Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Albany Ale: Albany Ale in G.A. Sala's World

I've been doing a little digging on mentions of Albany Ale in non-American sources. Taking the path of least resistance, and seeing as how I can't read French, German, Flemish, or Czech, I hit British sources first, and got lucky. I came across two mentions of Albany Ale by British journalist George August Sala from his dispatches to London's Daily Telegraph in 1863 and 1864 as he documented the United States during the American Civil War.

Full color Sala.
The first mention I found was from a search on The British Newspaper Archive. It was from the Northern Whig's (Belfast) September 9, 1864 reprint of a Sala correspondence to the Daily Telegraph
"It is a six hours' run from New York to Albany, per the H. R. R. (Hudson Rail Road) The cars are not very uncomfortable, and they are tolerably ventilated. Of the refreshment rooms en route it may be sufficient to state that pie, in every phase of atrocity, and quite equalling the doughy horrors of Schenectady, is to be found at all the intermediate stations. The choking diet is, however, mitigated by the Albany ale, kept on draught, and which is a very sound and refreshing beverage."
Yikes! Sorry Schenectady! 

That little blurb led me to investigating more of Sala's writing on Google books—of which there are a number of examples. In 1865 Tinsley Brothers, of London, published a two-volume collection of Sala's dispatches from North America, titled My Diary in America in the Midst of War. It's there, in volume two, I found a second mention.
"If you eschew "supper," and seek perpendicular refreshment at the counter, you have first of all the bars where, in the non liquor-law States, you may obtain poisonous whisky, brandy even viler, mawkish lager beer, excellent Philadelphia and Albany ale, a wretched decoction known as sarsaparilla—not unlike the coco the men with the turrets behind them sell in the Champs Elysées—and in New England cider as good as any to be procured in Devonshire."
Reading these passages I began wondering how food and drink framed Sala's world. 

Sala was born in London in 1828. His father, was an Italian theater man of some means, and his mother an actress and signing teacher.  He spent time as a teen in school in Paris, and took up writing at a young age. His talent caught the attention of Charles Dickens who, mentoring the young journalist, gave him his first assignment as a correspondent in Russia in 1856. Through the 1850s and 1860s, Sala wrote a column for the Illustrated London News and became a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph. According to his biography on Wikipedia, not only did Sala contribute articles to the Telegraph, but contributed to the paper’s reputation as well, “His literary style, highly coloured, bombastic, egotistic, and full of turgid periphrases, gradually became associated by the public with their conception of the Daily Telegraph; and though the butt of the more scholarly literary world, his articles were invariably full of interesting matter and helped to make the reputation of the paper.”

Sala continued to write throughout the end of the 19th century, publishing both fiction and non fiction, novels and essays, but working most often as he had always done, as a journalist. By his death in 1895, Sala had earned the reputation as one of the most productive and popular day-to-day observational journalists of the 19th century.

In his work Sala often wrote about extensively about food and drink. A clue to Sala's love of the good life comes from Peter Blake's partial-biography of Sala—George Augustus Sala and the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press: The Personal Style of a Public Writer. Blake asserts that Sala had an on-again-off-again relationship with the Bohemian lifestyle of London and Paris in the mid-19th century. Sala wrote of Hamburg businessmen he met while in St. Petersburg who, "drink and smoke and play dominoes and billiards, and otherwise dissipate themselves all night. What lives!" Although Sala may have been drawn to the Bohemian lifestyle, he doesn't seem to have been a die-hard, Henri Murger -like character, but more of a fond observer of Bohemianism. Practicing it as a matter of convenience—traveling nearly penniless one week and then attending royal galas at the Russian court the next.

