The History of Beer in New Jersey

Written by the Inside Jersey Staff for


New Jersey loves beer. Our long, soggy affair continued straight through Prohibition. But while our past includes enough intrigue for HBO — its upcoming dramatic series “Boardwalk Empire” is set in 1920s Atlantic City (see story here) — most of us don’t know about the bootleggers, turf wars and organized crime. We just drink the stuff.

For instance: Our earliest documented commercial brewery (in Hoboken) quickly met a violent end at the hands of Lenni Lenape Indians in 1643. Later, beer-smuggling gangsters with names like Longy, Waxy and Richie the Boot made millions brewing and distributing illegal beer during Prohibition.

Retired Army Col. Ira L. Reeves was appointed as New Jersey’s Prohibition czar, only to quit after just eight months calling for an end to Prohibition.

When the federal Prohibition laws were adopted in 1920, New Jersey remained openly resistant to the beer ban.

Speakeasies illegally (but openly) operated throughout the state. Trenton, for example, flourished with taverns, with one such dive “secretly” operated on Chancery Lane — across the street from the police station.

Newspapers reported that on Jan. 20, 1927, three federal agents raided a warehouse at Market and Broad streets in Trenton. As soon as the agents arrived, they were met by a threatening mob of local residents who did not want their beer supply disrupted.

As the crowd grew closer, one of the feds fired a warning shot into the air, and the gunshot was heard by a local patrolman who immediately took control of the situation. He arrested the federal agents for carrying guns without New Jersey licenses.

It was clear Trenton was a “wet” city despite the federal ban.

The jersey trio

During Prohibition, Jersey crime bosses made fortunes smuggling beer. Running beer was highly profitable, and gangsters would stop at nothing to protect their businesses. Most beer barons of the Prohibition era started as street hustlers and criminals before starting to smuggle beer.

Max Hassel, “Jersey’s Gentleman Beer Baron,” took an unusual route to becoming a big-time beer bootlegger. He never carried a gun and didn’t use typical Jersey strong-arm tactics. By all accounts, he was an honest gentleman conducting an illegal business in a world of violent gangsters. He believed his reputation and business savvy could lead him to success and keep him out of harm’s way.

Mickey “the Muscle” Duffy would change all of that.

Duffy was a strong-arm thug who operated out of Philly and Camden, and he noticed the success of Hassel’s Camden brewery. He visited Hassel and offered to buy into the Camden brewery but Hassel rejected him.

Perhaps Hassel didn’t realize the Muscle’s offer was not to be refused. One night when Hassel was working in the office of the Camden brewery, Duffy and his goons paid him a visit. They simply carried Hassel out and dumped him in the street, informing him that the brewery now belonged to Duffy.

Hassel, being practical, waited a few weeks and negotiated a partnership. Hassel didn’t want a war, and Duffy needed Hassel’s business acumen and contacts, so they teamed up.

Knowing that Duffy was living a high-risk, violent lifestyle, Hassel made a good choice. Duffy was dead within two years, and Hassel regained full control of the brewery. Hassel, along with his partners, Waxy Gordon and Max Greenberg, became known as “the Jersey Trio” and took control of up to 16 breweries throughout New Jersey, each making millions of dollars per year.

One of their techniques for evading the feds was to run fire hoses along the city’s underground sewer lines so their illegal beer could be pumped directly out of the brewery and into a warehouse a few doors down. When federal agents came calling, they would only find the low-alcohol, legal “near beer.”

Newark’s beer war
Longy Zwillman, New Jersey’s least famous gangster, won a deadly war over who would supply Newark’s restaurants and speakeasies with illegal beer and whiskey. Zwillman was New Jersey’s leading supplier of beer during Prohibition. Ruggiero Boiardo came up in the streets of Newark at about the same time as Zwillman, but he did not share Zwillman’s business sense, so his territory was limited to Newark’s First Ward. In conducting his illicit  business, Boiardo made and received dozens of calls each day at a public phone booth in his neighborhood, so he earned the nickname “Richie the Booth” — which morphed into “Richie the Boot.”

Boiardo decided to expand his territory throughout Newark into Zwillman’s turf. While Zwillman respected Boiardo and had stayed out of his First Ward neighborhood, Zwillman wasn’t about to give up any of his own turf. Zwillman’s boys caught the Boot crossing Broad Street in downtown Newark near Market Street. The thugs emptied their guns, hitting Boiardo eight times.

But he lived.

The Boot was no quitter. One day two women visited the front desk of the Riviera Hotel, where Zwillman stayed, and asked to see him. The desk clerk called Zwillman’s room but tipped him off that there was something odd about these women. Zwillman approved the visitors and they were sent up the elevator to his suite. As the two visitors reached Zwillman’s floor and the elevator door slid open, they were met by two bodyguards with pistols drawn.

Zwillman’s bodyguards made two interesting discoveries as they searched the shaking ladies. They had guns hidden in their dresses . . . and the ladies were really gentlemen. Zwillman, ever the opportunist, released the young gunmen unharmed and sent them back to Boiardo with a truce offering.

The two beer-runners met. Each kept his original territory and agreed to avoid any future conflicts. So ended the Newark beer war.

Peaceful drinking
Krueger’s Brewery of Newark, which figured out a way to sell Prohibition-era “near beer” in cans, switched over to real beer when drinking became legal again in 1933. Today New Jersey boasts five craft microbreweries and a dozen brew pubs.

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