Friday, October 17, 2014

Albany Ale: The Preposterous Processes of Amsdell's Porter

It dawned on me the other day that I’ve not really written about historic porter in and around Albany.

The epiphany came earlier in the week when Chad Polenz of chadzbeerreviews.com, asked if I was interested in doing a dual book signing at the Homebrew Emporium. Chad’s book The Handbook of Porters and Stouts hits shelves in the next few weeks, and the Emporium just received a shipment of my book, Upper Hudson Valley Beer. A dual signing at the area’s best home brew shop is a no-brainer, and when in Rome, I suggested we also brew a historic porter (specifically from a recipe in the turn-of-the-century, George I. Amsdell Brewing & Malting Company log-books, held by the Albany Institute of History & Art) on the day of the signing. As of right now, our tentative date for the brew day/book signing is December 14.

A homebrew shop, a book on beer history, a book about porter, and a historic porter recreation—the event sells itself, right?

So, down the rabbit hole I went. 

Arguably the defining beer of 19th century London, and historically popular in U.S. cities like Philadelphia and Boston, porter was also produced in the Upper Hudson Valley—although it seems not to the extent of ale. Perhaps this is because porter stems from a British tradition, and the Upper Hudson valley was still quite Dutch, culturally, into the early 19th century. However, it's likely that many of the area's breweries were making some variation of porter in the 18th century. In 1791 William Faulkner (No, not that William Faulkner) was advertising porter at his Arbor Hill brewery in Albany; and nearly all of the Hudson Valley brewers were making it during the first half of the 19th Century. Brewers up and down the Hudson testified to making porter in the 1835 hearing before the New York State Senate. By the very late 19th century porter was still being made by a number of area breweries—at Fitzgerald Brothers in Troy; in Albany at Quinn & Nolan, and Taylor Brewery—among others—and of course at the George I. Amsdell Brewing Company & Malting Company.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of Amsdell’s porter, I need to pause here and clarify something. I mentioned ale earlier. It’s not until recently (recently being the 20th century) that porter has gained an association as “ale”. Yes, it’s fermented warm, and top fermented, but for the majority of its life, porter was considered to be its own animal, and not simply black ale. Advertisements in Britain and America throughout the 18th and 19th centuries clearly differentiate the two brews. Brewers—and the public—obviously saw them as not one and the same.

Speaking of Britain, British brewers in the late 18th and early 19th century often aged porter. This aging altered the flavor of the porter, mostly because Brettanomyces claussenii in their wood fermenting tubs and unions contaminated the beer, causing it to sour over time as it aged in large vats. Later in the 19th century, brewers and pub landlords took to a more cost saving method of achieving what had become known as the “British flavor”. By blending an amount of a Brett infected aged, strong, stock or "old" ale (or, often additional aged porter) with fresh porter they could achieve an aged flavor, without actually aging it. Guinness continued this practice into the 1970s, adding 3%—or so—sour beer to their wort to achieve a slight tang. However, for the majority of brewers in Great Britain, old ale additions fell out of fashion during the mid-19th century when beer began being served "mild"—that is to say shortly after conditioning—and a slightly soured tang was no longer desirable.

In 1901, Albany’s Amsdell Brewing & Malting Company’s porter was a bit of an odd duck, because they were doing both—blending and aging—well after either practice had been dropped in Britain. According to brewing logs held by the Albany Institute of History & Art, Amsdell blended old ale into their porter wort after the boil, and then vatted it after fermentation (rather than racking it with kräusening wort as they did for many of their other beers). It was an exceptionally high amount of old ale they added, too—sometimes as much as 21% of the total volume, up to 65 barrels. Amsdell's old ale, however, may not have been old ale in the British, strong, soured ale sense of the word, but literally old beer that had been sitting around for a while, which had not been sold. Whether that beer was sour, remains to be seen. It may have been used as an adulterating agent, or simply as a way to get rid of overstock. Along with the heavy addition of old ale, Amsdell also added everything but the kitchen sink to their porter—licorice root, capsaicin (the stuff that makes chilies hot), and grains of paradise. The other additives may have masked the flavor of the older brew.

According to the Amsdell logs, porter was only brewed two or three times a year at the turn-of-the-century, and its grist was similar to other brews in Amsdell's line-up at the time—6-row and black malt, corn grits, and sugars. Tangential, and not distinct only to Amsdell's porter, a substantial amount of "Quick" malt was also used in the breweries second batch of porter in 1901. Martin Mowrer patented the process for making "Quick" malt in 1891. The process allowed for the malting of degerminated barley in as little as 24 hours—1/10 of the normal time. A good bit of salt and Irish moss was also included in the recipes.

