“Real Beer” Brewed in Watertown During Prohibition


BY: Ali Townsend

In the years of Prohibition, one north country brewery earned a great amount of attention for its dark beer and illicit brewing practices.

    The Northern Brewing Company in Watertown utilized a cold-filtering system to create beer with high levels of alcohol. During this time, the brewery was legally allowed to produce and sell what was then referred to as “near” beer – a beverage containing less than two percent of alcohol. Owners Frank Winslow and John Dempsey, however, capitalized on the demand from speakeasies and other underground alcohol joints to produce “real” beer.

    This illegal brew received praise as the company became renowned for its malty, full-bodied, European-style brews, with high alcohol content and “a head you could stand a spoon in.”

    By using the special filtering process and cold vats, Northern Brewing Company was able to provide people with the heavy beer they longed for. Specialties included Watertown Cream Ale, Old Style Lager and Jefferson Lager Bear.

    In a 1988 interview with the Watertown Daily Times, Watertown resident Samuel Frazitta, then 84, recalled, “It was a great beer. It had a real kick to it and it tasted real good.”

    The popularity of real beer spread rapidly, calling for an increase of production and smuggling. Most of the illegal shipments were run by mobsters from all over the state– ranging from New York City to Utica. Eventually, the U.S. Coast Guard was positioned in northern waters to patrol smuggling. The trade occurred on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario as bootleggers and dock runners worked through Canada and Watertown.

    Due to improvements in the filtering process, one that eliminated the use of boilers, and therefore the strong scent of heated yeast and hops, northern breweries remained successful for years. However, the local real beer business was no secret. In 1925, The New York Times was discussing the north country’s shady trade, referring to Watertown as a “hub of illegal shipments.” Whether the attention was good or bad, Northern Brewing Company had earned itself a name.

    Three years later, Prohibition Chief Romaine Merrick was assigned to the north country and claimed to have received word of the largest distillery in New York, pinning it to Watertown. The papers immediately denied and defended their city, stating that the only alcohol business here was a small brewery producing the legal near beer. Little did they know that sometime between 1919 and 1928, the owners of the brewery had constructed a secret cold-distilling operation worth $50,000. This system included a pipeline that connected the vats to a separate and sophisticated bottling operation. This was concealed in a nearby garage a few yards away from the basement.

    Owners, workers, and customers of Northern Brewing Company could only manage to keep quiet for so long as Winslow and Dempsey found themselves in jail shortly after Merrick’s announcement and the official uncovering of their high-alcohol operation. The two Chaumont residents were accused of shipping real beer out of their near beer cold storage area in the dead of night.

    Many hints were given to the federal officials and local police, leading them to the eventual discovery of the cold vat brewery, originally owned by a share of Syracuse men.

    The first of these clues came in 1925, as a railroad car was found containing 100 barrels of highly alcoholic beer. Although the barrels were dumped, no one person was found responsible and therefore the only punishment was the temporary closure of the business for six months.

    After this incident, Winslow and Dempsey took over as brewery officers of the company. The two men requested to keep the filtering units in order to run a cooling storage business. Because of the unfamiliarity with cold-filtered beer, they were allowed access and possession of the refrigerated vats. It wasn’t until their arrest that anyone understood why they would need such equipment.

    These strange occurrences led to an investigation into the seemingly small and modest brew house on Poplar Street. Once a search warrant was issued, federal officials immediately raided the property. Initially, they were puzzled, as padlocks to the basement were untouched and there were no signs of entry to the lowest level of the building. Their confusion dissolved as a false door gave way to the illegal brewing area.

    Despite the discovery, Winslow and Dempsey remained ignorant: “Although they owned the brewery, they claimed they had no knowledge of the tanks, which made investigation deputy Prohibition Administrator Lowell Smith chuckle in amusement,” according to the 1988 Watertown Daily Times story.

    Following their arrest, those involved in the shipment and delivery of real beer were also taken in by authorities. Northern Brewing Company had officially come to an end.

     In 1928, a Watertown Daily Times article announced, “At 11:30 this morning, the last drop of high-test beer at the Poplar Street plant gurgled out of an open spigot in a vat and disappeared into a sewer outlet in the basement of the building.”

    Once Prohibition laws were lifted and beer with alcohol levels above two percent were permitted, Northern Brewing Company reopened its doors. In 1933, the brewery was continuing its unique filtering process and producing beer like before.

    Unfortunately, the company only lasted two years before failing. While some placed the blame for this on competition from larger breweries, others believed the demise could be traced back to the brewery’s use of untreated Black River water.