Thursday, January 24, 2013

Albany Ale: True Colors

Aside from arguing over the beerines of beer this week, I’ve also gotten myself into a bit of a history project with the, always fantastic, Boak & Bailey. We still have a number of kinks to work out before we jump into the nuts and bolts of this endeavor, but it did cause me to go back and cross-reference a few sources through out the history of Albany Ale. All this looking over hill and dale, revealed something interesting about the possible color of the elusive Albany Ale.

Before we get into color, though we need to get into strength a bit and the digging into Matthew Vassar’s brewing records done by Ron, Alan and Chad, comes in handy at this point. Vassar, essentially, brewed two strengths of beer—single and double, producing 30% more of the later strength. He also used two kinds of malt pale and high-dried. Vassar wasn’t technically an “Albany” ale brewer, having lived in Poughkeepsie 90 miles south of Albany, but I suspect his beer and Albany Ale were quite similar.

In fact, the beers from his 1833-34 day book, match up very neatly to the generic recipe testified about, during the 1835 New York Senate hearing on brewing practices, by Thomas Read, a brewer from Troy, New York—a town just eight miles up the Hudson River from Albany. Read’s reported recipe, and Vassar’s double ale gravities’ both fall—generally—between 1.099 and 1.110. They were hopped at similar rates, and both breweries, on occasion, used a small addition of salt. The only real divergence between the two, is that Read and many of the Albany brewers testified to adding a bit of honey to their brews.

We know that at some point Albany (little a) ale, began to be marketed as Albany (big A) Ale, during the 1850s. This when we began to see both John Taylor and Amsdell Bros., adding the “XX” strength indicator to their—for lack of a better term—“branding”. Taylor dubs their medium-strength brew as “Albany Imperial XX Ale”, while Amsdell, simply goes with as “Albany XX Ale”.

I might be wrong, but “XX Ale” seems like a double-talk way of saying "Double Ale", doesn’t it?

After all this XX and Double stuff, you might ask: What does strength have to do with color? In the aggregate nothing, but when it comes to the branding and advertising of Albany Ale, there is a connection.

To find the connection we need to fast forward, from the mid 18th century, to the turn of the 20th Century. Amsdell Brewing and Malting Company now, produces a number of beers, in a variety of strengths and colors—from their dark and strong, 7%, Diamond Ale, to their little, pale 4.5%, Polar Ale. In the second-tier strength position, of these brews, and what is listed in their log book as simply, and logically, is XX Ale. The grist of these mild-mannered XX Ales, is pretty typical of the time—6-row pale malt, corn and brewing sugars. Everything you’d expect to find in an American beer of that time. But there was, one more ingredient, an ingredient that makes all the difference—black malt. Amsdell averaged about 15 pounds of black malt in their XX grist’s, enough, not to blacken the beer, but just deepen it into a coppery-amber hue (for you brewing geeks, think of an SRM of 12º or 13º). 

Jumping back into the time machine—let’s look at Vassar again, specifically his use of high-dried malt. 19th century high-dried malt, was a dried at different temperature than that of pale malt, producing something similar to a mix between a modern Munich and Vienna malts—basically an enzymatic Amber malt.

Are you starting to see the connection, yet?

In the mid-1830s Vassar is producing a good bit of Amber Double Ale; while 65 years later, Amsdell is still producing an Amber Double ale—and not only that, a bunch of it. From 1900 to 1901, almost 60% of Amsdell’s output is XX. Amsdell did produce some pale beer, including the occasional Pale XX, but if the numbers indicate anything—the amber version of XX was by far the most popular. 

There were a few other, not so subtle clues, along the way. By the later half of the 19th century, two other Albany breweries had begun an association of color with strength. The 1886 publication of the Bi-centennial History of Albany notes that the Broadway brewery, owned by Carroll and MacDonald produced—among other beers—Amber XX. Two years later in 1888, The Empire State: Its Industries and Wealth notes that Quinn and Nolan were making Cream XX Amber ale, as well. 

As spotty as it still may be, there does seem to be a bloodline—an amber-colored bloodline—between Vassar’s Double Amber Ale of the 1830s and Amsdell’s XX of 1901.


  1. About when did 'John Taylor and Amsdell Bros. ... add the “XX” strength indicator to their ... “branding”'? Plus/minus 05 years suffice.

    I have noticed XX and XXX indicators in mid-1860 Colorado brewery adverts. I have an impression the designation was also used by 19th century Brit brewers.

  2. As far as branding by strength and Albany Ale—Taylor started first in the late 1850s, Amsdell followed shortly thereafter. You're absolutely correct, Xs (as well as a whole alphabet of other letters—like K and AK) were used in Britain, well into the 20th century, in fact. Letters as representative of alcoholic strength was pretty common, but it can be confusing. Think of them as a position, rather than as a fixed number. An XX Ale in 1850 may have been 7% while the same brewery may have called a 4% beer XX 50 years later. It's just the second tier strength in that family of ales. It also made it easy for someone who could not read to understand the strength of what they were buying. Generally, the more Xs, the more expensive the beer was.