In Sala's writing food references are abound—in fact too many to mention. One that caught my eye, however, was an interesting connection between road food in traditionally beer and cider producing countries versus wine producing countries, in a footnote in Under the Sun: Essays Mainly Written in Hot Places (1872):
"It is curious that in countries where wine is plentiful there should be nothing procurable to eat, and that in non-wine-growing, but beer or cider-producing, countries the traveller should always be sure of a good dinner. Out of the beaten track in Italy, a tourist runs the risk of being half starved. In Spain, he it starred habitually and altogether; but he is sure of victuals in England, in America, and in Russia. Even in the East, fowls, eggs, kids, and rice are generally obtainable in the most out-of-the-way places; but many a time have I been dismissed hungry from a village hostelry in France with the cutting remark: 'Monsieur, nous n'avons plus rien.' There is an exception to the rule in Germany —In except Prussia—which bounteous land runs over with wine, beer, beef, veal, black and white bread, potatoes, salad, and sauerkraut."
Interesting that he notes Germany—which today would be considered one of the great beer producing countries or the world—is the exception to the wine rule.

Speaking of booze, Sala was not afraid to assert his preference for drink—sparkling brandy—which he refers to as 'nectar of the gods' more than once. Moreover, price seems to be a big factor in Sala's drinking. Blake writes in his book that in 1859 Sala had his nose busted open by a London landlord for complaining about the price of said publican's champagne—not so ironic after having just spent 3 weeks in a debtor's prison. He mentions a few times that wine—good wine, at least—was often beyond his limits, and usually mentions the price difference between different liquors and different kinds of beer, relative to their locality.

Sala also knew what was good and bad. Since he traveled extensively, his views were not confined to London—or England for that matter. He saw what other cultures ate and drank, and often commented on that—sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. He recalls, slightly sarcastically, in reference to foreign accents, how pretty "Paliali ale" sounded after seeing announcements for Cervesa Ingles, Paliali de Allsopp y de Bass on a trip to Andalusia in 1865 in his book Living London (1883). He notes the regular consumption of Bock beer by Europeans in Algiers—and how bad the brandy was—in A Trip to Barbary by a Roundabout Route (1866). He mentions Bock again in his travels through Paris in 1878 and 1879, in Paris Herself Again, noting its unintoxicating effects, and its unusually high price in that city. He mentions Belgian faro, briefly in his auto-biography, The Life and Times of George Augustus Sala (1895), with much dislike. 

Sala was also good not just at framing drink for himself, but also relating his drinking experiences back to his readership. He returns to the topic of ale, briefly, in My Diary in America in the Midst of War, remarking on the pale ale being served at a the Clifton House—a high-end hotel built in the 1830s—on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, in regards to British tourists visiting the falls:
"In addition to the usual colony of English tourists and officers—who are just like English officers and tourists all over the world, and who would admire the Falls a great deal more if the pale ale at the Clifton House were not sour instead of bitter, and if there were any soda-water to be obtained."
Sala's quip gives insight to whatever the Clifton House was serving, and some indication of its quality, at least by mid 19th century British tourist's standards. I'm taking Sala's meaning that sour meant aged, rather than off. The 1860s are right around the time where Brett-infected, aged beer begins to fall out of fashion (with the exception of stock ales and porter), en lieu of "mild" or fresh ale—which was decidedly un-sour. Perhaps the brewers of Clifton House's were a bit behind the curve. It's worth noting that Sala's first mention of Albany Ale in My Diary in America in the Midst of War, comes 30 pages after the Clifton House comment. We might infer, since Sala seemed to find Albany Ale agreeable, then perhaps Albany Ale fell more in-line with 19th century British ale served mild, rather than earlier aged and soured brews? 

Although, Sala may have been being sarcastic, and Clifton House's Pale Ale was just shit. 

In any case, Sala's writing spans the hey-day of Albany Ale, and he's written extensively enough about food and drink of the mid- to late-19th century, to gather a pretty good idea of what he drank and how he liked to imbibe. Considering Sala’s life experiences I take his assessment of Albany Ale to be "excellent", with some credence, and it was—at least in his opinion—better than what was being served in Niagara Falls—or most of the U.S. for that matter!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Albany Ale: Aloha Mr. Hand

Yikes! Long time no see, eh, kind readers?

