Thursday, October 11, 2012

Albany Ale: XXs and Ohs?: Part 2

Right, back to the story...

Le Breton's original Albany Ale Ad of 1805
Advertisments for Albany Ale in the early 19th-century—like those found in Kingston, Ontario and ones selling Edward LeBreton's beer—are fairly generic, stating only that they are strong, and obviously, made in and around Albany. Think of them as Albany—little "a" ales. As the century progresses the ads begins to imply that those beers made in Albany are are of the best quality and of the best ingredients. By the 1840s, it seems, that "Albany" has become a euphemism for the top-end beers being made by the Albany brewing industry. At this point, the breweries in the city of Albany are becoming quite large, and at least two of the breweries of that era begin to advertise their Albany Ales. Both Robert Dunlop & Sons and John McKnight categorize Albany Ale separately in their advertising—listing it as Albany or Albany Pale Ale, separated from their Porter, but not from their Amber or Brown Ales. It is also listed first in the advertising—implying superiority? Perhaps. Albany—big "A"—Ale, it seems, has become a marketing tool.

Upper: c.1840 / Below 1857
Upper image courtesy of the
Albany Institute of History and Art
Things change a bit in the 1850s, when our friend the X, show his head—not just in brewing logs but in advertising. John Taylor & Sons—now the largest brewery in the country—begins to advertise their version of Albany Ale as "Albany Imperial XX Ales." Not only has Taylor associated quality to Albany Ale, but also strength—and the trend continued. It's during this period that George and Theodore Amsdell open their brewery and begin advertising their own version of "Albany XX Ale".

Exportation of Albany Ale was critical to both Taylor and Amsdell. Both breweries produced far too much beer to be consumed locally, and relied on the monopoly of distribution offered to them by the Erie Canal. Locals in such far flung places like Nova Scotia, New Orleans and Argentina, needed to know what they were getting, and both "Albany" and "XX" settled the question. Interestingly, both McKnight and Dunlop—now venerable breweries within the city—begin noting XX in their advertisements, but not in association with "Albany"—both breweries close by the early 1870s.  

By the end of American Civil War, Taylor and Amsdell were, by far, the largest breweries in the city—both producing hundreds of thousands of barrels of beer a year. While the Union and Southern Confederacy slugged it out below the Mason Dixon line, a beer war—not unlike the cola wars of the 1980s—seems to have been fought down the Erie Canal. In the early 1860s, Taylor began adding the word "Cream" to its tag line now stating "Albany Imperial Cream XX Ales" and by 1875 had dropped the XXs altogether—advertising only "Albany Imperial Cream Ale." While its main competitor, Amsdell Brothers, waved the "Albany XX Ale" flag proudly. Amsdell had also begun name-branding another one of its beers. During the early 1860s they began advertising its "Diamond Ale" alongside "Albany XX Ale". Amsdell was no longer relying on known "styles"—like IPA or Burton—soley to brand its beer. It may have been that Amsdell either developed a new, higher strength beer, or began branding the higher-end XXXX or XXX versions of its parti-gyled Albany Ale, under this new marketing slogan—I will say however,  I have no evidence of that. In any case, he who moved the most beer along the canal, reigned supreme in the world of Albany Ale.

While Taylor and Amsdell battled for the export market, another Albany brewery began its rise— Quinn & Nolan Ale Brewing Company. Quinn & Nolan, which had been operating since the mid 1840s, began to seriously challenge both Amsdell and Taylor in the 1870s and 80s (along with its lager-brewing, sister operation Beverwyck Brewing company), hanging their hat not on Albany Ale, but what they dubbed their "California Pale XX & XXX Ales." That name was indicative of a phenomenon that would effect Albany Ale far more than anything else in its history.