The porter was moderately strong, about 6.3% ABV, with an OG in the low 1.070s, finishing around 1.023, making its attenuation about 65%; on par with Amsdell's other brews. 500 to 600 pounds of hops were used in each batch (~2 lbs/barrel), and were also added when the beer was stored.

The brewery also produced a second variation of porter—their Stock Porter—which looks to be nearly identical to their standard porter, except it seems to have not been vatted. The notation of “Stock” might mean, in Amsdellian parlance, “best”—as in the breweries top quality effort, regardless of style. At the time Amsdell was making its Stock Porter, it was also making in its regular rotation, Diamond Stock Ale, and far less often, India Pale Stock and XXX Stock. Old school specialty beer, perhaps?

Be it stock or standard, Amsdell’s porter, with its long list of ingredients, and odd techniques made it one of the brewery’s most unique brews—and one of its rarest, as well.

Now that's out of the way, we need to re-make it. See you on the 14th.



Coincidentally, today is also the 200th anniversary of the great porter flood in London

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Not So Quiet On the Eastern Front

It's a big, ol' love-fest in the craft beer world, right?

Well, maybe that bright and shiny "a rising tide lifts all boats" rhetoric is starting to tarnish, a bit. At least it is according to Dann Paquette of Pretty Things Ale and Beer Project. Esquire's Aaron Goldfarb broke the news of Paquette blowing the whistle on the "pay-to-play" tactics of Boston-area breweries and distributors who pay bars and restaurants to secure lines—essentially locking-out competitors. Paquette, urged others to join anti-'committed lines' cause via twitter, asking:


Big beer ethics in craft beer? Say it isn't so. That could never... happen... to craft.

By the way, good job Dann. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

I Think We Need to Clear Something Up

Everybody knows this latest argument of quality and local beer (and for that matter craft versus krafty) is partisan politics, right?

The arguments don't really have anything to do with quality or authenticity. They are politcal-esque attack ads. They are the beery equivalent of one politician claiming another politician voted against meals for the elderly (even thought the first guy probably also voted again the old folks). But it's not re-election or control of the Senate that's being quibbled over, it's control of the U.S beer market—and "craft" beer is in the middle of it, literally.

It all started 25 or 30 years ago, when micro-brewing got itself going. Companies like AB, Molson, and Miller were big—and times were good in the 1980s. The big boys had been sucking on the "too big to fail" tit since the 1970s. What did they have to fear from some upstart in Boston? Not much—at least not in their world. That was a mistake, because some of those 1980s microbreweries were good, and they grew because of it, slowly pushing into macro's profits. Then came "craft"—the marketing strategy that places authenticity, and so-called innovation, paramount to anything else. Micro-brewing, the denizen of beer-nerds and hobbyists, became "craft" brewing in the 2000s. "Craft" has brought along hipsters and radicalized fan-boys by the legions, first glancing, and now cutting a swath through macro's market share.

What's the lesson to be learned here boys and girls?

The big boys should have payed more attention to the little guys. Perhaps a smiting was in order. That didn't happen. Faux craft or krafty happened, and conglomeration—as is the preferred tactic of macro brewing—happened. In any case, most of the actions came a bit too little, a bit too late.

Do you know who the lesson was not lost on?

Those same upstart breweries, who are not so upstart anymore. Those breweries who grabbed onto "craft" and ran with it—Big Craft. They can now afford marketing departments and strategists, and can sway distributors—all through "craft". This puts them in a unique position, to 1) continue to undermine the macro brewing industry—by using their "craft" credibility; 2) proliferate the "craft" mantra to new breweries and; 3) eat their own young—with warning shots across the bow about lack of quality undermining the industry.

The small guys—the local breweries—hear that they need to be "craft" from their venerable elders, because craft is good and not-craft is bad,  so "craftier" they become—in go the pickles and pepperoni and out comes the bad beer. Macro is chasing the illusive credibility of "craft"—or at least attempts to appear that they are, to gain back their lost percentage of the market. All the while Big Craft sits in the middle like "The Man With No Name" in a  Sergio Leone spaghetti western, playing both sides against each other.