I'm back—at least temporarily—and I've decided to post a few fan facts about Hawaii (Don't worry, it'll all make sense in a minute). Here goes:

Fun Fact #1: British explorer James Cook's arrival in 1778 was the first documented contact with European explorers. However it is believed that Spanish explorers arrived well before then.

Fun Fact #2: The Kamehameha dynasty began in 1795—after King Kamehameha unified the archipelago—and continued until 1872. Queen Lili'oukalani was kingdom's last monarch. In 1893, her rule was overthrown, and replaced by an American-backed provisional government.

Fun Fact #3 King Kamehameha III relocated the the permanent capital of the Hawaiian kingdom to Honolulu on the island of Honolulu—a town of approximately 8,000 to 10,000 people—in 1845. 

Fun Fact #4: In July of 1898 the Republic of Hawaii was annexed to the United States, and in 1900 was granted self-governance. The one-time royal 'Iolani Palace in Honolulu, was used as the territorial capitol building

Fun Fact #5: On December 7th, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. Naval Station at Pearl Harbor, provoking the United States' entry into the Second World War.*  

Fun Fact #6: Hawaii was the 50th state admitted to the union on August 20th, 1959.

Oh yeah...there's one more.

Fun Fact #7: From 1858 through 1860, Albany Ale (in pints and cases) was being advertised in newspapers and was available from multiple vendors in the Hawaiian capital city of Honolulu. 

The Polynesian, Honolulu, Hawaii, January 21, 1860

So, lets put that in a little perspective. Three years prior to the start of the American Civil War, 40 years prior to annexation and 99 years prior to statehood, Albany Ale is being sold in Hawaii. Keep in mind that Hawaii is just under 2,500 miles from California—except this beer probably wasn't shipped from San Francisco or Sacramento. The Transcontinental Railroad would not be complete until 1869, and it would still be another seven years before the first train would bisect the country on a single trip from New York City to San Francisco. It's more likely these pints and cases of Albany Ale traveled by boat—from Albany down the Hudson to New York harbor, along the Atlantic coast of the United States, and past the Caribbean. Then they'd skirt along the South American continent, rounding Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn, heading north along Chile before hanging a left at Peru, and steaming through the Central Pacific to Honolulu harbor—almost three months later. 

I'll finish with one last bit of perspective—New York to Honolulu (via Cap Horn) is about 4,000 nautical miles further than the trip (via Cape of Good Hope, South Africa) from Burton-on-Trent, in the U.K to Mumbai, India.

*Okay, maybe this one wasn't so much "fun". 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Couple of "Revolutionary" Brews

I’m back!

I’ve been a bit underproductive as far as the blog goes because I’ve been in the midst of an event planning whirlwind. Do you remember the photo of the bale of straw and the Green Wolf Brewing Company bottle I posted a few weeks back? Well that was just a tease.

I’m proud to announce the 1780 Beer Challenge and Revolutionary War Festival on Saturday, May 16th 2015 at Green Wolf Brewing Company, in Middleburg, NY! (Click here for a map)

The Albany Ale Project, Green Wolf Brewing Co., of Middleburugh, New York, and MacKinnon Brothers Brewing Co., of Bath, Ontario, have issued each other a challenge. A beer-infused re-enactment of the 1780 stand off in Middleburgh between New York’s Canada-exiled Loyalists and the Albany County Militia, to benefit the Middleburgh Library. This time we’re doing it with hops, grain, and yeast, instead of muskets and cannons!

I’m working with Green Wolf, while Alan is working with MacKinnon Brothers to create two Revolutionary War-era inspired beers. The beers will be blind judged against each other by WNYT NewsChannel 13’s morning anchor Phil Bayly, food and drinks writer Deanna Fox, and Middleburgh Library Director Teresa Pavoldi. The winner receives bragging rights and the official “1780 Beer Challenge Champion” barrel head. The loser must hoist their opponent’s flag in their respective brewery or taproom. There will also be a “People’s Choice” vote for the best beer.

