Friday, March 29, 2013

Whiskey A-Go-Go

Yeah, yeah, I know—This is the second non-beer article in a week, but a story reported on March 22, on the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's online version, is too hard to pass up.

It's a simple story really—Woman buys bed and breakfast. Woman renovates bed and breakfast. Woman finds nine cases of 101 year-old rye whiskey hidden in the basement walls.

See, simple right? Trust me, the story is going to get a little bit more, shall I say, unusual.
Image courtesy of Sean Stipp, Tribune Review

First though a little bit about the whiskey. The woman—Patricia Hill—purchased the South Broadway Manor Bed and Breakfast in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, last year. The B&B was originally the home of J.P Brennan, a turn-of-the-century western Pennsylvania coal and coke industrialist. Mr Brennan, it appears, had a taste for Old Farm Pure Rye Whiskey, made by the West Overton Distilling Company in West Overton, Pennsylvania—a distillery owned by steel and coke billionaires Henry Frick and Andrew Mellon*. The whiskey was distilled in 1912, and bottled five years later, after which Brennan purchased the cases. It looks as if he, or someone in his family, stashed them away when Prohibition started at the end of 1919—there it would sit until Hill and the South Broadway Manor Bed and Breakfast, live-in caretaker—John Saunders—discovered it nearly 100 years later.

Remember, when I said it was going to get unusual? Here goes.

Kindly Mr Saunders has been recently charged by the Scottdale police department with drinking the contents of 52 bottles—or just over four cases—of the whiskey. Hill had been displaying the bottles at the B&B, but after Saunders moved out, she noticed the 52 empty bottles. That's bad enough, but to add insult to injury, those 52 bottles have been appraised by the New York City auction house Bonhams, to have been worth $102, 400.

That's right—$102,400. That works out two just under two grand per bottle.

Of course Saunders denied the allegations, but DNA tests proved, without a doubt, that the 62-year-old care-taker did indeed consume the whiskey—rather than it evaporating—which is what he offered as an alternative explanation for the empty bottles. He obviously never stole booze from his parents liquor cabinet, or he would have known to refill the bottles with iced tea. As a result of all of this, Ms. Hill has decided to have the bottles displayed at the Overholt Distillery Museum at the 19th-Century Historic West Overton Village in Scottdale, rather than her living room.

I wonder why?

Maybe I should have titled this post Whiskey-A-Gone-Gone.

*Ironically, Andrew Mellon would be appointed Treasury Secretary under Warren G. Harding. As Secretary of the Treasury, he would be the man ultimately responsible for the enforcement of the Volstead Act—but you already know this as you've been watching Boardwalk Empire, just like me.  

Monday, March 25, 2013

Bottles and Cans and Just Clap Your Hands 

I'm assuming NASA scientists were loaned to Samuel Adams recently. They, and I suspect MIT engineers, had to be involved in the million-dollar development of their new beer can and canning facility. Tack on few more dollars more for time, research and development, too.

Not for nothing, but $1,000,000+ is a lot of scratch.

That got me thinking—what other company's have invested a good bit of moollah into their containers? Sure, companies change logos or packaging all the time, but one company stood out—not only because of how many iterations its bottle went through, but because of how iconic that bottle is.

Coca-Cola has redesigned, tweaked or outright changed its bottles and cans seventeen times in the last 119 years. Which means, by comparison, Sam Adams, should have already changed its bottles three times since its start in 1984.

In any case, it was a Mississippi shop owner in 1894 who first bottled the, at the time, predominantly fountain-based Coke—in what's known as a Hutchinson bottle. Hutchinsons were straight-sided soda bottles with a stopper attached to a wire ring. "Hutches" were common to all brands of soda, not just Coke.

By the turn of the century, Coke was bottling in straight sided, tapered-neck bottles similar to a modern beer bottle. These bottles came in both "green" and brown glass. In 1915 Coke execs decided that the company need to do something to stand out from other soda brands, and contacted Terre Haute, Indiana's Root Glass Company. Coke's famous green-glass, contoured shape was born. The new bottle debuted the following year in 1916.

