The story of George Ehret & his famous old Hell Gate Brewery is sadder than we ever expected

Vintage beer - The story of George Ehret and Hell Gate Brewery

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By many accounts, the man behind the famous Hell Gate Brewery, George Ehret, wasn’t just a business success — he was a success as a human. He produced a quality product and treated his employees well. He owned dozens of properties, including the famous New York bar PJ Clarke’s, and treated his renters well, too.

When he died in 1927, the beer business that he had grown from nothing was worth more than half a billion in today’s dollars. (It’s incredible what happened to the company after George was gone — find out about that below.)

Who was George Ehret? A brewmaster businessman who made a big difference (1927)

Obituary/article from TIME magazine – January 31, 1927

In faded gilt, on the wooden facades of turnpike hotels, and on the signs of gloomy but unclosed saloons near the dockyards and railway stations of cities, one still encounters the words “EHRET’S BEER ON DRAUGHT.”

Last week, George Ehret, 92, died in Manhattan of pneumonia. He left $40,000,000 [about $680 million in 2022 dollars].

George Ehret had kindly little eyes and a wedge-shaped bald head, spreading out at the neck. His stiff collars, always too big for him, were immense, low and broad; he tucked the ends of his black bow tie up under the flaps of his collar. His figure was square, his legs a little bowed.

George Ehret

He was born at Hofweier, County of Offenberg, in the Grand Duchy of Baden, Germany. His father, a prosperous brewer, came to the US in 1857.

George Ehret learned his trade young. He knew all about brewing and cooperage when he went to work for Anton Hupfel in Manhattan. In six years, he became Hupfel’s master brewer, and Hupfel lent him enough money, combined with what he had saved, to start a brewery of his own.

George Ehret called it the Hell Gate Brewery. It was his ambition to make the best lager beer in the US. Fire burned down the Hell Gate Brewery. George Ehret built it up again. To get pure water, he drilled an artesian well through 700 feet of rock. He would not defile good hops with city water.

In 1871, he put out 33,512 barrels, and knew that he would be a rich man. He made up his mind to work harder.

He had eight children. Every evening, coming home hungry, he tucked his napkin in his neck, and filled his stomach with good food. His stein was always refilled several times.

George Ehret's Brewery - New York (1880)

When he became fabulously, rich a reporter asked him what was the secret of his success. George Ehret smiled vaguely and, with a big hand on the table, seemed to lose himself in memories. “Ja… ja…”

The reporter quoted him as saying “Good beer, good health.” But George Ehret did not say that. Life was more than food and drink. In the evenings, perhaps, a game of dominoes. No better game… About half-past nine a band was sure to come round.

All the German street bands in the Bronx called at George Ehret’s house. He would send the butler down with a glass of beer and a dollar bill for every man.

The butler grumbled because he knew the tricks of these foxes of bands-men. “The Blue Danube” at nine o’clock. A glass of beer and a dollar bill. Then around the block. At half past nine, “Die Waeht am Rhein.” Another bill, another glass.

Hell Gate brewery - Ehret

Upstairs, with his feet on a rocking chair, Herr Ehret paid no heed to his butler’s complaints. Sometimes, if no band came, he played to himself on the flageolet, a sad and wandering air. Then to bed.

He had bought real estate with his money — Manhattan real estate was good, and at one time he owned more than anyone except John Jacob Astor — but he never raised a rent or put a tenant out for not paying the rent.

When the War came, the government took all his property under the Alien Property Custodian’s Act. George Ehret got it back again.

When Prohibition came, he could not quite believe it. That it should happen, such a craziness!… He refused to shut up his brewery. He would not let any man leave him until the man had a new job.

The old brewers, who like him, would rather have lost money than mixed their materials with dirty city water, who were proud of their lager, and who had grown fat and raised families, these men George Ehret set to work making “near beer.”

George Ehret's Hell Gate Brewery Company 25 years

George Ehret’s Hell Gate Brewery Company (1897)

When George Ehret came from Germany to America in the year 1857, he was twenty-two years of age and already a thoroughly practical brewer.

His father had preceded him five years before, having been attracted by the prospects of prosperity which the multiplied opportunities of republican America offered. Young Mr Ehret found employment in the brewery of A Hupfel, and by his ability and strict attention to his duties, soon rose to the position of foreman of the establishment.

After nine years of service, with the generous assistance and hearty goodwill of his former employer, Mr Ehret established in 1866 what has ever since been known as Hell Gate Brewery.

ALSO SEE: 90-minute beer bread recipe from the 1980s

He erected the first building on the same site where his colossal brewery now stands, then a picturesque rural plateau, affording an unbroken view of the swirling waters in Hell Gate Channel, the protruding rocky barriers in midstream, and the wooded shores of Long Island. (Find out more about the waterway here.)

The dwelling houses had not begun to crowd one upon another, and only the old Fanshaw mansion had any pretensions to architectural greatness.

The second building was erected in 1871, and is still standing as the nucleus of the imposing group of buildings that form a striking feature of the picture of the city as seen from the decks of the great sound steamers that pass up and down the unobstructed channel that is now Hell Gate only in name.

George Ehret's Celebrated Franziskaner Lager Beer brand Lager Beer (1887)
Trademark registration by F. Neumer for George Ehret’s Celebrated Franziskaner Lager Beer brand Lager Beer (1887)
Lager brew a specialty

Although the brewing of malt liquors had been practiced almost from the first settlement of Manhattan Island, lager beer had not been brewed in America until the year 1842, and the methods then in vogue were very primitive as compared with the scientifically elaborate processes of today, but as new inventions and improved appliances multiplied, Mr Ehret introduced them, and as the business increased he added building after building.