The day’s activities include a Revolutionary War encampment, colonial brewing and cooking demonstrations, 18th century toys and games for kids, talks on the history of beer and hops in upstate New York and the Schoharie Valley, a Schoharie Valley hops display at the Library, beer samples from Green Wolf and MacKinnon Brothers, and Green Wolf brewery tours. Middleburgers BBQ and Under the Nose gift shop and bakery will be offering barbecue and baked goods for sale, and Al and I will be selling and signing copies of their book Upper Hudson Valley Beer. The day culminates in “The 1780 Beer Challenge”, cask tapping and tasting of the two Rev War brews!

You might ask why Middleburgh? Middleburgh is a tiny little hamlet, about a half hour’s drive south west from Albany. It’s the very definition of small town America, and nestled amongst green mountains and the rolling farmlands of the Schoharie valley. But 235 years ago, it was not such a quiet little spot.

In 1780, as the American Revolution raged, another war—a civil war—was being fought on New York's frontier. Neighbor battled neighbor in an escalating conflict between those loyal to the British Crown and those bent on independence. During the 1770s, many New York Loyalists, including Sir John Johnson and the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, were forced off their land, finding refuge in southern Canada. Set on disrupting the borderlands, Johnson returned to New York in 1780 having raised his Loyalist King’s Royal Regiment of New York while in Canada. With Brant and his Mohawk warriors, Johnson aimed to lay waste to the fertile Mohawk and Schoharie valleys—the “breadbasket” of the Revolution. They embarked on a slash and burn campaign, destroying what had once been their own farms and grain fields, in order to starve the Continental Army.

What Johnson wasn’t expecting was the dogged determination of a rag-tag group of Albany militia and volunteers protecting local families and defending the middle fort—“Fort Defyance”—at Middleburgh, led by Colonel Peter Vrooman, and the sharpshooting hero of the Battle of Saratoga, Timothy Murphy. Low on ammunition, outnumbered three to one and under cannon-fire, the Continental commander, Major Melancthon Woolsey, ordered the surrender of the fort. Murphy, against orders fired over the heads of the approaching Loyalist truce party three times, refusing to relinquish the fort and rallying the defenders behind him. The patriot’s refusal to yield their position cost the Loyalists precious time on their advance north. Although Johnson’s successful campaign devastated the Schoharie farmlands, the delay at the middle fort would help the American forces marching from Albany to halt Johnson’s attacks in the Mohawk Valley.

Today, Justin Behan of Green Wolf Brewing Co. is producing some really great brews just about a mile from where Johnson’s raiders marched on the fort, and the MacKinnon Brothers, up in Ontario, are brewing on their family farm, settled by their Loyalist ancestors in 1784.

The story kinda’ writes itself. But what about the beer, you ask?

Although the Loyalists and Patriots of 1780 disagreed on their allegiances, beer was a commonality. Whether in Canada or Central New York, the beer these two groups made during the American Revolution was similar. Both were strong—7% to 10% ABV; both used Cluster hops and locally grown grain—most often wheat, or other grain, rather than barley; and both used similar brewing techniques—like using chopped straw as a filter, to prevent the grain from becoming a gluey mess during the mash (Now that bale of straw in the photo makes sense, huh?) It’s this kind of strong, locally sourced wheat ale that Green Wolf and MacKinnon Brothers will do battle with.

Admission for the 1780 Beer Challenge and Revolutionary War Festival is $15 (for adults 21 years of age and older) and includes beer sampling tickets and a Green Wolf sampler glass, or $35 for sampling tickets, a Green Wolf sampler glass, and a signed copy of Hudson Valley Beer. Admission for non-drinkers, or those 20 years of age or younger is $10. Children and teenagers under 15 are FREE! All ages are welcome but you must be 21 to drink.

So pick your side—Loyalist or Patriot—and head out to Middleburgh for a little beer and history!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Your Beer Isn't As Innovative As You Think It Is

I was informed last week that, apparently, some beer styles are dated. These styles being, Porter, Oatmeal Stout, Red Ale, Brown Ale, etc... Now, I’m assuming they're dated in regards to more currently popular trends such as triple IPAs and sours, and innovative techniques like barrel aging.


