Thursday, September 18, 2014

Albany Ale: The Curious Case of Mr. Hoxie's "Beer"

I've never given much thought to George W. Hoxie (other than in regards to Carl Johnson’s spectacular local history blog which shares his name.) Although he has a slightly intriguing surname, Hoxie appeared to be like a dozen or so of short-lived brewers operating in the city around mid-century. Most of those opened and closed in short succession. Hoxie, like George Weber, was also bottler, so his embossed bottles turn up every so often in my internet searches, but other than that, I never paid him much mind.

That was until last night when I spoke with a gentleman who called me from Washington state. This fellow, Gary, has a Hoxie bottle in his collection, and it’s unlike any another American beer bottle he’s seen. Curious as to if I knew anything about it Mr. Hoxie and his beer, he phoned. Unfortunately, my bottle knowledge falls squarely into “shit from Shinola” category.

What I could look into were a few old advertisements for Hoxie. The earliest pops up in 1861, announcing Mr. Hoxie’s business in Albany. It reads:


It seems that Hoxsie’s “Premium Beer” gets shortened to simply Hoxie, shortly thereafter. Later ads from 1863 and 1864 advertise simply "HOXIE!" in bold, typefaces—and don't even including an address. 

At some point Hoxie moved his facility from Eagle Street to Hamilton Street. During the mid 1860s he purchased Thomas Jeffer’s (a soda and mineral water producer) bottling facility, and in 1867 he partnered with George Stevens, becoming Geo. W Hoxie & Co. By the end of the decade, his ads  hawk his bottling facility—apparently the largest outside of New York City, his importation of wine and ales, and his manufacturing of Champagne cider. In 1872 Hoxie sold his share of the business to Stevens, taking a position with the City as Superintendent of the Poor (How’s that for a career change?!)

Here’s where it gets a bit confusing. By the late 1870s Hoxie was not just a who, but had apparently become a thing. At least three bottling firms throughout the 1870s advertised themselves as the successors to Hoxie & Co.—first Stevens & Mandaville, then Mandaville & Williams, J.H. Williams, and finally Thomas Jeffers. They all advertise—not as manufacturers of—but as bottlers of soda, sarsaparilla, kissingen, vichy and seltzer water, ginger ale, cider, lager, and most importantly (advertised as its own line item and in quotes) “Hoxie”.

So what the heck was, Hoxie? 

I have a guess—and it’s very much that, since I have no hard evidence supporting this hypothesis one way or the other.
1873

Let’s start with the “Premium Beer” bit. It’s not ale. People would have known what ale was, and since ale was such a huge commodity in Albany by the 1860s, why not advertise it as ale if it was ale? It’s also not lager. In those later ads it’s clearly differentiated from lager as its own product. 

Let’s think about bottles for a bit. Albany’s beer market in the mid 19th century was very much export focused, and much of its beer was casked for practical purposes—bottles break, barrels don’t. Therefore, ale bottling probably wasn’t very big business for bottlers in the mid-19th century. So what beverages were bottled back then—sparkling beverages (hint: see above). 19th century bottlers specialized in making thick, heavy, cylindrical bottles specifically for heavily carbonated beverages. Good for keeping the fizz in, and also standing the test of time, hence Gary’s unique beer bottle.

Hoxie’s “Premium Beer” may have been something like the "California Pop Beer" Alan wrote about a few weeks ago. California Pop Beer is concoction of of malt, grain alcohol, and sugar spiked with hops, ginger, sassafras, wintergreen, and spruce oils. Then watered down with…well water. Perhaps its “brewing” process is similar to Jamaican ginger beer, undergoing a brief fermentation to produce carbon dioxide, rather than copious amounts of alcohol. Hoxies’s “Premium Beer” might be akin to those fizzy beverages, spanning the blurry era of when the term “beer”—in the sense of root “beer” and ginger “beer”—still packed an ever so slight alcoholic punch. It may have been beer by the very basic definitions—a fermented, beverage containing malt, water, yeast and hops—just significantly (very significantly) “softer” than, say, the 7 to 9.5% ABV Albany Ale.

As to the name Hoxsie itself, I think by the mid 1860s “Hoxsie” may have become so identifiable as a brand in Albany that “Premium Beer” was dropped all together. Not unlike how Coke—and especially Pepsi—have dropped “Cola” from their names over the last forty or fifty years. There may have been imitators as well—an 1865 ad reads “NO GENUINE UNLESS MANUFACTURED AT 25 HAMILTON STREET”.

Beer? Not beer? Brewer or soda bottler? As usual, I’ve got to do more digging to do…but there is this rhyming coincidence, as well.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Gratuitous Self-Promotion: Didja Miss the Last Book Event?

Fear not and no worries!

We've got no less than four more events coming up next week!

Including Brown' Brewing Company's special cask release of their Honest Read Ale—at their newly opened Malt Room their Troy location on September 25th (For all y'all Facebooker's check out the event's FB page.