Courtesy of the Albany Institute of History and Art
One might think that it was the rise of lager that snuffed Albany Ale. Surprisingly though, Albany remained, for lack of a better word ale-y, well into the 20th century. Average ale production for the city in 1883 and 1884 (well into lager's so-called domination) was over 500,000 barrels per year, while lager production topped out at  just 200,000 barrels. While lager producers did begin to pop up in Albany in the later half f the 19th century, of the nine breweries that would continue through the turn-of-the-century, four made lager, four produced ale—but not necessarily Albany Ale—one made both. What truly hindered Albany Ale was the development of the railroads during and after the American Civil War. No longer did Albany hold the monopoly of distribution. Rail transport was faster and more efficient than that of the canal, and rail lines were spreading like cracking glass across the country. Every city, town and hamlet could build a brewery, receive raw materials and distribute their beer as easily as Albany once had. Beer production in Albany plummeted across the board. Breweries, like Taylor who in the 1850s had produced 200,000 barrels of beer, now slumped to 70 and 80,000 barrels in the 1880s. It's likely that this is the reason why Taylor made the move away from its association with XX. It was now producing for a local market that knew what to expect. No need to beat the Albany XX horse. Quinn & Nolan saw the opportunity to exploit the exciting western frontier and the new and far off lands of California. In fact, those "California Pale XX & XXX Ales" were an Albany version of San Francisco's Steam Beers—a total departure from the tradition brewing processes of the east coast.
So, was the term Albany Ale even a viable brand to advertise in the 20th century, and could those XX ales in the Amsdell logs be vestigial Albany Ale?

Taylor would close in 1905, so they weren't advertising anything at all, and Quinn & Nolan had moved away from the Albany Ale concept thirty years earlier. Amsdell, it seems, stayed the course. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century beer serving trays became the fashionable way to advertise beer. Printers had perfected the a method of encasing metal in porcelain—essentially water (and beer) proofing it—leaving the perfect surface to make signs, and trays and all sorts of utilitarian devices. One of the largest producers of porcelain beer trays at that time was the Baltimore Enamel & Novelty Company. Sometime around 1900, they produced a tray, emblazoned in red and white, for Amsdell Brewing Company—a tray that clearly stated, Amsdell was still advertising its Albany Ale—an advertising tag line that lasted from Edward LeBreton's first mention of it in 1805, to the 20th century—nearly 100 years. Does that mean the XXs in the log were what Amsdell meant by it's "Albany Ale"? Not definitively, but it's interesting that the tray says Ale, rather than Ales, implying that "Amsdell Albany Ale" was a single thing, rather than reference to all the beer in Amsdell's line-up. Ron, has also pointed out to me that it was fairly common in British logs for brewers to label brews by strength, rather than brand name, especially those brews which had been made for long periods of time. Since the tray dates to the time of the log, I think it's fair we can assume that the XXs were, indeed, Albany Ale, or at least what was left of it.  

With this theory—regardless if it proves right or wrong—I have learned one thing. The answer to "What was Albany Ale?" needs a modifier. It has never been a single, constant thing, at least not for very long, anyway. The question that needs to be asked instead is, what was Albany Ale like in 1806—or 1842—or 1861—or 1878—or 1904?

I guess I'll just have to keep asking that question.

In the early 1860s, Taylor began adding the word "Cream" to its tag line now stating "Albany Imperial Cream XX Ales" and by 1875 had dropped the XXs altogether—advertising only "Albany Imperial Cream Ale."
Upon further research, it appears that Taylor had been advertising their "Cream" Ale as early as the 1840s. It also appears that "Albany Imperial XX Ale " and "Albany Imperial Cream Ale" are not synonymous, with each other. 


  1. Interesting, and ?perhaps? significant, that two of those early Albany brewers, Dunlop and McKnight, had Scottish/Ulster Scots names.

    1. There's a good connection with Scotland in the Albany area. Albany was in fact re-named for Prince James, Duke of Albany, in 1664. I live off of New Scotland Avenue, and Scotia is a suburb of Schenectady. Scottish influence wanes earlier in the 19th century as the Irish population grows. Michael Nolan, of Quinn and Nolan, was the first Irish-born mayor of the city.

      Peter Ballantine, also a Scot, was an Albany Ale brewer, as well. He worked for Robert Dunlop before opening his own brewery in Albany and subsequently in Newark, New Jersey in the 1840s.

      Robert Boyd opened the first modern brewery in Albany, sometime between 1796 and 1798. His partner was named McCulloch.

      If the significance you're referring to is that Albany Ale may have been similar to Anglo-Scotch-Irish styles during the 19th century, rather than Dutch styles. The answer is most definitely yes. Almost all of the Albany Ale brewers during its heyday —1820–1865—were from England, Scotland or Ireland, or of that heritage.