I think we need to define our parameters a bit. According to Merriam Webster, to trend is an intransitive verb meaning to “extend in a general direction or to follow a general course”; and innovative is an adjective meaning “introducing or using new ideas, devices or methods.” I think beer folk have a tendency to to think the those two terms are part in parcel concordant to one another. They are not, and trends are not necessarily a result of innovation.

Yes, beer trends, its always has. Beer evolves over time. Beer changes because the public’s taste changes. Styles wane and return. Its strength rises and falls and its ingredients change. But Porter is no more dated than say Gose. Sure, Gose is currently popular now, but trends ebb and flow, and the popularity of a style at any one particular time doesn’t accurately reflect that style’s arc. In fact the arc of Porter brewing in the United States far exceeds that of the arc of Gose brewing at this point, so implying that Gose—or any number of other styles which have recently begun to appear on the American scene—is some how superior to Porter because of its current popularity is a bit like saying Meghan Trainor is better than Led Zeppelin because “All About That Bass” was the breakout hit of 2014 and Zeppelin hasn’t released an album since 1982’s Coda. One beer stye is not better or more important or more relevant than another. It's the long game that matters.

Now then, onto innovation. As far as I can tell the most innovative things to happen to beer in recent history fall in this order (and I’m sure I’ll miss a few, but you’ll get my point): The invention of the modern mercury thermometer and the Fahrenheit scale (1724) and saccharometer (1770); Watt’s steam engine (1781), the advent of microbiology and pasteurization (1875); commercial refrigeration (1876), the perfection of bottling technology (1897); wide spread electricity and the assembly line (1914), and the perfection of canning (1934); and the development of the programmable logic controller (1968). Those are beery innovations. Those events “introduced and used new ideas, devices or methods”. 

This might be a good time to debunk a few "innovative" misconceptions. 

Double, Triple or Imperial: Strong, bitter beers are not innovative. Strong, bitter beer has been around for centuries. During the 19th century British brewers put as much as 10 pounds of hops into each (36 imperial gallon) barrel of their strong stock ale. Imperial as a term to denote “the strongest” has been around for almost 200 years, and not just in reference to stout. 

Sour beer: Sour beer is not innovative. Cantillon has been brewing intentionally sour beer since 1900, and 3 Fonteinen has been blending Gueze for 128ish years. I dig Jolly Pumpkin as much as the next guy, but again innovative isn’t the right word to describe them. "A great brewery" works just fine.

Barrel-aging: Barrel aging is not innovative. For as long as wood staves have been held together by metal loops, beer has been placed in that wood to age. What about barrel aging in a spirits barrel? Okay, that was a bit innovative for Goose Island’s Greg Hall to fill six Jim Beam casks with Stout at the Great American Beer Fest—back in 1992. Twenty-three years ago.

Yeah, that’s right the hottest trend in brewing today—spirit barrel aging of beer—has been happening for nearly a quarter century.

Low ABV beer: Low ABV beer (just like high ABV beers) are not innovative. Low ABV beers did not come about because of the drinking “session”. Aside from small and table beers—brewed most often for children and invalids—most low ABV beer was produced as a nutritional supplement for laborers working extended hours in fields or in factories. The modern “session” beer is not the result of innovation either. It’s a result of British beer gravities dropping after both WWI and WWII, in which beer making ingredients either ended up on the bottom of the Atlantic, or were rationed for the war effort. These low ABV, often cask beers caught on, and eventually became to be seen as "traditional".  By the 1970s and 80s, they were being championed by CAMRA and the term “session” was born in the late 1980s and 1990s, says Martyn. By the way, “session" strength IPA isn’t innovative either. According to Ron, Barclay Perkins IPAs of the 1940s hovered at about 3.5% ABV. 

Ingredients: Ingredients do not make for innovation. Non-traditional brewing ingredients like herbs, spices, spruce, honey, old beer, capsicum, and licorice root have been used in brewing for eons. Vanilla, coffee, and fruit are just continuations of a previous practice. Also, new hop varieties—like Nelson Savin—are not innovative. That would be like saying a Labradoodle is more innovative than a Rottweiler. 

