Friday, February 15, 2013

Albany Ale: The Politics of Beer

In piecing together the Albany Ale stuff, I've noticed a trend that carries over three centuries. It's a trend that has nothing to do with malt or hops, or Xs or distribution. In fact, it's a trend that has more to do with the men who made Albany Ale rather than the beer itself.

Alan and I are piecing together an article about the early Dutch and Beverwijck brewers of 17th century New York and I came across a short passage in Jaap Jacobs' book The Colony of New Netherlands: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America, it states:
Because of the high costs of purchasing a wort boiler (new kettle), brewers had to invest considerable sums of money. In Holland, many brewers were members of the city vroedschap, which was selected from the wealthiest inhabitants. In New Netherland brewers were also often part of the elite. For example Beverwijck brewer Goosen Gerritsz van Schaick was also a magistrate for a number years.
As is now, so was then—money leads to politics.

The vroedschap was essentially a city council made up of richest men in the city; and the magistrates— usually three or four individuals from within the vroedschaps own ranks—were appointed by the group. It's important to recognize that these were not elected officials, but almost like a self-appointed administrative group—a noble city council, if you will. Like many elements of Beverwijck culture, this custom started in the Dutch Republic and was brought to New Netherlands, by the earliest settlers.

The brewing/politics trend continues through the 17th and into the 18th centuries as well, with the 1702 appointment of Albert "Captain" Janse Ryckman—the owner of the brewery on what is now Broadway between Hudson and Division Streets—as mayor of the city of Albany. Brewer Teunis Visscher, would be chosen fire master for the city for a period during the mid-1700s, while Peter Gansevoort, hero of the American Revolution and brewer, served as sheriff of Albany County, as a commissioner of Indian Affairs. He would also run—unsuccessfully—for the U.S. Senate in 1800.

The 19th century would see the election of not one, but two, brewing mayors of Albany. The first was John Taylor in 1848. Taylor owned what was at the time the largest brewery not only in Albany, but in the country, Taylor & Sons. Upon completion of his tenure as mayor, Taylor served on the board of water commissioners, starting in 1850. He and his compatriots were responsible for overseeing the first municipal water system in the city. The second, Michael Nolan—principal owner of Quinn and Nolan Brewery—served first as fire commissioner, then was elected mayor in 1878. Nolan was mayor until his resignation in 1883, but was also elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1881 to 1883—while still acting as mayor! Nolan was also the first Irish-born, Roman Catholic mayor in the history of the city.

The most famous—or some might say infamous—brewery owning-politician, however was Daniel P. O'Connell, who was elected County Assessor in 1919—the highest elected office he would hold. Uncle Dan, as he became known, would step down as assessor, in 1921, and take over as Chairman of the Albnay County Democratic Committee—running the Albany Democratic political machine, like Capone ran Chicago. O'Connell and his cohorts were responsible for the 1921 victory over the incumbent Republican party—the group was not above voter fraud and intimidation. The results of this victory continue to this day—Albany has not had non-Democratic mayor since that election. O'Connell's political clout allowed him full advantage in the beer world, as well. He "officially" purchased the Hedrick Brewery after the repeal of prohibition in 1933, but it's suspected that he controlled it's brewing operations through out the 1930s, essentially ignoring the both the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. Albany lore states that up until the closure of the brewery in 1965, "if you didn't carry Hedrick, you didn't have a bar." O'Connell's beery political influence continued until his death in 1977.

By my count that's seven notable Albany brewers who also dabbled—some more successfully than others—in the political arena. There probably were a good deal more, but all this talk of politicians makes me want to go and take a shower, so I'm going to stop here.


  1. Most interesting.

    I [mentally] scanned my and the interweb's knowledge of Boulder County, the State of Colorado, and the State of Oregon for politician-brewers.

    Correct or otherwise, I found a webpost stating: the current Colorado Governor
    'John Hickenlooper, the nation's first brewer-turned-governor'.

    As for Boulder County politician-brewers, the best I could do is: Frank S. Weisenhorn, founder and owner of Boulder City Brewery, 1876 - 1890, was 01 of 04 city aldermen [awhile].

  2. This is pure speculation, but many of the brewery owners in the east, were probably fairly wealthy prior to opening their breweries, and therefore already in a position, of at least some influence, before getting elected. The German immigrants opening breweries in the west, may not have been.

  3. Reports of Weisenhorn arrival to town with his co-founder andbrother-in-law from a silver mining town west of Golden, reported them as 'prosperous'. He ended up buying out Voegtle and eventual sold to two men I never found much about.
    The sale was about the time Philip Zang sold his brewery [then the largest west of the Mississippi River] to a British syndicate. It is plausible the buyer of Boulder City Brewery were the agents of a British syndicate. A local historian reports it was 'stylish' / 'in vogue'.