Big craft knows there is a chink in macros armor. Macro beer will still be a major player in the U.S market, but they'll start—actually they've already started—to look to non-U.S. markets to make-up for their loss. The bad-press of craft versus krafty only helps to move that process along. It gets the dander up, if you will.  Big craft also sees weakness in smaller, local breweries. First many of those breweries have been opened by people who shouldn't be opening business—beery or otherwise—in the first place. Secondly, they know that "craft's" mantra of authenticity and "innovation" (i.e potentially, and quite often bad beer)—only acts to undermine those businesses built on unstable foundations to begin with. Big Craft can then turn that lack of quality against those smaller breweries. There lies the "local beer has quality issues" argument.  In the end, it all works out for Big Craft.

It's actually a pretty brilliant strategy—political campaign-style beer selling.

Beery folk have convinced themselves that beer—especially craft beer—is one big happy family. It's not. Beer is a business. Boston Beer Company, Lagunitas, Bells, Stone—and the like—may have started in a garage—but so did Microsoft. It's about market share and money. The arguments of authenticity, quality, and local are straw man arguments. Big Craft wants to sell beer, and they want to sell more beer than the next guy. He who dies with the most number of distributors wins.

Got it? Good. I just want to make sure everybody is one the same page.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Easy Money

The big dance in Denver is done, and the winners have been announced.

If I were a betting man—which I’m not, but let’s say I was—which brewery would I bet on as almost a guarantee to medal at the Great American Beer Festival next year? For this exercise the number of medals received is irrelevant, just as long as a gold, silver or bronze is awarded. So, which brewery has consistently medaled over the lifetime of the the festival. 

Since I’m not a betting man, I’m not going to bet on the jockey with the prettiest silks, if I’m going put down the coin I want a nearly guaranteed, positive outcome, in my favor. 

So who’s it most likely gonna be? Is it an up-and-comer on the cutting edge of “craft” like Lawson’s Finest Liquids? Nope. Not even close. How about venerable favorites like Founder’s, Firestone Walker or Dogfish Head? Nuh-uh. What about big craft? Your odds are getting better, but no.

The easy money bet is Alaskan Brewing Company.

Alaskan has medaled 25 times out of 28 showings since official judging started at the GABF in 1987. That’s an almost 90% success rate. If you want a nearly guaranteed win, bet on Alaskan. 

Buuuuuut, there is a a slight hiccup. 

Although official judging (that is to say standardized, panel judging) began in 1987, the festival held a “Consumer Preference Poll” from it’s beginning in 1983 until the poll was eliminated in 1988, ushering in the “modern” era at the festival. During the “unofficial” era, Boston Beer Company took home poll medals in 1985 and 1986. Those two extra medals tie Boston Beer with Alaskan over the full 32 year run of the GABF, however in the “modern” era of the GABF (from 1987 to 2014) Boston Beer trails Alaskan 23 to 25 in the medal count.

All said and done, your best bets for next year—literally—are Alaskan first, Boston Beer second—and coming in to show—Sierra Nevada, with 22 total appearances.

So what does all this mean? Not much to me, because I still think beer judging is dopey.


Editor's Note: Only six of the breweries—Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer, Snake River, Alaskan, Widmer and Capital—who medaled between 1983 and 1987, also medaled in 2014. Of those six, Sierra Nevada is the only one to have medaled in both the first festival and this past festival.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Albany Ale: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I was watching TV this morning.

That's a pretty normal occurrence at 6:30ish in the a.m., at our house. My usual routine is get up, make coffee, surf the internet, watch a little local news, and wait for the kids to wake-up. Normal every day stuff. Beer—let alone historic beer advertising—does not normally play into this equation.

Today it did—and from a rather unusual source. A local heating and plumbing company's 30 second TV commercial.

Crisafulli Brothers, the aforementioned contractors, have been servicing Albany, Schenectady and Troy’s residential heating, cooling and plumbing issues since way back in 1939. Their most recent advertisement plays off their longstanding service to the community. It opens with a photo of Albany’s N. Pearl Street from the late 1940s. The nearly subliminal blink that the photo is shown could not best my keen eagle-eye when it comes to Albany’s beery past. For even as quickly as the black and white image flipped past I saw it like a beacon in the night—“Beverwyck”.

It just so happens I know the principal player in the advertising agency who put the piece together for Crisafulli Brothers—one Mr. John Schaefer of Schaefer Media & Marketing. A few quick emails back and forth with John, and I now present to you the image for your own inspection:


“First truly great beer and ale in 8 years! Beverwyck Golden Dry Beer and Irish Cream Ale” 

Eight years? The photo was taken in 1948 or 1949, so what happened eight years prior to that?