Newness. A new beer is not automatically innovative. A new to you beer is not innovative. A beer or brewer that you are being told is innovative most likely is not innovative.

So, to review. The jet-engine was an innovation. The Beatles were innovative. Barrel-aged sour beers are just trendy beer.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Sneak Peek

All I'm saying is, it's gonna be Revolutionary. More to come in a few weeks...

Monday, March 23, 2015

Double the Fun

I have to say,  I'm a bit excited about two upcoming events. Partly because I had a hand in organizing them, but mostly because I think they are a going to be a great way to bring some really great beer to a new audience.

On Friday, May 27th through Sunday the 29th, my great friend Paul Engel (of whom I've known for... er, uh... just shy of 30 years) is hosting The Spring Cask Tap at his tavern, the Allen Street Pub. If you've never been, to the pub it's the perfect mix of great craft beer and neighborhood dive-iness—go read what the good Dr. McLeod had to say about the ASP.

In any case, Paul is really into cask beer—I mean really into it—in fact he's a trained cellarman, and that's the impetus for the Spring Cask Tap. To bring in as much great cast beer as he can and revel in it. He's getting local casks, including ones from Argyle Brewing Company, and Wolf Hollow Brewing Company—and an oak cask of Bert's DQ'd Imperial Stout from Wandering Star in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He's also bringing in two UK-made brews—Postman's Knock from Hobsons, and Dark Star Original, and I imagine a few a few other surprises, too. The star of the show, however, might be BFM's Cuvée Alex Le Rouge—one of only 20 casks imported into the U.S

It's totally free to get in, too.

The following weekend, April 4th, my pal Dora Philip, owner of The Hollow Bar + Kitchen, in downtown Albany, will be hosting the Upper Hudson Valley NanoFest. She asked myself and local beer blogger/author Chad Polenz if we wanted to do a book and beer event, and it exploded into a mini-beer fest featuring five local nano breweries and ten different beers!

The Hollow has become a hot spot for great music and fantastic food, so bringing in great local beer was a no-brainer. The five breweries involved are Argyle Brewing Co., Green Wolf Brewing Company, Rare Form (Troy), Honey Hollow Brewing Company (Earlton) and The Beer Diviner (Stephentown). Chad and I will selling and signing books, as well. NanoFest is a ticketed event, and tickets are available at the Hollow before April 4th for $20, and on the day of the event for $25.

The Allen Street Pub is located at 332 S. Allen Street in Albany. For any questions call (518) 391-9258.

The Hollow Bar + Kitchen is located at 79 N. Pearl Street in Albany. For any questions call (917) 279-8817.


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Beery Existentialism - Part Deux

I’ve had a recent revelation.

I don’t enjoy craft beer bars—and by “craft bar" I mean a bar which exclusively serves craft beer, or high-end imports, rather than a brewery taproom, or a brewpub.

Often, when I walk into a craft bar, I get the same feeling I did when I walked into class—mid lecture—after a dentist appointment in high school. All eyes on me. I feel uncomfortable in craft bars, and I’m the kind of person that feels pretty comfortable in most situations. I feel un-cool in craft bars. The problem is, craft beer has become “cool”, and seeing as how I’m not very “cool”, I really do get a tinge of un-cool high school kid anxiety in craft bars. I feel like I don’t know something that everyone else knows, or that I don’t have enough tattoos, or I'm not drinking the right beer. So, to make things simpler, I don’t go to them, at least not very often.

I am much more comfortable in a bar that has a great beer selection but isn’t necessarily a “craft” bar. I like the dive, or the dart league bar, or the neighborhood watering hole where two people can sit at the bar having a conversation about the local high school football team while one drinks from an aluminum bottle of Coors, and the other drinks a pint of the latest and greatest from Stillwater Artisanal. I like the happy co-existence of Bud Light and barrel-aged stouts.

I have no problem with the “craft” bar—and I don’t begrudge their existence—but they might not feel the same way about me.