Had enough of cranberry pumpkin ales from the Northwest?
Special winter stout from New England? Special Independence Day lagers with
hints of cherry and wheat brewed by master craftspeople in spotless aprons at 2
A.M. on July 4 and stored in imported golden kegs and transported in
refrigerated sport utility vehicles to climate-controlled beer boutiques?
Has earnest beer-drinking stripped your soul of gentle irony
and left you yearning for a simpler time?
Friends, Mike Mitaro is at your service. Mr. Mitaro is
president of an enterprise known as the Rheingold Brewing Company L.L.C. He is
the man who has brought back a beer that was once as much a part of New York as
the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Third Avenue El, the Herald Tribune and, of course, the inevitable and unforgettable
(fill in the blank). New Yorkers in their uncountable millions know the words
of the old Rheingold jingle, and they are liable to break out in song at
unlikely moments, like at a swanky dinner party in the home of publicist John
Scanlon a couple of years ago. (That, friends, was a truly weird experience.)
“Rheingold,” Mr. Mitaro noted, “was the No. 1 beer in New York for 40 years,
with a 35 percent share of the market, which is bigger than Budweiser has
today. And it was the largest single advertiser of any product in the 1950’s.”
It was based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and run by the
descendants of German immigrants. The Liebmann family ran the business as if
everybody was family. The mother of my friend John Wright, a literary agent,
worked for Rheingold for more than a quarter-century.
“She was told she never would have to
worry; she’d be taken care of,” Mr. Wright said. But that began to change in
1963, when the Liebmanns sold the business
and the brand began a slow decline that accelerated in the early mid-1970’s, coincidentally at around the same time the city itself nearly
disappeared into ignominious bankruptcy. In 1976, Rheingold’s brewery in
Williamsburg shut down, and a piece of New York was gone forever-or so it
It is an appropriate time to be thinking about Rheingold’s
revival, because for people of Mr. Mitaro’s age (45), the beer is linked in
memory with the early years of the New York Mets, whose special October blend
this year has been more than just a little heady. Rheingold was to the Mets of
the 1960’s what Ballantine was to the Yankees: not just a sponsor, but a part
of the team’s identity.
In fact, Rheingold was a part of the entire city’s identity
back in the days when New York was, for all the glamour of midtown Manhattan, a
blue-collar, domestic-beer-drinking town. This, of course, comes as a surprise
to those who apparently would be, like, surprised, like, to discover that,
like, there was a time when, like, middle-class families, like, lived on the
Upper East Side and, like, not everybody, like, started out as go-fers at,
like, Condé Nast.
The Bronx-born Mr. Mitaro, a former executive with Labatt
U.S.A. who quit his day job and bought the rights to the Rheingold name two
years ago, is counting on both New York’s folk memory and its end-of-millennium
edge to make Rheingold the city’s beer again. “What’s amazing is that even
people who are 25 years old know that Rheingold once meant something in New
York,” Mr. Mitaro said.
And then there are the 40-somethings who associate the beer
with their parents, or Ralph Kiner, or the college pub circa 1967. I told him
about a party to which I was invited in late September-surprisingly, I was in
charge of supplying beer. I bought the usual precious stuff in delicate green
bottles, and for myself, a six-pack or two or three of Rheingold. The eyes of a
dozen 40-year-old New Yorkers lit up at the sight. When the night was over, the
green bottles remained unopened. The Rheingolds were gone.
“It’s amazing: When you show somebody a bottle or a can of
Rheingold, what you see is a smile, and what’s underneath that smile are
emotions and memories and experiences and stories,” Mr. Mitaro said. “That’s
what a brand is supposed to do.”
The stuff apparently is a hit in a few music clubs downtown,
and old-timers might be surprised to hear a radio ad featuring some East
Village types waxing poetic about the brew. It’s not just nostalgia. It’s the
next big thing, beerwise: a return to authenticity after a decade of pretense.
Mr. Mitaro and his partner Terry Liebman, a relative of Rheingold’s
founding family, still have a tough assignment ahead. Budweiser has conquered
the world, and the folks at Anheuser-Busch play a tough game. Having survived
the microbrew craze, the giants from St. Louis aren’t about to stand idly by
while visionaries begin reviving regional beers.
Then again, the Cardinals haven’t done much against the Mets