As the soda's popularity grew they company began selling its bottles in six packs and by the end of the 1920s, bottle sales exceeded fountain sales. The 6-1/2 ounce, green glass, contoured bottle would stay a constant until 1955 when 10, 12, and 26 ounce bottles became available—all with the distinctive Coke contour. In 1957 a bottle with a slightly narrow taper at its waist was introduced, and then in 1961 a white-clear glass bottle replace the traditional green glass.

While Coke had toyed with canning its soda in the 1930s—culminating in 16 and 32 ounce cone-top test cans—it wasn't until 1955 that they actually began to can for production. These early punch-top cans were only sent to American military troops stationed abroad. 1961 saw the first wide-spread production cans, now sporting a peel-top. By 1967 the company began using aluminum en lieu of steel. All of theses cans came in various sizes—ranging between 10 and 16 ounces. In 1978 the company would again look to the bottle, this time it was the two-liter, resealable, PET bottle, invented by its largest competitor PepsiCo, eight years earlier.

In 1991 the company would switch from white back to green glass for its glass-bottled product, but would move the bulk of its production into the now common, plastic 20 ounce contour bottle. In 2000 Coca-Cola introduced the impact resistant Ultra-glass, making its contoured glass bottles 40% stronger and 20% lighter, saving both glass and money for the company. Five years later they would introduce the 100% recycled aluminum contoured bottle and just two years ago the company released a contoured bottle made from 30% plant material.

What's interesting about all this is that in all I read I didn't see anything about how any of Coke redesigns from 1894 up—be it with their bottles or cans—enhanced the drinker's experience. It's all marketing and cost-cutting. Coke had confidence it was going to taste great in any container situation. Jim Koch on the other hand has a whole "blog" post dedicated to how the new Sam Can is the second coming for the beer lover. 

Albeit a "subtle but noticeably better" second coming.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


Who knew geology was
so colorful?
Working at the State Museum in Albany I get to interact with a wide variety of professionals—from historians, and artists to chemists and anthropologist. I'm always surprised by the range of skill and expertise my building has to offer, and how often those disciplines overlap and interact. Before working here I probably wouldn't have associated geology with paleontology and biology, but as it turns out the three fields are pretty dependent on each other. Geologist don't simply study rocks, they study how rocks were formed what were the conditions on earth when those rocks came about. That information directly relates the the paleo-flora and -fauna living on earth thousands, millions and in some cases billions of years ago. Biologist can then compare the environment and the animals and plants that live today with their pre-historic ancestors. It's a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back" kind of relationship. One of these scholarly colleagues, Dr. Chuck Ver Straeten—a geologist who loves beer almost as much as basalt—passed on an interesting blog post from 2008 that speaks exactly to that point—and it all comes back to beer.

The gist of the article from The Geology New Blog is about how, twenty years ago, Dr, Raoul Cano, a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo scientist was attempting to extract bacteria from a weevil encased in ancient amber in hopes of discovering new—well actually, really old—strains to be used in new antibiotics.

We know hat happens next, right? They clone the weevil and it—and its progeny—run amok on a tropical island.

No, not exactly. 

What actually happen was, that Dr. Cano's experiment failed—no usable antibiotic bacteria. The good doctor, then shelved his experiment for almost twenty years. In 2008, Cano re-opened his collection and realized that while the gut of those weevils didn't have what he was looking for back in 1993, they did have microscopic yeast spores. Yeast that had been dormant since the Eocene.

Eocene? What's that? 

Not what, when—between 34 to 55 million years ago, in fact. The amber dates to about 45 million years old. That's 20 million years years after T-Rex was doing its thing but 44,800,000 years before you and I even thought about tipping our first pint. All said and done, the yeast isn't as old as the dinosaurs, buy waaaaaay older than us.

I think you might be able to see where this is going.