He drilled an artesian well through 700 feet of solid rock to secure an adequate supply of pure water, and it yields 50,000 gallons a day; he built a pumping station on East River capable of furnishing 1,000,000 gallons of salt water a day for condensing purposes.

He was one of the first brewers in the country to apply the process of artificial ice-making and refrigeration to that business, and in every way has kept fully abreast of the times in the development and conduct of his steadily increasing business.

ALSO SEE: When was Prohibition, why was it even a thing – and why did the alcohol-free social experiment fail?

Bock Bier - Geo Ehret's Brewery (1882)
Bock Bier – Geo Ehret’s Brewery (1882)

That increase has been in a ratio much more rapid than that of malt liquor production all over the United States, for while in the twenty years from 1871 to 1890, the total production increased a little less than 400 percent, the output of the Hell Gate Brewery increased over 1200 percent. And the prestige thus established seems to be steadily maintained as the years go on.

A loyal American citizen

George Ehret is a typical representative of that large German-American element in the population of New York, who, while preserving and reverencing the traditions of their native land, are yet thoroughly in sympathy with the republican institutions of the land of their adoption. They are loyal to their citizenship, and in all their municipal relationships are entirely devoted to the good of the Commonwealth.

Read more about George Ehret: Finding a piece of the past: PJ Clarke’s in NYC

Geo Ehret's brewery NY - Munich beer girl (1885)

Hell Gate Brewery Company history: Front view of building

Brewery photos from “25 years of brewing, with an illustrated history of American beer, dedicated to the friends of George Ehret” (1891)

George Ehret - Hell Gate Brewery Company history Front view of building

Offices at George Ehret’s Hell Gate Brewery (1891)

Offices at George Ehret's Hell Gate Brewery (1891)

Malt scales and malt mill at Hell Gate Brewery

Malt scales and malt mill at George Ehret's Hell Gate Brewery (1891)

Brew kettle room at Hell Gate Brewery

Brew kettle room at George Ehret's Hell Gate Brewery (1891)
Beer brew kettle room at George Ehret's Hell Gate Brewery (1891)

Bierstube (place beer is served) at Hell Gate Brewery

Bierstube at George Ehret's Hell Gate Brewery (1891)

5 views of the old fermentation room

Fermentation room at George Ehret's Hell Gate Brewery (1891)

ALSO SEE: Beer belongs – enjoy it! 20 old-fashioned scenes from the 40s & 50s

Beer and lager keg storeroom with thousands of barrels

Beer and lager keg storeroom at George Ehret's Hell Gate Brewery (1891)

Beer storage cellars

Beer storage cellars at George Ehret's Hell Gate Brewery (1891)

George Ehret’s lager beer (1909)

New York’s standard and favorite – One million barrels brewed every year

George Ehret's lager beer (1909)

Lost hope: The end of Hell Gate Brewery (1929)

This story was published two and a half years after the senior Ehret’s obituary, and is really an obituary for the business itself.

Prohibition is what ultimately killed the huge company. Hell Gate closed in August 1929 — less than three months before the Great Depression hit — so even if the business had still been going at that point, that would have almost certainly been the death knell.

From TIME magazine – July 15, 1929

To many a Manhattanite, the Hell Gate Brewery of George Ehret is a familiar landmark. To many more, George Ehret’s lager beer is a pleasant memory.

Last week, it was announced that the brewery would close on August 1, and would be sold, torn down.

Beer barrels being smashed in New Jersey (1920s)
Beer barrels being smashed in New Jersey during Prohibition (1920s)

It was the lingering hope of a light-wine-and-beer modification of the law which inspired George Ehret to keep his brewery open nearly Ten Years After. The same hope inspired his sons after his death in 1927. Near-beer, as such, would not have interested old George Ehret.

From 1866 to 1920 he made real beer — drilled an artesian well through 700 feet of rock to get pure water for his product — sold more than 1.200.000 barrels per annum — employed 800 men — refused 40 million dollars for his business in 1912.

George Ehret late in life

Shocked, astounded at the advent of Prohibition, he turned to near-beer as a make-shift, continued to hope for a return to the good days.

He died, 92 years old, in 1927, left in his will a clause asking his heirs to carry on his business, and, “if legally possible [to carry it on] as formerly conducted by me.”

Last March George Ehret Jr., died. The seven remaining heirs, headed by Louis Ehret, struggled along. Their employees had thinned to 123, their sales to 1oo,000 barrels per annum. At length, they decided that theirs was a hopeless plight.

NOW SEE THIS: The Beer Lover’s Guide to Vintage Advertising: Featuring Hundreds of Classic Beer, Ale & Lager Ads from American History

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Comments on this story

4 Responses

  1. I would love to see a family tree of George Ehret. My Grandmother Louise .(Michel) Hess was his niece but I don’t know how. My Grandmother was born in Germany (Black Forest) . My Grandfather Xavier Hess also from Germany was a Brewmaster and worked for George in Hell Gate Brewery. That is how he met my Grandmother thru her Brother Leo Michel who worked in the Brewery too. Any info will be greatly appreciated.
    I live in Pittsfield, Ma (Berkshire County).

  2. I have a Photo of my Great Grandfather Lawrence Francis Cleary as a teamster with the beer wagon for the Geo. Ehret brewery at the Gantries in long Island City N.Y. taken late 1800’s

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