Friday, October 7, 2011

The Session 56: Thanks to John Taylor – the Original American Big Boy

I have a lot to thank John Taylor for.

Before I get to him however, I should say that if it weren't for Alan, we never would have met. About a year and a half ago the good Doctor McLeod stumbled across a reference to "Albany Ale" in a digital version of the Newfoundland Public Ledger, of October 12, 1847. He simply asked, What the Heck was Albany Ale? Being an expert in all things Albany (just like my British expertise) I decided to poke my nose into things. That started an on again/off again love affair between Alan, myself and Albany Ale.

That didn't come out the way it sounded in my head.

I know that Martyn and Ron are way better at the brewing history thing, but living in town, I felt a bit obligated to get to the bottom of this Albany Ale issue—and what I found was pretty surprising. The Dutch did build breweries in colonial Albany, but it would be rum distillation that would dominate spirit production in New York until after the American Revolution. Small commercial breweries began popping up in the city, around the turn of the 19th-century, but it would take another fifteen or twenty years before large scale ale brewing operations would begin, in earnest in Albany. The period between 1820 and 1870 would see Albany become the largest brewing city in the country. There was, at any given time during that period, between 20 and 30 operating breweries within the city—a city of about 50 thousand residents—including breweries like Amsdell Brothers, McKnight Brewery, Peter Ballantine (yup, that Ballantine) and Andrew Kirk, to name a few. Here's a Google map that shows where they all were.

Yes, in the 19th-century, there were breweries all over New York and in cities across the eastern seaboard—and expanding west—Philadelphia, for example was renowned for it's porter. But the fact is, the amount of beer being made in the city of Albany was, without a doubt epic. Albany made everywhere else look like small potatoes. It's also, unfortunately, a part of my town's history that is all but forgotten. In fact, historic ale brewing in the U.S., not just in New York, is a nearly forgotten industry that help to shape this nation, but has been far overshadowed by the histories of late-19th century lager brewers—but I'll get into that later.

So, how did Albany go from having a few small operations to being the 19th-century American equivalent to Burton-on-Trent? Three factors—New York grown hops, the Erie Canal and John Taylor.

Central New York, in the 19th-century, was like Kent, the Hallertau and the Yakima Valley combined. In 1808, Massachusettsian James Coolidge, emigrated into the state and planted the first hop vine in central New York. Hoping to cash in on the plant's economic potential, Coolidge would have never guessed that within forty years New York would be producing almost 80% of all hops in the U.S. By the end of the century, the state was exporting 60 million pounds of hops a year—a good portion of that sent to England. A temperate climate; loamy, nutrient rich soil; and just the right amount of rainfall made Madison, Otsego and Oneida counties the perfect hop producing areas in the country. There's was one other thing that made hop production successful in New York—ease of transportation.

In 1825, the ability to move goods from one end of the country became a significantly easier. A nearly 400 mile waterway, complete with locks and towpaths, opened on October 26 of that year. They named that little route The Erie Canal, and it made it possible to ship goods and people, nearly continuously from New York City to California. At the junction of the Canal and the Hudson River, sat the city of Albany. Perfectly located to receive hops and barley from the western part of the state; fully capable of brewing barrel after barrel of beer and then shipping it back west, via the canal, or south down the Hudson and out to the Atlantic. The perfect storm of supply, production and distribution.

Raw ingredients, transportation, and manufacturing are all essential to a boom, but one more element is also necessary—exploitation. That's where Mr. Taylor comes in. Born at the end of the 18th century, John Taylor emmigrated as an infant, with his parents from England, in 1791. Originally trained as a candle maker, and having owned a number of candle making business, Taylor would, eventually turn his attention to brewing. Partnering with his, most awesomely named brother-in-law, Lancelot Fidler. The two opened Fidler and Taylor Brewery on Hamilton Street in 1822. Within ten years Taylor would buy-out his brother-in-law, move the brewery to Green Street, dropping the Fidler name all together.

The temperance movement and prohibitionist sentiment were on the rise during the 1830s and alcohol was increasingly seen as having ill-effects on the well being of the American family. John Taylor and his brewery were not immune to this negative view. Edward C. Delavan, a former wine merchant-cum-prohibitionist accused Taylor of adulterating his beer and using water contaminated with feces and decomposing animal matter. This acusation resulted in an investigation by the New York State Legislature, of which twenty of the states most notable brewers and brewery owners testified (All of them denied adding anything "unorthodox" to their coppers.) The hearring and then a subsequent 1840 libel suit and trial against Delavan, would garner newspaper headlines and thrust, not only Taylor, but also Albany brewing into the national spotlight.