Cano did indeed begin brewing beer with his newly re-discovered yeast. At first in a collaboration with the Sumptown Brewery in Guerneville, California, and later forming Fossil Fuels Brewing Company, distributing a Wheat and a Pale Ale—with what is reported to have a decidedly, unique clove-like flavor—to pubs and bars through out Northern California.

And you thought Ron and Martyn wrote about old beer.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Born in the U.S.A.?

Yesterday I stopped by my local beer store, Oliver's Beverage, for a few tipples of the Celtic persuasion, in honor, of course, of America's most-favorite religious, non-religious celebration. Scanning the mountainous display in front of the register, they had what you might expect for this oh-so-green time of year—Guinness, Murphy's, O'Hara's, and assorted American-made beers, brewed in the styles most associated with the Emerald Isles—Stouts and Reds (in the spirit of full disclosure, I chose Guinness FES and O'Hara's Irish Red.)

When what to my wondering yes should appear? An olive-green labeled bottle that I couldn't recall having seen before (Yes I, unlike so many more learned beer connoisseurs am occasionally drawn in by label design). Lo and behold, Bass is releasing and IPA to the American market.


It was Bass who helped to make not only Pale Ale, but IPA famous. It was them and the the other Burton-on-Trent brewers that built the beers that so many myth have been told about. It was Bass and Allsopp who beat Hogdson in the Indian beer market, and it was Bass who battled Allsopp for control of that market, but it would be Bass who would ultimately win, not only in India, but across the globe.

The bottle fit the bill, long necked with its classic oval label and the Bass trademark—the scarlet triangle. There it was clear as day: India Pale Ale—Bass IPA—Brewed By William Bass & Co's. Baldwinsville, NY.

Wait, what?

There seems to be typo on the label.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Albany Ale: With a Wimper

I had a theory about the death of Albany Ale.

It was simple. Sure folks were growing to like lager, but it was Cream Ale who caused all the problems. The notion was so sound—it was Cream Ale, not Lager, who would step in like Delilah, Mata Hari or Ava Gardner, and leave Albany Ale floating face down in a swimming pool with a slug in it's back.

I was wrong.

Courtesy of Tavern Trove
There doesn't seem to have been any epic Thor versus Jörmungandr-like battle for control of the beery Midegard known as Albany, New York. No battle between Albany Ale, Lager or Cream Ale—or any other fermented beverage for that matter. Neither Cream Ale or Lager killed Albany Ale.

You might also think that it was, instead the Volstead Act that offed Albany Ale.

During the first two decades of the 20th century there between 9 and 11 breweries operating, in Albany, at any given time. Some brewed ale, some brewed lager. Then along came a Constitutional amendment—and a law to support and enforce the amendment's restriction of the "...manufacture, sale, or transport of intoxicating liquor..." Most of the breweries closed. Three survived and re-opened after the amendment's repeal in 1933—Dobler Brewing Company, Beverwyck Brewing Company and Hedrick Brewing Company—and they all had something in common—refrigeration. If your going to suddenly stop making beer and make—say—ice cream, it's probably easier to do that in a factory that has a large refrigeration system, rather than one that has a small system or none at all—and ale breweries don't need large refrigeration systems. So all the ale breweries closed and the larger of the lager breweries continued on, albeit making stuff other than beer for the next 13 years. Ale died, and big, mid-western lager became king!

There's one problem.

Courtesy of Tavern Trove
Albany was still making ale after the 21st Amendment repealed prohibition in 1933—a good bit of it, too. Hedrick Brewing made all kinds of ale—from Cream Ale to their Highland Lad Ale and Special English Brand Ale. Beverwyck also made a Porter and an IPA—in fact, their Irish Brand Cream Ale was so popular that when F.M. Schaefer & Co. bought the brewery in 1950, and discontinued that line—it had to be re-released (under the name Schaefer Irish Brand Cream Ale) due to public outcry.* From the end of Prohibition until the late 1950s Dobler produced an ale—an XXX Amber Ale—which was basically the same beer made famous by the Newark New Jersey brewery Feigenspan, who had purchased Dobler prior to prohibition. Feigenspan's neighbor Ballantine & Sons would acquire that brewery in 1939.

