A bootlegging brewery

Despite Prohibition, sales no problem for Consumer’s Brewing Co.

During the Prohibition era of the 1920s, the word for north country law enforcement was neither marijuana nor cocaine — it was booze.

From 1920 to 1933, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution mandated a nationwide ban on the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States. And by 1923, the U.S. Coast Guard was asked to help patrol Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River for illegal beer shipments.

Mobsters from New York City, Albany, Utica and Syracuse frequented the area, not only to run hooch out of Canada, but to pick up beer shipments in Watertown.
And the producers of all this local bootleg brew? Watertown’s own Consumer’s Brewing Co.

Between Jan. 29, 1919, when the 18th Amendment was ratified, and Dec. 5, 1933, the day after the 21st Amendment that repealed Prohibition was ratified, the brewery was supposed to be concocting low-alcohol, below 2 percent beer, commonly referred to as near beer.

And nestled in the underbrush next to the Black River on the north side of town, the near-beer brewery was the perfect site for an illegal brew house. But realizing there was a market to be filled at speakeasies across the state, the company’s owners decided to capitalize on an opportunity.

They developed an innovative cold-filtering process to brew high-alcohol beer that masked the pungent aroma produced during the typical fermentation process — that of hot malt, yeast, hops and water.
The decision was made sometime between 1919 and 1928 to build a secret cold-brewing and bottling operation worth $50,000. The high-test beer was then bootlegged to burgeoning markets in Malone, Syracuse, Albany and Buffalo.
By 1925, even the New York Times carried stories reporting that Watertown was the hub of illegal beer shipments.
On Aug. 20 of that year, Buffalo Divisional Prohibition Chief Romaine Merrick, assigned to Northern New York, told the New York Times, “In the Buffalo District, I will have the largest distillery in the state. And it’s in Watertown.”

A federal raid of the building in 1928 found two huge vats in the basement of the brewery where cold water, malt, hops and yeast were being mixed and allowed to slowly ferment into high-alcohol beer. The beer was then filtered through special paper that collected impurities, and piped to an illicit bottling operation nearby.

The first inkling of impropriety came in January 1925 when the Jefferson County Sheriff and Central New York Prohibition Director found a railroad car filled with 100 barrels of high-test beer valued at $5,500. They confiscated both the beer and the railcar, and the business was locked up for six months.
The brewery was padlocked, but the owners were allowed to use the ice-cooled storage areas of the building as they bought it back in May 1927, under the guise of operating a cold storage business.
Despite the claim, they were actually operating a cold-filtered beer plant hidden within padlocked areas of the building.
At first, federal and local officials could not believe the operation was at the brewery. The padlocks had not been broken, and the only keys were in the constant possession of U.S. Treasury agents in St. Lawrence County.
An investigation uncovered a false wall in the building’s basement, behind which sat vats that contained 320 barrels of beer in various stages of fermentation.
The vat filters were run through a hidden two-inch-wide pipeline to a garage a few dozen yards away. In the garage was a sophisticated bottling operation and thousands of bottles.

After the threat of Prohibition ended in December 1933 and the teams of hounding federal agents retreated from the area, the brewery was back in full operation under the name Northern Brewing Co.

The booze runs of the 1920s and 1930s were undoubtedly the glory days for the brewery.
However, with Prohibition lifted and competition from large-scale beer and malt companies buying up small breweries across the nation, the Watertown firm was put out of business in the early 1940s.

The now non-existent 457 Poplar St. brew house is best remembered today for its malty, full-bodied, European-style brews, with high alcohol content and a head you could stand a spoon in.
Specialties included Watertown Cream Ale, Old Style Lager, and Jefferson Lager Beer.

By Grace E. Johnston, NNY Business.