A beer-lover's Instagram feed is continuously filled with what's new, what's exciting, what's soon-to-be-released. This is an age of beer unlike any other, fueled by passionate consumers and an extraordinary number of breweries. Still, from time-to-time, it's nice to remember history and wax a bit of nostalgia.
In that spirit, it was a bit of a surprise to see Piels Lager behind the bar and on shelves throughout the New York metro area earlier this spring. Adding a pleasant layer to that surprise was that the beer actually tastes great. Long a staple of Brooklyn's brewing heritage, going back to its founding by brothers Gottfried, Michael, and Wilhelm Piel in the 1880s, Piels grew into a regional powerhouse and by the 1950s, thanks to animated television and memorable radio ads, was a brand many called "their beer."
However, like many beers of the era, there were consistency issues and strong competition from national brands. The brewery closed its doors in the early 1970s and was contract brewed for a time by Stroh's before the licensing was transferred to Pabst. That brewery shed the brand in 2015, and it was purchased by Shannon Degnan and his family.
Degnan's grandfather, Thomas P. Hawkes, was the last president of Piel Bros., so the current revival is personal.
"Pabst was brewing Piels, selling it in Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania in small amounts," says Degnan. "We were able to get rights to the name, we brought it back to New York, and we're not cutting corners. We're trying to restore the integrity to Piels."
It's no easy task, as Degnan readily admits. "When Pabst handed over the recipe, it was nearly unrecognizable as being beer," he says. "We got together with a master brewer, a consultant, who put together, based on historical accounts and other resources, the kind of beer that was being made in Bushwick [Brooklyn] in the 1950s to re-create the recipe. What we have now is true to that. The 4.7 percent ABV lager is brewed with Zeus and Crystal hops, packaged in throwback 12-ounce cans, and made at the Captain Lawrence Brewing Company in Westchester County, New York.
The Piels revival is just one of many brands that have seen a resurrection in recent years. Champagne Velvet is being made by Upland Brewing Company (Bloomington, Indiana). Gerst Amber Ale has a new lease on life thanks to Yazoo Brewing Company in Nashville. Perhaps the biggest success story is Narragansett, which has enjoyed a revival from its home base in Rhode Island.
"There have been a number of heritage brands trying a comeback," Degnan says. "It's why we wanted to work with a craft brewer rather than [a big contract brewer]. It's the taste and quality that will separate us from some of the others that are doing it in name only."
Taste and quality are key words here. Piels, like so many others of its age, suffered from a lack of both toward the end. People who once flocked toward the beer turned against it, no matter how entertaining the advertising.
So, like the scrappy upstarts whose name still appears on the beer, Degnan is walking into accounts, reintroducing them to an old name.
"In the month after we brewed, we were automatically getting grouped in with contemporaries like Pabst, Schaefer, and Rheingold, but people try it, they taste the quality, they get the hops-we call it the Bushwick kick-and they come back again for it."
Also back are Bert and Harry, although the cartoon gentlemen are relegated to coasters and posters rather than television. And although the brewery has changed hands several times and might have lost its way for a while, this 2018 incarnation is a return to its roots.
"We're a family business," says Degnan. "We're bootstrapping this whole thing because we believe in the heritage."