Courtesy of Tavern Trove
So, if there was still ale being brewed after prohibition. What killed Albany Ale?

Consolidation did, or rather, a number of botched consolidation attempts did. 

In 1905 a plan to syndicate twelve of the breweries operating along the Hudson River, from Albany and Troy—began to take form, spearheaded by George C. Hawley, partner of the recently deceased Theodore Amsdell, in Dobler brewery. This conglomeration of both ale and lager breweries—with plans to close or  merge some of it's newly acquired brewing operations—was named the Hudson Valley Breweries Company, and headquartered in Albany. My best guess is that this idea of conglomeration was a circling of the wagons against the rapidly escalating situation involving the temperance movement, (or as Jess notes in his comments below, it was more-likely a tactic to stave off the "British Syndicate") a strength in numbers strategy. However, as is said, the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray, and so did this plan. Still, connections and partnerships were made, and this was not the last attempt to merge the breweries of Albany.

In 1906, George I. Amsdell—sole-proprietor of the last brewery to make something called "Albany" Ale, died. Within six months of his death, Gustavus Sniper and Judson Bailey had purchased the Amsdell Brewing and Malting Company—to the dismay of Amsdell's grandson—for $300,000. Sniper was the former secretary at the Hinckle brewery, and the year previous he and Bailey had purchased the Kirchner Brewing Company—a much smaller scale brewery on Sherman Street. Operating as the Amsdell-Kirchner Brewing Company it would within two years fall into bankruptcy. In 1909 the brewery was again purchased, this time by investors outside of Albany—Edwin Bartlett and Basil Angell, two brewers from Portland, New Hampshire. On January 7th, 1909 the contents used by the brewery to distribute its beer and its office items were sold at auction. Bartlett and Angell, were starting fresh—but continued to run the brewery under the name of Amsdell-Kirchner—and did well for nearly seven years. In the winter of 1916, however, Amsdell once agin fell into bankruptcy. It was purchased by yet another brewery conglomerate—the Knickerbocker Brewing Corporation—formed to oversee the plants of Consumer's Albany Brewing Company, Amsdell-Kirchner and the Hedrick Brewing Co. under that arrangement Amsdell would operate until it closure, due to the enactment of the 18th Amendment, the Volstead Act and national prohibition in 1919.

I'm invoking the photocopy of a photocopy rule—the further away from the original you get, the more degradation you see. Speaking to those who remember drinking Ballantine, they are in agreement—it's not what it used to be. This pre-prohibition consolidation is not unlike the buying up of regional breweries by the large and quickly expanding U.S. breweries of the 1960s and 1970s. Then, as I suspect also happened earlier, recipes were changed or lost due to streamlining, competition or a combination of both. Consistency became paramount and because of that quality and variety were sacrificed.

Did Amsdell's Albany XX Ale survive George Amsdell's death? Did Amsdell-Kirchner brew it under the helm of Sniper and Bailey? What about Bartlett and Basil or the Knickerbocker Brewing Corporation?

I don't know, but I'm guessing not. Whatever it once was, by the 1930s and the repeal of prohibition, Albany Ale was gone—with a wimper rather than a bang.

*By the way—thanks to Jess Kidden for this little tid-bit!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Bocking Up the Right Tree

I've tried to stay out of the craft versus crafty conversation. Personally, I'm content to drink any beer from any brewery—big or little, mega or mom and pop—if the beer is good. Although, I would like some of the macro-breweries to own-up on their "non-traditional" brews and put their name on the label—if Anheuser Busch decides to make something other than light lager—like a dunkle or schwarzbier. It would be nice if the label said Bud Dark, or something to that effect, rather than the token, made-up brewery name they tack on to those beers.

Big doesn't always mean bad and little doesn't always mean good. Aside from the marketing schemes, and loyalty conditions, if any beer disproves the idea that only a craft brewery can make good beer—that beer would have to be Genesee Bock Beer.  

