Detroit, and the District of Columbia combined. In 1884, The History of Kings County and The City of Brooklyn had concluded that the aggregate production amongst all of the borough’s breweries amounted to $8 million in sales – per year. The Claus-Lipsius Brewery had been a central part of that unprecedented growth. In the year that it was sold to S. Liebmann’s Sons, the brewery was producing 90,000 barrels. Within two years, it no longer operated as an independent brewery.
Henry Claus, along with his mother, moved away from Bushwick. The 1910 census lists them at 68 Midwood Street, in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. At some point, they left the city entirely – Catherina died April 28, 1918, at her son’s home in Sterling, Virginia, one of the few German women to have run a brewery during Brooklyn’s golden age of beer. She was 85.
Back at 670 Bushwick Avenue, in the house she had built, the years following the closing of the Claus-Lipsius Brewery proved tumultuous. Catherina Lipsius had sold the house soon after the Liebmann takeover to a woman named Mary Hunt, who was about to marry a doctor named Frederick A. Cook. Cook’s father, a doctor too, had changed his name from Koch to Cook upon arriving in the United States from Germany. After moving to Brooklyn in 1878 at the age of thirteen, Frederick took an interest in medicine, eventually graduating from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at New York University in 1890.
By the time he moved to the Catherina Lipsius’ old house in 1902, which was thereafter listed in the city directory as a doctor’s office, Cook had long since turned his attention towards polar exploration. His first wife had died during childbirth around the time of his graduation in 1890, and it was perhaps this tragic incident that propelled him from pole to pole.
While the Claus-Lipsius Brewery churned out barrels of beer in the 1890s, Cook was taking part in multiple explorations of both the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the globe – “Poleward,” as he would say. One such journey, the Belgian Antarctic Expedition from 1897 to 1899, formed the basis of his first memoir, Through The First Antarctic Night. A harrowing account of the two-year expedition, Cook’s writing is often mesmeric, even as he describes the horrendous mental and physical struggles of the crew, many of whom suffered from scurvy and one of whom – a meteorologist named Emile Danco – died. The death of a cat, named Nansen, inspired the following passage:
Something has happened which has added another cloud to the hell of blackness which enshrouds us […]
Altogether “Nansen” seemed thoroughly disgusted with his surroundings and his associates, and lately he has sought exclusion in unfrequented corners… His mind has wandered and from his changed spiritual attitude we believe that his soul has wandered too. A day or two ago his life departed, we presume for more congenial regions. We are glad that his torture is ended, but we miss “Nansen” very much. He has been the attribute to our good fortune to the present, the only speck of sentimental life within reach. We have showered upon him our affections, but the long darkness has made him turn against us. In the future we shall be without a mascot and what will be our fate?
Much of the narrative is taken up with descriptions of the “long black monotony” of the expedition – a constant mental force that threatens to pull the whole crew beneath the surface. Indeed, Cook is now credited as one of the first explorers to recognize the connection between mental health and lack of sunlight. And were it not for the efforts of Cook and Roald Amundsen (who would eventually lead the first expedition to the South Pole), most of the crew would have died. Instead, Cook insisted that they eat raw penguin meat to fight the scurvy, and they survived. In light of all of this suffering, it’s hard to imagine just what could have drawn Cook back into the darkness, into the most defining journey of his life – the 1907 expedition for the North Pole.
Whatever it was that drew Cook back, he would not see his home at 670 Bushwick Avenue for a full two years as he traveled further north until the point where the world ended. His 1911 memoir, My Attainment Of The Pole, describes the scene that made it all worthwhile:
On April 21, 1908, I reached a spot on the silver-shining desert of boreal ice whereat a wild wave of joy filled my heart. […]
Standing on this spot, I felt that I, a human being, with all of humanity’s frailties, had conquered cold, evaded famine, endured an inhuman battling with a rigorous, infuriated Nature in a soul-racking, body-sapping journey such as no man perhaps had ever made. […]
Over and over again I repeated to myself that I had reached the North Pole, and the thought thrilled through my nerves and veins like the shivering sound of silver bells.
That was my hour of victory. It was the climacteric hour of my life.
If only it could all have followed so neatly for Cook. He would not return to Brooklyn for almost a year and a half after his “attainment” of the pole – arriving by ship on September 21, 1909. The front page of the New York Times the next day told the story of the controversy that had already been brewing for the entirety of his journey home – rival explorer Robert Peary’s claim to the North Pole. On opposite sides of the page: “DR. COOK HOME; NO PROOFS YET” and “PEARY LANDS; REFUSES HONORS.”