Honest Read is a homage to the brewers of Old Troy, and Brown's made this beer just for us and the release of Upper Hudson Valley Beer. It's a modern take on the Upper Hudson Valley brews of the 1830s—and a special tip of the chapeau to Troy brewer Thomas Read. For this new release, Brown's combined modern ingredients with those used 180 years ago. Taking a cue from Read, they used 2-Row brewer's malt and honey as their base, then added a bit of "newfangled" smoked malt, some caramel malt and Willamette hops to round everything out. 

We'll be pre-sampling Honest Read, and signing books, at Market Block Books on Tuesday the 23rd of September, and the O-fficial release party/book signing will follow on Thursday the 25th at Brown's. Of course books will be available at each event!

If you still haven't had enough, we'll be happy hour-ing up at the Lionheart, in Albany, Friday the 26th, and we'll be at SUNY Cobleskill's Grain to Glass Day on Saturday the 27th.

Whew! 

Here's a breakdown of all of the upcoming events, with links to the venues:

9/23 Market Block Books - Troy, NY
Book signing and Brown's Brewing Company beer tasting
6–8pm

9/25   Brown's Brewing Company  - Troy, NY
Book signing / Honest Read Ale release party
6–9pm
  Facebook info

9/26 Lionheart Pub (448 Madison Ave) - Albany, NY
Happy Hour book signing
5–7pm

9/27 SUNY Cobleskill Grain to Glass Day - Cobleskill, NY
Book signing and history talk
10am–5pm

Hope to see you at one (or all) of them!


Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Beer of Place

The last few days have been hectic, hence my lack of posting.

An eight-year-old's birthday party over the weekend, and coordinating not only tonight's Albany Institute book launch event for Upper Hudson Valley Beer, but also our next event—a talk, book signing, and beer release shindig at Brown's Brewing Company on September 25th. Again, I repeat—a hectic few days. 

It's the little things that smooth everything out, though. Like last night, a brief respite of a beer whilst grilling sausage. Harpoon IPA, to be exact. Nothing fancy, just a dependable tipple.  It was whilst grilling and chilling (sorry), when something caught me eye on the back label of the bottle— "New England-style IPA".

Yeah, yeah. I know this isn't pinewood.
Hmm. Beer that represents a place. I like that. 

Granted "New England", or for that matter "West Coast", is pretty broad, but I like the idea of a beer "of a place", that is to say beer that represents the essence of somewhere—not the IPA is the best example, but here's what I mean. For me, the smell of a pinewood bonfire always evoke New York's fantastic Adirondack State Park. I could be on South Carolina beach or in my urban backyard, but if if I get one whiff of pine needles smoldering—BANG! I'm around a campfire in the Adirondacks, or at least that's where my imagination goes.

Why can't a beer do that? I'm talking about something other than remembering a beer you once had at the beach, or hop genetics interacting with the environment to produce some kind of terrior. I'm talking about the beer making a connection—a real connection—to a place. Wouldn't a beer that represents where it's from—and incorporates ingredients so associated with that place—be the epitome of a local brew? There's a lot of representation in beer today, and there's a lot of justifying of ingredients in beers, but how much of that truly evokes a "place"?  

Not much. 

Let's work on that.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Sign of the Times

I'm sure if I should laugh or cry.

© American Business Journals

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Albany Ale: Beery History on High

One of the things that became apparent pretty quickly while I was working on my bits of Upper Hudson Valley Beer is that beer does not exist in a vacuum—historically speaking, that is. It's interwoven in the social and economic history of wherever that beer is made. People and places that on the surface have nothing to do with beer, quite frequently pop up in the story, and as I often joke—it all comes back to beer.

This weekend I experienced just that when I went hiking. That's right, hiking.


With my wife and the kids in tow, we headed west, from Albany  to Middleburgh, New York, and the heart of the Schoharie Valley. Rising above the valley is Vroman's Nose, a 1,200 feet tall "scour and pluck" formation—a geological rarity by which the side of the hill was scraped, or "plucked" off by passing glaciers of the Pleistocene—resulting in an abrupt cliff on the hill's southern face.  And, it's just about one of the best day hikes in all of Central New York. The hike is a fairly easy trek of about a 3/4 of mile, and the trail is lined with hemlock and oak. Easy, but admittedly, I was a bit sweaty carrying my lot's lunch—from the Carrot Barn at Schoharie Valley Farms—in a backpack, by the time we reached the top. A bit of perspiration is worth it once you reach the summit, because the Nose offers a spectacular view of the valley—especially this time of year when the fields below are a patchwork of greens and tan; and the the hills which form the valley are in sharp contrast to the bright blue sky.

The Nose, brings something else to the table. Its summit is a 30 feet wide flat, plateau, dubbed the "Dance Floor". Its sandstone surface makes for the perfect canvas, and is etched with names and dates ranging from last year's graduating class of Middleburgh High, to valley residents from the 1850s and 60s—and probably much earlier. There are hundreds of names carved into the floor, and you could spend hours exploring the valley's history, literally etched into stone.

So what's the beery connection to a Devonian-era rock pile?