Yes, that Genesee—the North American Breweries conglomerate-owned, Rochester, New York makers of Genny Ice and the much maligned and infamous Genny "Screamer" Cream Ale*.

First brewed in 1951, Genny Bock has become an early March tradition, not just in Rochester, but  recently across the state, as well. Sixty-years ago, just about every regional brewery in the U.S, brewed a bock beer in celebration of the vernal equinox. Unfortunately, that idea waned in later years—mostly because those regional breweries don't exist any more—not the way they used to, anyway.

Genny Bock is now one of the rarities.

This copper-hued lager is fantastic stuff. Goodness in a green can. Rarely do I anticipate the release of an annual beer, but this bock is that exception. What I like about this brew is that it's not trying to be something it could never be. It's the whole of the package, too—from its carmel sweet, mildness to its goat-kid mascot, hopping behind the retro-styled, san seriffed GENESEE logo, emblazoned on its can. Like AB, and Miller, and Coors, Genesee Brewing Company does have a family of brews marketed under another name—Dundee Ales and Lager. A trend kicked-off in 1994 with J.W. Dundee's Honey Brown fad. The brewery could have very easily slid this bock into that line-up, rebranding it under the Dundee moniker—but they didn't. Genny Bock is all Genny, and it's all good.

That's all that matters.

*Truth be told, I'm a fan of Genny Cream Ale, too.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Albany Ale: Ich Werde Eine Albany Ale

Ooh! Two Albany Ale posts in a week—aren't you guys lucky?

According to the U.S. Department of Justice's 2001 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service between 1861 and 1900, 3,463,772 German immigrants flooded onto the shores of the United States—of which nearly 42% arrived in the last decade of the 19th century. With this mass exodus from Europe to the U.S., these immigrants brought with them, their religion, music, language, food and, of course, beer.

As I mentioned in my post, earlier this week, we've all heard the story that with this explosion of German immigration there also came lager, and because of lager, ale died off in the U.S.

It's not quite that simple.

Sure, there was quite a bit of lager produced during that time period, but, according to The Brewing Industry in 19th Century Albany, prepared for the City of Albany's Bureau for Historical Services, Albany was producing, almost three times as much ale as lager, well into the mid-1880s. What's more interesting to me, however, is the influence of German brewing on Albany Ale.

Germans had been brewing not only in Albany, but the rest of the U.S., for quite a while. The first American-made lager was brewed by a German-immigrant, John Wagner of Philadelphia, in 1840, and Albany saw German brewer George Weber making a wheat beer in the city during the 1860s. Those fellas, however, were Germans making German-styles of beer, but by the second half of the 19th century something else began happening. Going into the 1870s, the ale breweries in Albany were quite a bit bigger than the lager breweries, so opportunities for employment was more readily available (Amsdell employed 80 brewers by 1888), and it appears that the predominately Anglo-owned breweries in Albany began hiring German-born brew masters and brewery employees, of who's traditions rubbed off on the ale being made in Albany. Albany Ale—beer that had previously brewed in the British tradition—now had a few uniquely German techniques added to its preparation.

The turn-of-the-century Amsdell brewing records give us a clue to these changes. Amsdell brews in the early 1900s were fairly typical of what you might expect from American breweries of the time—be them ale or lager breweries—six-row barley, corn, brewing sugars, fairly low hopping rates supplemented with hop extract, narrowed ranges of gravities, and short boil times. It's not the actual brewing of the beer that was all that different, it was how the beer was treated while it fermented, or after it was fermented. The first was a technique done to all of their brews, while the second applied to only one specific beer in their line-up.

Reading through the logs, it becomes apparent that Amsdell was racking, actively fermenting wort back into their previously fermented beer. This trick—or kräusening as it's known—was a common method of conditioning beer in Germany. Amsdell numbered and dated their brews, so it's quite easy to see which wort, from what brew day, was being added to what beer. As an example: their Friday, October 26, 1900 brewed Scotch Ale – No. 67, was racked five days later on the 31st, with two pounds of hops and eight gallons of wort from their Tuesday October 30,  No. 69 – XX Ale. Kräusening was a cost-effective method for conditioning beer, it replaced the more costly sugar as the priming-agent, and it was always available. Amsdell brewers performed this task with nearly every beer they brewed between 1900 and 1905.