Quite a lot, actually. 

In 1948 the U.S was still recovering from the Second World War. As of about 1942, the use of cereal grains—like barley—and other fermentables, like sugar were being restricted and rationed for the war effort. Bread, for a 20th-century, 12-million strong military is more important than beer. Not to mention that rationing stateside continued even after the war. But that only puts us at six or seven years prior to the photo being taken? How do we get to eight years earlier? Eight years would put us in the pre-war years of 1940 or 1941* when grain was not restricted.

Actually it was restricted, but not by the government. It was restricted by Mother Nature. Those same U.S. mid-western and Canadian prairie grain farmers, who’s grain was being grown under their respective Government’s contracts during the early 1940s, were also still recovering from the Dust Bowl droughts of the mid and late 1930s, which means really good quality brewing grains were hard to come even as early as 1940. It seems, at least according to the billboard in the photo, that things don’t start to turn around—as far as quality brewing materials for breweries to use—until the late 1940s.

There’s another possible twist in this story.

Just after this photo was taken—the period from the early 1950s to the mid 1960s—marks the beginning of the era in U.S. brewing history when the country's large brewing companies began buying up smaller regional breweries. Including Beverwyck who was purchased by the east coast behemoth, F&M Schaefer (no relation to John Schafer, above) Brewing Company in 1950.

Perhaps, what happened wasn’t simply a scenario that companies like Anheuser Busch or Pabst had grown so exponentially—both before and after prohibition—that they had become so large as it was nearly impossible for smaller, regional breweries to compete with, and were therefore forced out of business or bought out; but rather that the thirteen year hiatus of national prohibition and the obvious negative affect it had on all brewing, which although, some regionals did survive, was compounded only a few years later with the lack of readily available brewing materials in the late 1930s, due to drought, and then Government restrictions on the use of cereal grains (and sugar) during WWII, five to ten years later. All of that combined is what ultimately killed the small to mid-sized regional brewery in America. It’s the old one, two, three punch. By the mid-1960s you have regional breweries that cannot sustain themselves without a merger or buyout, and in-steps the large brewing conglomerates to buy those business that would have collapsed anyhow. 

That also sets up another scenario.

Maybe companies like AB, Pabst, and Schaefer didn’t kill American brewing—maybe they saved it.





*The U.S. doesn’t enter WWII until December 8, 1941, so most of 1941 is pre-war.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Albany Ale: Early Albany Beer

First off, on a totally unrelated, post topic note. I don’t believe I could have summed up the events of last week thru Saturday more eloquently than Mr. McLeod did, so I won’t even try—other than to say thank you, thank you, thank you, to all who participated or were involved with the events.

The crew of the Half Moon at
Albany's early Albany Festival.
What I can say, however, is that this past Sunday's Early Albany Festival at Albany's Corning Preserve, and the return of the replica of Henry Hudson’s early 17th century ship De Halve Maen—better known in these parts as the Half Moon—for its annual autumn stop in Albany, has inspired two posts. The ship itself has prompted a search for the quality of beer aboard the jaght (more on that in the near future—I’m still digging), but whist digging I came across a few interesting tidbits in a 19th century history of Albany. These snippets come from Arthur J. Weise’s 1884 book, The History of the City of Albany, New York, From the Discovery of the Great River in 1524, by Verrazzano to the Present Time. Chapter nine describes the appearance of Albany as of 1685. Most of the homes and structures—numbering about 100—were framed timber, with thatched or shingled, but occasionally glazed tile, roofs; and surrounded by a thirteen feet tall stockade. It also mentions this:
Outside the inns hung square sign-boards, on which were the names of the landlords and of the houses, and the painted representations of some such objects as a sickle and a barley-sheaf, a beaver and a lodge, or a green tree with wide-spreading branches. These pictures often became the common designations for the taverns. The beer, wine, and strong water sold in them were carefully measured by the farmer of the liquor-excise, who derived considerable profits from his exclusive privilege to collect certain fixed rates on the quantity of liquor sold by each tapster and innkeeper. The patroon's brewery supplied the tap-rooms of the village with most of the beer drank in them. (1)
(1) In 1649, three hundred and thirty tuns of beer were made in the patroon's brewery.
The sign thing is cool, and we’ve seen reference before to the early Albany liquor excise and taxation, but I’m particularly interested in the footnote.

