Basserman’s Rock Brewery

April 24, 2020

Let’s face it. Everyone is cutting loose somehow these days. Whatever your pleasure or vice is you’re probably indulging to blow off steam and soothe the frayed nerves of isolation. Local breweries can and do play a large role in that, and they are vital as home-grown small businesses in our community. Let’s jump back and take a look at when Basserman’s Rock Brewery, situated at the base of East Rock in the Cedar Hill neighborhood was the most popular brewery around.

George Basserman was born in Germany and in 1860 at the age of 28 made his way to New Haven. He quickly found success as a local businessman intertwining his way into the city’s civic life. At the time, New Haven was a center of German immigrant culture and yet Basserman realized it did not possess an establishment that cultivated German-style beer. Despite not having any idea how to actually brew beer, Basserman built a brewery and beer garden on State St., approximately where the Ralph Walker Skating Rink is today. He sent his son to Germany to learn the craft and he returned two years later to serve the brew master of Basserman’s new establishment.

Upper State St. at that point was the outskirts of the city and this proved to be very advantageous for the brewery. New Haven, like other old North American cities has grown out in a radial fashion with the original downtowns at the center. The introduction of the inexpensive horse-drawn trolley system in the 1860s connected the far-flung areas of the city, and made weekend “country excursions” to Basserman’s brewery a hugely popular activity for the city’s booming working class. Cheap authentic German beer, music, and fresh country air made for many a vivacious trolley ride home followed by a rough Monday morning.

In 1880, the city bought the land that the brewery was on and Basserman built a new establishment at the base of East Rock. Basserman’s Rock Brewery featured extensive gardens crawling up the rock face of Snake Rock and a naturally cooled beer cellar mined out of the base of the rock. In 1888, East Rock Park opened as the first official city park which only made Rock Brewery an even more popular draw. With the park open and Cedar Hill growing as a prosperous working class neighborhood it seemed that George Basserman had truly made the right call in bringing German brew to New Haven.

The good times however did not last. Over the late 19th and early 20th centuries the temperance movement grew stronger, and with the U.S. entry in to World War I in 1917 became a full force culture war. Armed with old Yankee nativist disdain for the rising multi-cultural immigrant classes that were perceived as a threat to American traditions, the movement succeeded and the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned alcohol and began the period known as Prohibition that lasted from 1920 to 1933. Despite its popularity and due to circumstances outside of its control the Rock Brewery never opened again.

In short, support your local brewery (and favorite bars and restaurants) this weekend. They’ve been vital in the past and will continue to be no matter what the future brings. Cheers!

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo Archives, New Haven Museum

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