Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Albany Ale: XXs and Ohs?: Part 1

First off let me say this post did not go the way I was expecting it to. At least, my initial intention of the post was far different than what ended up on the page—er, uh screen. I really thought this would be a quick little post on some Albany brewing logs I dug up—boy was I wrong.

Amsdell's brewing log from 1901
I also want to add a caveat. Speculation plays a large role in this post. American brewing records of the 19th century are very hard to come by, so the hard evidence is few and far between. Speculation presented as fact can be a slippery slope, and since the evidence is so slim, take from this what you will. That being said many a crime has been solved by gut instinct and many a criminal has been jailed on circumstantial evidence. So, as they say on Broadway, on with the show.

The whole thing started back in August. Dieter, the heirloom hop grower, mentioned that an acquaintance of his, who works at the Albany Institute of History and Art, had told him the Institute held a few old brewing records form a brewery within the city of Albany. How had that escaped me? Oh, well. A quick stop by the Institute revealed two logs in fact, both from Amsdell Brewing and Malting Company—one log dated to 1901 while the other were the records from 1904. George Amsdell opened his brewery in 1854, his brother Theodore stepped in three years later. The brothers grew their modest facility at Jay, Dove and Lancaster streets into one of the dominant breweries in the U.S. within a few years, and would continue to operate until prohibition.

Looking through the logs I saw nothing identified as Albany Ale—Scotch, Polar, Winter, Diamond, Porter, IPA and even a Burton recipe that seems to be given to the brewer by Quandt's brewery, just a few miles north of Albany, in Troy, NY—but nothing labeled as "Albany". So, what's a historic beer researcher to do? First off, tell his partner in crime what he found and then—since historic brewing records always read like stereo instruction in Japanese, to me—get Ron Pattinson involved. The three of us can and do a little emailing and discussing, and maybe we'll do a trifecta posting and call it another good month of research. Maybe we could have a little cabal in Canada, too.

Vassar's brewing log from 1835
Canada, it turned out, was the key, although I had no idea at the time. Alan and Ron—along with a little help from yours truly, and Ethan Cox of Community Beer Works, in Buffalo—had helped Beau's All Natural to develop their version of Vassar Ale from Matthew Vassar's brewing records, supplied to us by Chad Fust of Vassar College. Our efforts resulted in an invite to Vankleek Hill, Ontario and an opportunity for Ron to present a comparison of Vassar's records against British brewing records of the same period. It was also a chance for me to see how Ron's mind was working on the Vassar log, a priming, perhaps, of my own pump.

Along with the Vassar logs, we've also come across a invaluable source from the same era—an 1835 report by the NY State Legislature in which a good number of Albany, Hudson Valley and New York City brewers testified to the quality and purity of their beer. Of those brewers, only one—Thomas Read of Troy—gives more than generalities about their process. His testimony is as follows:

...say from 3 to 3 1/2 bushels of malt to the barrel, and from 2 1/2 to 5 pounds of hops to a barrel, and about four quarts of fine salt to 60 or 70 barrels; say in our pale, we put about two or three pints of honey to the barrel, we think makes the pale ale finer, and is rather an improvement; but we use none in brown beer; the malt is the chief material used, and the article which chiefly communicates tho different tastes, qualities and colour to the beer and ale; and the different shades are chiefly owing to the manner in which the malt is dried on the kiln, and in some measure to the colour of the hop. When we make pale ale, we always select the palest malt and the palest bales of hops. We use no water, but pure, clean water, formerly from a spring, and at present from the city water-works.

Alan worked out the technical details and and came up with a brew that sat around 8.5%. It wasn't until this past week, however, that I asked a defining question—how did that compare to Vassar's 1830s logs? Similar, very similar, was the answer, according to Ron. So similar, it could be said, that Vassar was producing his own version of Albany Ale, just calling it something different.

We also know that in the 1840s, Albany physician L.C. Beck did analysis of Albany Ale, and stated that "... Albany ale in barrels, contains 7.38 per cent., and that in bottles 10.67 per cent spirits." It now appears that Albany Ale, at least in the 1830s and 40s, was a group of "somethings" that ranged in strength. I've written before that we believe that Albany Ale was parti-gyled—a process by which runnings of wort, from the same mash, are blended to achieve a consistent gravity for single beer, but this technique also results in the ability to make a number of beers, of different gravities, from single brew. Parti-gyling was a common method in British brewing of the 19th century, and apparently, in the U.S. as well. Vassar's logs prove this.

Here come the Xs—finally!

Beer strength in 19th century brewing logs is represented by the letter X (yes, yes Ron I know K, and T and a whole alphabet soup shows up, too—but for this exercise let's just stick with X). It's a fairly simple process—the more Xs the stronger the beer, just like those jugs of hooch you used to see in the Merrie Melodies cartoons of the 1940s and 50s. Generically speaking we can speculate (there's that word again) and extrapolate the alcohol by volume levels of Albany Ale, during Vassar and Beck's time, fell somewhere in categories like this*—granted the numbers might have varied by a percentage, plus or minus, here or there:

XXXX = 10 – 11%
XXX = 8 – 9%
XX = 6 – 7%
X = 4 – 5%

Great, Albany Ale was part-gyled and came in a range of strengths. Didn't we already figure that?

Yup, but here's where things get interesting.

Remember when I said the Amsdell logs never mentioned Albany Ale. They do, however mention XX—quite a bit, in fact. The four most common brews in both the 1901 and 1904 logs** are Amsdell's Diamond Ale, at near 7% ABV; their Scotch Ale, around 6.5%; the XX ales, at about 5%; and finally, Polar near 4.5%. Just as XX strength beer did in Vassar's day, Amsdell's XX ales of the turn-of-the 20th century occupied the low-mid level, as well—the scale had simply changed. Could those XX Ales be a vestige of the Albany Ale of yore? Don't get me wrong the turn-of-the century XX ales made by Amsdell, bare no resemblance to those beers made by Vassar or the Albany Ale analysed by Beck. The turn-of-the-century beers are full of hop extracts and brewing sugars, and you wouldn't have seen that in the 1840s. What they do have in common is XX—and I have a theory about those Xs, and how they take Albany Ale from being a euphemism to a very specific thing—a singularity in American beer—by then end of the 19th-century.

Stay tuned—same beer time, same beer channel.

*By the way, Ron has all the nuts and bolts on Vassar's Ale at his site Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.

**He's also just put up a tabley type of thing (his words) for the Amsdell brews—go compare and contrast!


  1. Are your alcohol percentages abv or abw?

    1. I suppose I should have made that clear. ABV—and I've clarified up above!