The second approach is a bit confusing. Not because of its technique, but because of terminology. Amsdell had a number of styles in their line-up—obviously their Albany XX Ale—but also a strong, Diamond Stock Ale, as I mentioned earlier—a Scotch Ale, the occasional IPA, Porter and something called Polar. All of these beers are pretty rank and file ales. They all had similar ingredients and were made as one would expect a warm temperature, top-fermented beer to be made—aside from the kräusening. Polar was the exception.

Polar was a simple little 4.5% ABV, moderately hopped, pale beer. There's nothing overtly unusual about it, at first glance. But there at the bottom of the page, a single entry changes everything.

Pumped on chips @42º F

Polar was cold-conditioned for what looks like anywhere from ten days to two weeks.

Polar. Cold-conditioning. Get it?

Cold conditioning is the same technique employed by lager brewers to age and clarify their beer—a technique perfected in Germany, and obviously brought to the ale industry in Albany, and Amsdell was using it to make a lager-like ale. Unlike kräusening, there's no economic advantage to cold-conditioning an ale, in fact, it's more costly because refrigeration is needed. It's simply an additional method for clearing beer—a technique sometimes employed in top-fermented beer, like the modern Kölsch or Cream Ale. Which is, essentially, what Polar was—a Cream Ale. 

This is where it gets confusing.

Albany Ale brewers had been advertising something called "Cream Ale" as early as the 1840s. Cream Ale is mentioned twice in Barry Gray's 1866 homage to Albany Ale brewer John Taylor, A Runlet of Ale. By the 1880s, Quinn and Nolan are also making a Cream XX Amber Ale. While it seems logical that Polar, was simply an extension of those earlier beers, it's not as straight of a line, as it appears. I'm not sure the Cream Ale of 1845 was the same Cream Ale that Amsdell would brew 55 years later and name Polar. Take a brewery like Taylor & Sons. By the 1860s, it was the largest brewery in the U.S. and by that point, Taylor's Imperial Cream Ale looks like it's an establish brand. It doesn't seem like it would be economically viable for a brewery that size to produce a cold-conditioned beer—in the amount that they would have had to produce—prior to the invention of commercial refrigeration, and that doesn't happen for another eight years. It would have cost a fortune—even for Taylor. To me, it doesn't look as if the older version of cream ale had it's roots in lager-like cold-conditioning, but there's no doubt that Amsdell's Polar of 1901 did—and perhaps earlier versions from the 1890s or a bit earlier, did as well.

Here's another curve ball.

At this point you might be inclined to say, that the pale, slightly bitter, top fermented and cold-conditioned Polar and the pale, slightly bitter, top fermented and cold-conditioned beer of Cologne, Germany—known as Kölsch—are obviously related to one another. It would seem that German brewers came to the U.S., from Cologne, and recreated their beloved Rhineland beer—thus creating it's Americanized version the Cream Ale.

Again, it's not that straightforward.

Kölsch and Cream Ale aren't derivitive of one another—they seem to have evolved parrellel to each other. Yes—both beers are pale, top fermented and cold-conditioned, but amazingly, their similarity seems coincidental. There is some evidence that cold-conditioned ale was being brewed during the late 19th century, but Kölsch, as a defined thing doesn't come about until 1906—after Amsdell was already brewing their cold-conditioned Polar. Kölsch, is a cold-conditioned ale and Polar was a cold conditioned ale, both have a connection to German brewing techniques, but never the twain shall meet.

Lastly, you might be inclined to think that Cream Ale was developed as an alternative to lager by ale breweries concerned that lager was cutting into their revenue. Again, I'm not convinced of that—at least not in regards to Albany. We know that ale production was nearly three time greater than lager in Albany during the last fifteen years of the 19th century—that fact seems to be supported by the Amsdell logs that show a far greater brewing of their warm-conditioned ale, than Polar—six times more, actually. If the Albany Ale brewers were really concerned about lager cutting into their ale profits, wouldn't it make more sense to brew more of a lager-like ale?