Peary, nine years Cook’s senior, had a long history with the younger surgeon. Early in his career, Cook had served as the expedition surgeon for Peary’s 1891 expedition to Greenland – Cook’s first journey “Poleward.” By 1909, however, they were bitter rivals – setting up rival factions in the press to contest their claim to be the first man to reach the North Pole.
On the day of his return to Brooklyn, though, Cook was treated like a hero. “He was in fine humor,” reported the New York Times, “and smiled upon the crowds who cheered him, waved American flags at him, and hailed him without reservation as the discoverer of the pole.” A parade took him and his family from the waterfront, down Bedford Avenue, and along Bushwick Avenue. As they approached the house at 670 Bushwick Avenue, Cook would have seen a large arch with a “huge globe, painted in gold,” and his home “half concealed behind a mass of flags,” with a message painted in foot-tall words upon the arch:
WE BELIEVE IN YOU.
Whether the people of Brooklyn kept their faith or not, Cook would die a discredited man. Forced to sell the house at 670 Bushwick Avenue to pay the legal fees necessary to keep his fight with Peary going in the press, he eventually gave up. By 1913, the matter of the attainment of the North Pole had all but been decided – Cook had never provided sufficient evidence, so Peary took the prize. In the decades since, Peary’s claim has similarly been discredited. The first verified exploration of the North Pole did not occur until 1969. This would have provided no comfort for Cook, who was imprisoned in 1923 for seven years after a fraud case in Texas. He died in 1940, penniless, a footnote in history. His 1911 memoir, My Attainment Of The Pole, ends as follows:
It is strange how, machine-like, a man can conduct himself like a reasonable being when, mentally, he is at sea. I have read a great deal about the subconscious mind; on no other theory can I account for my rational conduct in public at the time. Really, as I view myself from the angle of the present, I marvel that a man so distraught did not do desperate things.
In the decades after the Cook and Lipsius families left the house, Bushwick crumbled. First, the brewing industry collapsed. An 81-day strike in 1949 by brewery workers effectively finished what Prohibition started: “New York lost over $75,000,000 in sales,” wrote Anderson, “a loss from which many of the breweries never recovered.”
When the Rheingold and Schaefer plants finally shut down in 1976, the year that Anderson published his book, there wasn’t a single brewery left in the city. “Over 345 years of brewing tradition had come to an end,” he wrote, “and for the first time since 1629, when the Dutch West India Company built a brewery in New Amsterdam, New Yorkers did not have a beer to really call their own.”
In 1987, however, Steve Hindy, a former reporter, was working to remedy that – by opening Brooklyn Brewery with banker Tom Potter.
“We wanted to tap into the history of brewing in Brooklyn for our first product, which we wanted to be a lager beer,” says Hindy, who in 2007 wrote Beer School: Bottling Success at the Brooklyn Brewery alongside Potter to tell the story of their success.
First, however, they needed a recipe. That was when Hindy was introduced to Bill Moeller, a retired brewmaster who had worked at Schmidt’s Brewery in Philadelphia, among other places.
As it happened, Moeller offered more than just 30 years of experience. “Bill has meticulous brewing records from his grandfather,” says Hindy. “He’s got quite a library.” His grandfather, it seemed, had lived through the golden age of brewing in Brooklyn. “And so Bill told us that his grandfather had brewed in Brooklyn, back at the turn of the last century,” explains Hindy, “at the Claus-Lipsius Brewery.”
Moeller began to dig through the notebooks, looking at some of the lager recipes that the Claus-Lipsius Brewery had produced at the time. Hindy traveled to Boyertown, Pennsylvania, to meet Moeller at his home on a Saturday afternoon and talk over their options. They wanted something special – a twist on history. Dry hopping, a technique where hops are added to the brew after cooling, right at the end of the process, was traditionally a technique used for ales – not lagers. Nonetheless, Hindy suggested applying the technique to one of the Claus-Lipsius lager recipes.
“We wanted to do something special, so the base for the recipe for Brooklyn Lager came from Bill’s grandfather’s notebooks,” he explains. “But we did tinker a little bit to make it original, and part of what we liked in a beer.”
Twenty-five years and millions of bottles later, it’s safe to say that their instincts served them well.