In 1713 Adam Vrooman established the first farm in the Schoharie Valley, and Vroman's Nose is his namesake. Vrooman had immigrated from the Netherlands in the 1670s, first to Beverwyck, then to Arent van Curler's settlement on the Mohawk River, Schenectady. Vrooman built a mill, brewery and a family in Schenectady, until tragedy struck on the night of February 8, 1690. That fateful night, a contingent of nearly 200 Canadien and Mohawk raiders, slaughtered many of the villagers and destroyed most of the settlement in retaliation for a similar massacre in the French frontier settlement of Lachine, in what is now Quebec. Vrooman defended his family home and brewery, with his eldest son, Barent, and a single rifle, but his efforts were for naught. His wife and youngest son were murdered, and ten-year-old Barent was kidnapped and taken to French held territory.

Vrooman, would eventually travel to Canada, and negotiate for his son's release. With Barent free, Adam expanded both his brewing and milling operations in Schenectady, buying land along the Brandywine creek. Barent took over his fathers brewing endeavor, and continued to operate well into the 18th century. When Adam retired to his Schoharie Valley farm in 1713, he was one of Schenectady's wealthiest businessmen, and the city's most successful early brewer.

See what I mean?

Beeryiness, that on the surface doesn't seem beery, but like the sandstone etchings on the Dance Floor of Vroman's Nose, if you look close, the history is there.

Like I said, it always comes back to beer.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Splitting of Belgian Hairs

I’ve been ruminating on what Stephen Beaumont wrote last week about Belgian beer—or more precisely, that beer brewed outside of Belgium with a traditionally “Belgian” yeast strain does not a Belgian beer make. I know I’m coming at this a bit late, but I wasn’t sure about my opinion on his proposed axiom.

Stephen’s point is basically this: Belgium has a diverse range of ale and lager, each with it’s own range of characteristics, often unique to individual breweries. Simply blanketing all yeast forward beers as “Belgian” or even “Belgian-style”—especially beers not made in Belgium—is in his words is "...a great disservice to the country’s long brewing traditions and current diversity, not to mention the beer, the brewer and the drinker..."

That’s a pretty broad coating of disservice. But I’m not sure I care.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t approve of outright disrespect, and I can can see Stephen’s point, but at what point does factual preciseness begin to blur in pedantry? 

If a group of co-workers were to suggest "Italian" for lunch, and I were chime in “Southern or Northern Italian? Sicilian or Roman?” I would be met with a cacophony of shut-ups and fuck yous. Think of the looks you’d receive at the oil change place when filling in the make and model info on the obligatory form, if you wrote “Honda” and “Civic,  but also added a little note saying that “Although Honda Motor Company is headquartered in Japan, this particular Civic was made in Greensburg, Indiana, and not to be confused with one made in made in Turkey, Thailand or China.” You might need to prepare for a few obscene gestures, or at the very least, a few more charges tacked onto your bill.

How is using the prefix “Belgian” any different than how “American” or "American-style" is used?

The phrase “American” has begun to imply intensely bitter and hoppy beers–but is that indicative of all American beer? No. That didn’t stop Adnams, Mikkeller, Green King, Brains, Wojkówka and— Belgium’s own—Brouwerij Van Viven from releasing American-style IPAs. No one seems to be dis-served on this side of the Atlantic. Speaking as the drinker, I surely don't care. 

In a perfect beery world every beer drinker in the English-speaking realm would know the difference between Old Bruin and an Abbey Ale, but they don't, and we're quite a ways away from a perfect beery world, aren't we? 

No amount of fist shaking is going to change that.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Gratuitous Self-Promotion: O-fficial Book Launch of "Upper Hudson Valley Beer"!

I’m a big fan of the Albany Institute of History & Art. Not only is the museum one of the oldest in the U.S., founded in 1791; and not only do they having an amazing assortment of artifacts and ephemera in both their collections and library—nearly all of which are Albany-related.—but they also really like beer.

For that matter they also seem to like Alan and myself. 

The Institute has been gracious enough to invite me to speak, not once, but twice on the history of brewing in the Upper Hudson Valley, at their Hudson Valley Hops event. They hosted our cask tap and 1901 Albany Ale recreation event last September, and donated—I stress donated—many images from their collections for use in our book. Plus, they are, as a general rule, cool people. Alan and I could not ask for a better community and cultural partner when it comes to the Albany Ale Project and our work rediscovering the history of beer and brewing in Albany and the Upper Hudson Valley. After all that—which is far more than we ever hoped for—they have asked to host the official launch of Upper Hudson Valley Beer.

That’s right. I’m announcing our first official book event!

Please join myself, and the cast and crew of the Albany Institute of History & Art, at the Albany Institute of History & Art on September 11, 2014, from 6pm to 8pm, for a beery good time. Tickets are available on the AIHA’s website for $30 per person or $50 per couple. The price includes a copy of the book (I’m happy to sign it, too) and beer.

Wait…what? Beer? Yup, that’s how the AIHA roll.

Along with the book launch, they’ve also invited the gang from Remarkable Liquids stop by and dole out samples of some of the region’s best beer! 

Me, history, and beer all in one convenient package. Who could ask for anything more? Don't answer that.

Give a click here for all the info, and online ticket sales, and I’ll see ya’ on the 11th.