Monday, April 23, 2012

Albany Ale—It Was A Family Affair

When Akum was writing her post about Albany Ale she asked a simple question.

What was Albany Ale like?

Albany's South End circa 1850 – Taylor's Brewery is the large
 building to the extreme left. Click here for the whole image 
Alan and I have been researching this thing for nearly two years now, so we should have a pretty solid answer, right? Granted the devil is in the details, but we have somewhat of an idea of what went into the brew. No big deal, it should be pretty easy to say what Albany  Ale was "like." I must have gone over its specs in my head a thousand times. Something was gnawing at me, something wasn't right, and before I gave Akum the low-down—just to be on the safe side—I though I'd run my idea of what Albany Ale was by Alan, to make sure we were both on the same page. So, off went an email to my Canadian partner-in-crime. Here's how it went:
I've been asked a number of times what Albany Ale was like (pertaining to its 1830s–1850s incarnation, that is). Akum, the women who is writing the blog piece for the Albany Times Union, asked me the same question. Below is how I described it to her, but I thought you and I ought to be on the same page:
• 7-8% ABV.
• Most likely it was a single malt pale beer.
• The well water used was probably harder than Albany water of today, hence the trifling of salt, perhaps used to soften the water.
• Heavily hopped with Cluster hops, but not necessarily bitter—the use of older, un-refrigerated hops would have resulted in a diminished Alpha Acid potency—therefore more hops would have had to have been used, but without the stronger effects of fresh hops. If the beer was stored for a good amount of time, the bitterness/hoppiness would also be affected, negatively.
What do you think?
Here's Alan's response:
I'd be higher in the alcohol. 9 to 10 % according to that medical chart I have somewhere in the comments to the blog posts. 
Wait, what? Alan surely you jest.

Yeah, yeah, sure we've seen reference to Albany Ale being stronger in bottles (10.87%) than in barrels (7.38%) and yes there is something to be said for the weakest of 19th-century beer being on the stronger side of what is available today. But a nearly four percentage difference in ABV? That can't possibly be right. No, no—Albany Ale had to be on the lower end of the scale. There has to be an error in the evidence—a misplaced decimal point, misguided 19th-century science, even faulty brewing mumbo jumbo translation. I will fight this tooth and nail—two beers that are just over 7% and one just under 11% can't possibly be the same beer!

But they were—and here's how.

At first, one might assume that Albany Ale was simply all ale made in Albany—like the notable Porter made in and around Philadelphia during the end of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th century. Or, you might think it was an ale brewed with a uniquely Albanian ingredient, which caught on and juggernauted its way through the 19th century. However, what seems to be more appropriate than either of those, comes from a broader stance of what Albany Ale could have been. In fact you have to look at Albany Ale as not a thing, but as things—a euphamism for a family of ales, of different strengths, made in and around Albany, New York—not unlike Burton or Edinbugh Ales of Great Britian. Could John Taylor & Son's Albany Imperial XX Ale have been akin to the numbered ales of England's Bass & Co. and Scotland's William Younger & Co.

We have reason to believe that Albany Ale was parti-gyled. For those of you uninitiated in the ways of historic brewing, parti-gyling is a blending of worts to achieve a certain gravity. Basically, a single batch of grain is mashed, sparged and its running are collected, usually two to three times. Each subsequent running has a lower gravity than the previous one. The runnings are then boiled and hopped, separately, the worts are then brought back together in different ratios allowing the brewer to adjust the gravity of the now combined wort. Adding a little of the weakest wort to the strongest will mellow it out, while adding a little of the strongest to the weakest will strengthen that beer. It's all about brewing efficency. Brewers could make at least two, sometimes three or four strong beers (plus a little small beer) without having to actually brew that many times. There are a variety of ways to do this, but this is the general idea. I also need to mention that it was neither Alan or I who picked up on this—it was of course the indubitable Mr. Pattinson.

Now it makes sense why we've seen reports of Albany Ale ranging in ABV—the 7.38% brew was made at the same time as the 10.87% brew—which means that Albany Ale could be made and most importantly sold as different strengths—different strengths of literally the same beer, mind you. Ron noted in an email to me that at the same time Albany Ale was entering its heyday, 3,000 miles away in England, Whitbread was brewing its own parti-gyled, ale with a variety of gravities:

1841 Whitbread X Ale 1077º
1841 Whitbread XX Ale 1091º
1841 Whitbread XXX Ale 1103º

Those numbers look right in-line with the high and low end of Albany Ale. Albany's 19th-century ale brewers came from the Anglo brewing tradition, so it makes sense that they would emulate British brewing practices. Just as Whitbread & Co, was brewing its own version of varied-strength family ale, at its brewery on Chiswell Street in London, so was every brewer in the city of Albany—from Amsdell to McKnight, Dunlop and Boyd and Kirk—all with their own "families" of and unique twists on what they called "Albany Ale." 

So, where does that leave us? Leaps and bound from where we were, but still far from cracking the mystery of Albany Ale—but now we know we have more than one beer to brew—a whole family in fact. As for me, I need to start trusting the evidence and stop wishing Albany Ale is something (or somethings) it was not.  


  1. Fascinating stuff.

    Last Fall, I was wondering about the lagers brewed by the German emigrant brewers in pioneer Colorado, circa 1870. I did not get very far. There is applicable information embedded in your analysis.

    Keep it coming.

  2. We're trying Jack—but our day jobs keep getting in the way!