That's not to say that there was demand for lager, in Albany—there was—but you need to look at the ale versus lager dynamic of the breweries operating in the city by the turn of the century. Consolidation was the name of the game in the brewing biz by the late 19th century—The ale brewing Amsdells had bought the Dobler Lager brewery in 1891, and Michael Nolan, owner of Quinn and Nolan Ale Brewery would open Beverwick Brewery in the mid 1870s. By the turn of the century, three men owned the four largest breweries—ale or lager—in the city. If these endeavors didn't lose money they could brew whatever they wanted—ale, lager or a lager-like ale. Lager couldn't cut into their profit, because it was all profitable. It's also easy to see, because of this consolidation, how there may have been a cross-pollination of ale-to-lager-brewing techniques between breweries owned by a single entity.

It's not a case that the demand for lager, alone, killed Albany Ale going the 20th century. It's more that a German-ification of ale took place at the end of the 19th century—at least in Albany. That does however, lead us the the question—if Albany Ale, and lager and a lager-like ale could co-exsist at the beginning of the 20th century—what, happened to Albany Ale later in the century?

Many thanks, as usual, to Ron P., and his dogged efforts in deciphering Amsdell's brewing records. The things read like Japanese stereo instructions, to me, so I'm indebted to him for his help in noticing both, their use of kräusen and Polar's cold-conditioning! 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Albany Ale: Still Kicking

I have to thank my friend Adrienne—the Wandering Working Mom—for cluing me onto this photo, posted on the Albany Institute of History & Art's Facebook page. If ever a picture exemplified turn-of-the-century brewing, it's got to be this gem of the boys from Albany's Amsdell Brewery, taken around 1910.

Courtesy of the Albany Institute of History & Art.

I sent the pic to Alan and Ron, as well. We've been going down the beer geek rabbit hole, speculating on the nature of those watering can-like buckets—cask fillers perhaps? Why only three glasses of beer? Why is the lad to the lower left wearing a bow tie and shined shoes, when the rest of the fellas' look like they just got dun cleaning out the mash tun?

While all the guessing is fun, the pic is significant for another reason. It was taken around 1910—well past the supposed death knell of American-brewed ale.

We've all learned, or at least been told, that by the end of the 19th-century, the crisp and refreshing nature of lager—and the massive influx of its proponents from Germany into the U.S.—killed the American ale industry. By the turn-of-the-century lager was, and would for ever be, the "national drink."

This picture tells a slightly different story. Ale wasn't dead at the beginning of the 20th century. The sign, delicately balanced on the foot of one of the brewery workers, doesn't say "Geo I. Amsdell Albany Ales & Lagers," it simply states "Ales." The Amsdell brewery was an all ale endeavour. That says to me that there was still a viable market, at least in Albany, for warm temperature, top-fermenting beer. That's not to say that lager wasn't popular, it was, but perhaps it wasn't the juggernaut that every documentary film about the American brewing industry would have you believe.

It's also not to say German brewing traditions didn't influence Albany Ale brewing—but, that's a story for another post...

Friday, March 1, 2013

History, Mystery and Hops

The title of this post sounds like a kids show.


I can easily find that on July 12, 1880, Whitbread used 2.09 pounds of hop in their X ale. I can check the 1901 Amsdell records to see that they used only "new" hops in their Diamond Stock Ales at the turn of the century. I can take this research all the way back to Matthew Vassar's 1830s, and see that he purchased his hops from a grower—among others—named Taylor.

What I can't see is how any of these hops were actually used when it came time to make the beer.

By modern standards, hopping additions noted in the recipe, is essential information. Looking at a modern beer recipe, your going to see how much of what type of hop was added at what time during the boil. This hasn't always been the case. As thorough as antique and historic logs are, there seems to be a universal omission of the "whens" and "how much" as they pertained to hops. There seems to be everything else mentioned, just not the technical aspect of the hops*. What's also interesting about this phenomenon is that it happened in both the United States and in the U.K.

