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Mountain Home Magazine

Briggs Beer's Back!

Nov 01, 2019 10:05AM
by Ann E. Duckett


It began with a draft beer and a casual conversation with the bartender in a tavern in Elmira, the town where Steve Shaw, Jr., grew up. Inquiring about a faded brewery sign on the wall—T. Briggs & Co.—he learned it was one of several beer brands locally produced, and that, like so many others, had faded into obscurity over the decades.

A self-proclaimed history buff, big into facts and timelines, Steve’s thirst for knowledge (and beer) led him to research the business. He discovered intriguing tales of Prohibition, how companies in the wine, spirits, and beer industries responded to the “dry period,” and the financial impact on Elmira and other communities.

“The long and short of it is that Prohibition killed Briggs Brewery. Imagine these beer companies in small towns all across the country having gone out of business because of it,” says Steve. As the story unfolds, he shares how “gangsters, guns, and bootleggers” became part of the backdrop of an unassuming brand of beer first brewed in 1866, and how, more than fifty years later during Prohibition, Elmira would experience corruption around black market booze.

“This all happened in Elmira, not a large city like Chicago or Philadelphia,” he says.

A century ago, Elmira was a bustling city, and, due to its location (central to the story), was a major transportation hub for New York’s Southern Tier, connecting the dots via road, water, and rail between Rochester and Buffalo with Albany and New York City. With six breweries, it was “an active brewing city.” Briggs Brewery was best known for its cream ale, a unique style of light-bodied beer originally produced in America, first introduced in the mid 1800s, and extremely popular in the northeast. The bright and refreshing brew is straw to pale gold in color, with minimal fruit, hops, or malt notes, resulting in a crisp, clean flavor. Despite its name, you typically won’t find any dairy ingredients. This cold fermented ale, with regional preferences prevailing, was a local beer embraced by Elmirans.

Thomas Briggs ran a successful business until his death in 1883. Then, financial backer and partner John Arnot, Jr., and family took over the business. Local Prohibition took hold in 1918, two years before the law went into effect nationally. The brewery worked through the dry period producing permitted “near beer” (a malt brew containing less than .5 percent alcohol, also known as cereal beverage), but Prohibition was serious and costly business, and, despite best efforts, the brewery closed.

Shortly after, a beverage company moved into Briggs Brewery to make cereal beverage. Within months the Feds conducted a raid, arrested employees and two Prohibition agents, revoked the permit, doled out fines, and padlocked the doors after removing nearly 62,000 gallons of high-alcohol beer. That simply paved the way for notorious gangsters from New Jersey to move in—Waxey Gordon, a big-time mobster who knew the ins and outs of bootlegging, along with his minions, replete with Tommy guns, soon arrived. After Briggs Brewery was purchased in 1932, operations got under way again, but were short-lived. New Jersey police investigating a double murder found full details in a safe about Gordon’s operation in Elmira, eventually conducting the biggest Prohibition bust in New York state history. A handful of Elmira residents, some well-known businessmen, were involved in graft and cover-up.

So, why revive a brand that’s been buried for 100 years, despite its colorful past? For Steve, it goes beyond what he’s putting in the can. It’s about community.

“First, there’s a strong interest today in throwback brands—they’re coming back, reintroduced because people long for that small-town Americana feel. In addition to Briggs, you’ve got Congress Ale in Syracuse, as well as Utica Club. These types of things are the building blocks of returning the small towns to what they used to be,” affirms Steve. “Growing up in Elmira and on Keuka Lake in the summer were amazing places to be raised. Upstate New York has had a number of rough years—once-thriving downtowns with family-run businesses disappeared, replaced by malls, replaced by online shopping [Amazon]. Artisanal shops, Mom and Pop businesses—this is the fabric of communities. Elmira is successfully reinvesting in its urban areas. One piece of the puzzle, re-establishing the brewery, will be part of the renaissance,” he continues.

Steve owes this sense of place and his strong work ethic to his parents, who continue to lead by example. Together with his dad, Steve Shaw, Sr., he owns and operates Shaw Vineyard, located on Seneca Lake’s picturesque western shore. Pam Yunis, Steve’s mom, runs GCP Discount Liquors & Wines in Horseheads, the wine and spirits store her father, Nick Yunis, started in 1968.

Not surprising, Steve’s successful sixteen-year career in the wine and spirits industry includes launching his own spirits marketing and brokerage firm. Briggs Beer is Steve’s first beer brand relaunch. Last December Steve founded Old Time Beer Brands, LLC, the parent company of T. Briggs & Co. and two other forgotten Elmira beer brands. Production began in July of this year at Northway Brewing, which brews and cans the traditional Briggs Cream Ale recipe. Others will soon follow. You can find Briggs in several independent beer retailers, and in grocers in Elmira, the Finger Lakes, and Syracuse areas.

“The ultimate goal is to reestablish T. Briggs & Co. Brewery in Elmira within five years,” says Steve. “Revitalizing an abandoned brand, seeing it coming back and available today for enjoyment is extremely gratifying. The brand has come full circle. This piece of Elmira’s liquid history that was taken by Prohibition is now being given back.

“It’s interesting to think,” the history buff continues, “that Mark Twain was quite possibly sitting in a tavern sipping bourbon and drinking Briggs Beer.” After all, Mark Twain spent twenty summers relaxing and writing in Elmira at Quarry Farm, his summer home during the 1870s and 1880s.

Now that’s something worth raising a glass to.