The brewery at Broadway and Arch Street.
By 1850, Taylor's sons, John and Joseph, were running brewery offices in New York City and Boston. Taylor's Celebrated Imperial Albany Cream and Albany XX Ale was being sold in such far-flung places as San Francisco, New Orleans, Argentina and Nova Scotia. In 1852 Taylor Brewery, now John Taylor & Sons, would move to it's final location at Broadway and Arch Streets—adjacent to the Hudson River. This new location was the height of brewing technology. With two large buildings six and seven stories, respectivley, the brewery compound boasted a grain elevator; five malt houses; a fire-proof storehouse; a ten-thousand volume library; a one hundred and thirty foot clock tower; a European imported, steam apparatus for it's cooperage; pressure kettles; and a state-of-the-art "pontoon" refining-system similar to ones used in English breweries—specifically Whitbread (you can check out the "pontoons" in Martyn's post about Taylor.) Why all the high-fallutin' technology? Because, in less than thirty years, Taylor & Sons had become the largest and most successful brewery in the United States. Taylor & Sons had the capability to brew 200,000 barrels of ale a year—only the breweries of London produced more. Normally, large scale, American brewing operations, of the 19th-century are associated with lager and names Like Busch, Blatz and Miller. Not in this case, Taylor was an all ale brewer, and at the time, significantly larger and more profitable than any of the Midwest breweries. By the start of the American Civil War, Taylor would employ more than 200 workers—of which, any that enlisted in the Army, Taylor would hold their jobs and pay half their salary to their families until their return. Taylor's wealth exploded in the last years of his life, reporting nearly $125,000 in 1860—comparing his wealth to the economy he lived in, that figures out to be about $400 million.

A Taylor bottle circa 1880.
John Taylor died on September 13, 1863. Within ten years, William Taylor, John's only surviving son, would die also. The brewery continued to operate as a family business under the name of John Taylor's Sons, but with William's death, the remaining family members would sell the brewery, they did, however retain some financial control. With the rise of lager, Taylor's ale production slowly dwindled. It's highest yield, since the brewery's hay-day, coming during 1883, with 80,000 barrels. In 1887 the brewery would change it's name one final time to Taylor Brewing and Malting Company, under which it would operate, disassociated from any Taylor family member, until it closed in 1905.

Now, other than being a cool, long-lost story, and Taylor being, arguably, the match that ignited the brewing boom in Albany, what do I have to thank John Taylor for? Here's the deal: If I hadn't stumbled across Alan's post about Albany Ale, I probably would not have done any research on 19th century brewing in Albany. By not doing any of that research, my interest wouldn't have been piqued by Taylor and I would not have gone back again and again to Alan's blog to post more info on both Taylor and Albany Ale. In doing all that, I came to the realization that I love to write about beer. So, if it weren't for John Taylor, you wouldn't be reading this blog!

Thanks, John Taylor—and you too Alan!

By the way, for ALL the Albany Ale skinny, check out this link on Alan's blog or check out the Albany Ale page on Facebook.  


  1. Great stuff. I for one am pleased that you were inspired to delve into the history of Albany Ale. There's so much of America's brewing history that's been forgotten or ignored. I'd dive into myself, except I've got my hands more than full with just Britain.

  2. As RonP said, Great stuff.

    I am really glad you researched, wrote, and posted the information.

    And glad I followed your comment on Alworth's blog back here.

  3. Albany is very selective about it's history. We're very Dutch-centric, but the Dutch were only in power, here, for forty years (1624-1664). We are a river city. EVERYONE was dependent on the river and later the canal, yet in the mid 1960s Mayor Erastus Corning II and Governor Nelson Rockefeller paved over our section of the canal and built the I-787 interstate highway on the riverfront. Since then, Albany has simply forgotten about that part of her history. Albany's brewing history has suffered the same fate.

  4. I can't take all the credit, Jack, Alan has done a TON of research, too—and again, thanks for coming back!

    One last not on the research. It's not just ignored Ron, it doesn't exist. That makes for some tough going.

  5. Craig,
    You informed me [on Alworth's Beervana blog]:
    'there still would have been a good number of ale breweries' in 1870.

    Today, I found the following in 'The Rocky Mountain directory and Colorado gazetteer, for 1871: ...'
    'The Denver Ale Brewery is also an establishment worthy of more than passing note. The ale brewed here is as fine flavored and as good quality as that of the best English or Eastern breweries, and is made from Colorado barley. The proprietors of this establishment assure us that the malt from Colorado barley is superior, and that shipments of this can be made to St. Louis and other cities east of us, with profit.'

    You were so right; thanks for the tutorial(s); thanks for heightening my awareness.

  6. An absolutely brilliant read, thanks for the contribution Craig.

  7. Jack - Always happy to help out!

    Reuben - Thanks for reading AND hosting this month!

  8. Yeah, a really well-written, well-researched peice - i've learnt stuff! Good work, dude.