There are plenty of anecdotal clues to hop additions. In an email exchange with Alan this week he reminded me that some of the Albany noted in there 1835 New York State Senate testimony, to only using the "...palest of hops..."so as to not end-up with green-tinted beer. He surmises that those pale hops were need because it was not unusual for 19th-century brewers to boil there gyles for an hour-and-a-half or two, and sometimes even three hours—basically the longer the hops boil, there greener the beer. However, you might also choose pale hops if you were using upwards of ten pounds of hops per barrel, which wasn't totally unheard of in 19th-century British brewing.

Historic brewing publications and manuals are rife with information about when to add hops. A simple search of "hop additions" on Shut up About Barclay Perkins reveals multiple entries from books written during both the 19th and 20th century—some as early as the 1840s—clearly stating a number of ways to go about adding hops. That information however, is still missing from the actual written recipes. Therein lies the rub. We know that brewers of the past knew that adding specific amounts of hops at certain times during the boil affected the beer, yet that information never makes it into the logs. It's the beery equivalent of compiling a list of addresses, but not including the postal code.

Truthfully, I don't have the foggiest reason why.

Fortunately, this lack of data does give the modern brewer a bit of leeway, when it comes to re-creating historic brews. Since there isn't anything specific to go by, then the modern brewer or home brewer can add there own personal spin on antique recipes when it comes to hopping their brews—just ask Ron and Dann. Most of the old logs do note hop amounts, and I've noticed when reading old beer recipes, is that enormous quantities of hops were used—far more than you would see today, even in the happiest of hop bombs. Following the notated hop amount in historic logs, sometimes results in brews with IBU levels in the 130 and 140 ranges.

Take that Heady Topper.

There are a few thing to keep in mind when hopping these re-creations. Firstly—modern noble hops, Golding and Cluster varieties range in alpha acids between 3.5 to 6-ish%. If these hops—which can be traced back to at east the 19th century—are any indication of the strength of historic hops, then it stands to reason that other heirloom hops weren't particularly strong, either. As a point of fact, Bailey—of, mentioned just the other day, that he was reading an article—written as late as 1969—that noted, as hop utilization increased, overall demand for hops dropped, in the U.K.

It also wasn't uncommon for 19th and early 20th century brewers to use year-old, two-year old and sometimes three-year old hops. In fact, when you see the term fresh or new hops in 19th century records, those terms mean hops from the previous years harvest. So, if you were brewing in May, your "fresh" hops were harvested and dried the previous September, then sent to you in a barrel or bound in a bale—by the time you used them, they were nine months old. I'm going to assume that they were probably not refrigerated, either—especially before 1880. Just like the spices in your kitchen, hops loose their potency with age, but brewers were never going to throw away perfectly good, dried hops that could still give-up some bitterness, even if they were three-years old. Waste not want not.

Personally—when making a historic beer—to compensate for age degradation, I reduce the hop amount by 25-50%, depending on the era from which the beer was made. For earlier beers, I reduce by a greater amount, and for more modern beers I reduce by, usually, a quarter. As far as the additions themselves, I have no rule of thumb. I simply adjust the times and amount to what seems like would compliment the malt, adjuncts and sugars most pleasingly.

All said and done, I think one of the reasons I'm drawn to historic brewing is because of the gaps in hop information. That missing data gives me the chance to think like one of Fuller's brewers in 1875, or those at Amsdell in 1904. I've had the malt quantity, and the gravities, and fermentation durations laid out for me by a nameless scribe from a hundred and fifty years ago, but the hops—those "palest of hops"—are mine all mine, to do with as I see fit.

They're my little connections to a time gone by.

*Ron will tell you, that there is a notable exception to this—perpetrated by his beloved Barclay Perkins who, during the 1920s, lovingly annotated their logs with plenty of information about hoppy "whens" and the "how much."