    2. Er, uh... that is James Boyd. Robert was the son.

  2. Great stuff on Albany’s brewing history and “Albany Ale”. I've skirted the topic (but have mostly just kept an eye on the various bloggers) while doing in my research which concentrates on Ballantine (a strong Albany connection obviously) but the Newark-Albany connection comes up again in the 20th century when the other big ale brewer in town - Christian Fiegenspan - buy’s Albany’s Dobler. The Feigenspan family and management even continued to run it after they sold their Newark brewery in the 1940's to next-door Ballantine, and continued to use the “PON” brand name there (changing it to mean “Pride of the Nation”).

    Newark, of course, was also another brewing city in which the brewers advertised, and sometimes named, their product after the city – “Newark Ale”. Though I have never found anything to suggest it was much different than other brewers calling their products “Milwaukee-” or “St. Louis Lager” - a well-respected brewing locale, rather than a 'beer style'.

    Although the name is interesting, I think you may be going a bit far to assume that Quinn & Nolan choice of a brand name for their “California Pale Ales” suggests that the brewing methods and procedures were “an Albany version of San Francisco's Steam Beers”.

    It is a fascinating coincidence given their use also of the term “Steam Brewery” but that terminology was pretty common in the mid-19th century for many US breweries – it denoted “modern” and that the facility was run by steam power. Some better known nearby examples includes H. Clausen & Son’s Phoenix Steam Brewery in NYC, Charles Murphy’s Excelsior Steam Brewery in Poughkeepsie, NY, as well as R. Selzer’s Steam Brewery (Sioux City, IA) and another in Iowa run by the well-known Bosch family of brewers, Bosch Bros. Western Steam Brewery in Burlington.

    In addition, of course, many brewers and bottlers at the time used the term “steam” or “steamed” to denote pasteurization, so one finds eastern brewers advertising “steamed beer” or “steam bottling works”, etc. I have one ad from a Ballantine lager beer bottler that listed their products offered as “Ballantine’s Dark Special, Pale Extra, Export, Steam and Lager Beer".

    Without any other info to go on, all that would suggest that’s what Q&N’s brewery name refers to, rather than some form of steam beer technique - especially given the fact that they were brewing ales and were in a northern climate with access to cold cellars and ice.

    Still, the “California” branding is interesting (although IIRC the name was once used to imply a “promised land” in the US) – especially given the fact that San Francisco would be home to a “Milwaukee Brewing Co.” , the “Chicago Brewing Co.” and a “St. Louis Brewing Co.”

  3. It's funny that you mention Dobler—Theodore Amsdell bought Dobler in 1891 from A.F. Dobler!

    The steam issue was a tricky one, Quinn & Nolan's facility was indeed steam powered, but the association with California seems more than coincidental. I'm going to have to investigate this more.

    Both Amsdell and Michael Nolan seemed to have seen the writing on the wall. Nolan opened Beverwyck Brewery, a lager brewery, in 1878, while, as I said Amsdell bought into Dobler, another lager brewery. Both breweries produced well past prohibition. Dobler finally closed in the late 50s. F.M. Schaefer bought Beverwyck in the early 50s, expanding their Brooklyn operation to Albany, and brewed there until the 1970s. Even still, It's interesting, how much ale Albany was still being producing in the late 19th century.

  4. "...but the association with California seems more than coincidental."

    Well, I'll give you "coincidental". ;) It just seems to me that an east coast brewery using "steam beer" methods (for pale ales, no less) would turn most of what is known about steam beer on it's head. And steam beer is one of the most researched US beer topics, given it's status (whether true or not) as "America's Only Original Beer Style". I've never seen anything to suggest it was brewed anywhere other than California, Nevada and the Pacific Northwest area.

    Yeah, Feigenspan was among the largest US ale brewers in the pre-Pro era (they claimed to have been the largest in the 1910's, thus passing Ballantine which had closed its ale brewery on the Passaic and concentrated all brewing at it's lager plant across town) and bought Dobler in 1919 (when only 2.75% was allowed) and then kept it running through Prohibition, which the Newark brewery did not.

    When Schaefer bought Beverwyck in 1950 they apparently first dropped the Cream Ale from the portfolio. (Genesee then moved into the area aggressively with their line-up of ales, based on ads of the era). Schaefer finally brought back the ale in '52 (one assumes "by popular demand") marketed as "Schaefer Irish Brand Cream Ale" but with the label design otherwise the same as Beverwyck's.

  5. Just a thought Cal. Steam Beer was brewed with just as much ale yeast as lager yeast .since larger yeast wasn't t really isolated till the 1880 s.Just a thought