First off, how much was 330 tuns? Assuming that the Dutch tun is similar to an English tun (200ish gallons) from around the same time period, were talking about 66,000 gallons or just under 2,000 (Imperial) barrels per year. Not too shabby. Also, remember, in the 1630s and early 40s the Patroon, Kiliaen van Rensselaer, had a lock on brewing in the colony. In 1632, he wrote Johan de Laet saying, “As soon as there is a supply of grain on hand, I intend to erect a brewery to provide all New Netherland with beer…” That same year, van Rensselaer contracts with Jacob Albertsen Planck to “at his own expense and risk and full charge…[to] brew beer to be sold to the men of the Company or to the savages, or do otherwise therewith as he shall think fit.” Planck is the first brewer to make beer under the authority of the Patroon. By 1649, Evert Pels, Planck’s apparent replacement, is in the last year of his seven year contract with Patroon.

Although the Patroon had a ten year jump on brewing in the colony, by the late 1640s, things began to change for the "indie" brewer. The village of Beverwijck had sprung up just north of Fort Orange, and Pieter Bronck, Jacob Hevick, Reyndert Pieterszto, Harmen Harmanse, Jan Weendorp, Rutger Jacobs and Gossen Gerritsz all opened breweries individually, or in partnerships, within the settlement. Jan Labatie was even running a small brewery at the fort—not to mention the other brewers scattered around Rennselarwijck. That begs the questions, if the Patroon’s brewery was suppling most of Albany’s taprooms by the mid 1680s, where was the rest of the beer going? My guess is the 1640s and 50s were the start of Albany’s long waltz with beer exportation.

Weise’s book also gives insight into what kind of beer was being made by New Netherlanders around the same time as the purported 330 tuns of beer was being made at the Patroon’s brewery. Weise reports passages relayed, first hand, by Father Issac Jogues. The Jesuit missionary had visited the area in 1646, during his time acting as an ambassador to the Mohawk Nation, on behalf of Charles Huault de Montmagny, the Governor of New France. Jogues observed Fort Orange, with less than glowing praise, noting that it was “a miserable little fort…built of logs, with four or five pieces of Breteuil cannon and as many swivels.” He also comments on what he refers to as Rensselaerwijck, but is more likely writing about the village of Beverwijck. He notes:
This colony is composed of about a hundred persons, who reside in some twenty-five or thirty houses, built along the river as each one found most convenient…They found some pieces of cultivated ground, which the savages had formerly cleared, and in which they sow wheat and oats for beer, and for their horses, of which they have great numbers.
Wheat and oats. Notice that there is no mention of barley. Why? Because as we have established many-a-time, and as potential barley famers hoping to take advantage of New York State’s Farm Brewery law are finding out today—barley doesn’t grow well in New York. Ya' know what does grow pretty well? Wheat and oats.

Jogues also gives another clue about the quality of the beer  by calling it beer, rather than ale. In the late-Renaissance world of Father Jorgues there was a clear, and relatively simple difference between ale and beer. Although both today would be considered “ales” in the top and warm-fermented sense of the word, however during the 1600s the distinction was that ale contained less hops than beer, therefore beer was more bitter than ale.

This distinction has its roots in the 14th and 15th century beer trade between hopped beer from Central Europe, (notably from the city of Hamburg) and the Low Countries (generally speaking, today’s Netherlands and Belgium) being imported into Great Britain; and un-hopped—or more likely less-hopped—ale, being exported from Great Britain to mainland Europe. The influx or exportation rose and fell, for both (regardless of the direction of travel) over the next few hundred years. This is not to say bitter beer was not produced in Great Britain, or that less-hopped ale was not produced in Continental Europe, however, by the mid 17th century, it had been established that beer was more heavily hopped than ale, and that the Low Countries were noted producers of it—and for that matter also as noted growers of hops.* Long story short, it’s telling that Jogues used the word beer rather than ale, because we can infer that what was brewed in Beverwijck, if not all of New Netherland, was probably bitter.

When you think about it, thats a lot of info in one little package. Between Weise’s footnote and Jorgue’s note on the sowing of wheat and oats for “beer”—75 words, all said and done—we can glean quite a bit about beer made in over 350 years ago, involving both quantity of production, and its ingredients.

Just for the record, though, I think we’ll stick with “Albany Ale” rather than "Albany Beer" as far as the Albany Ale Project title goes.






*Hats off to Ian Spenser Hornsey, for a clear and rather concise foray into the beer versus ale trade across the North Sea 600 years ago, in his 2003 book A History of Beer and Brewing.