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! 


  1. Excellent stuff. Is there any way of determining where the Albanian German brewers came from? Germany at that time was not a consolidated nation yet and the techniques which emigrated may well speak to the region from which they came.

  2. I did look into a few names but, unfortunately nothing came of it.

  3. chips.... beechwood chips, perhaps?

  4. Yeah, that's what Ron and I both guessed.

  5. Fascinating. Have you looked at newspapers from the period to see what, if any, ads for the beer were appearing and what they say about it?

    1. Working for the New York State Museum, I have access to the New York Historical Newspaper database, so I've done a fair bit of snooping around on it—looking for both Albany Ale entries and specific brewery mentions. Amsdell beer entires are few and far between—with no results in the very late-19th or early 20th centuries. There are a lot of mentions of "Amsdell", involving contract disputes, business ventures, gossip and quite a bit about George Amsdell's alderman run in 1868. Both George and Theo were fairly influential in Albany, so the name comes up a lot in general news stories of the day.

      Doing a search between 1850 and 1920 returns woefully scant items related to their beer, however. They seem to have made an advertising push in the early to mid 1870s—first in 1871, in a series of the same ad (running many times from 1871 to 1873) announcing the addition of IPA to their line-up. Then, in a short article about Amsdell and Quinn & Nolan from 1875. Finally in an article focusing on their "Diamond Ale" in 1876. All of the entries are from the Albany Argus.

      I'd be happy to email the clippings if you'd like to see them.

    2. I have seen some US brewing historians claim that what post-Repeal US brewers often labeled "cream ale" (at least, until Genesee's ale/lager blended hybrid came along in the 1960's) was, in the pre-Pro. era, usually called "sparkling ale" - a "present use" cold-lagered ale.

      The "cream ale" term does appear to predate the era when ale brewers were trying to compete head-on with lager beer and brew a similar product, but I wonder if some brewers simply adopted the "cream ale" term for their sparkling or other present use ales, in an era that was less concerned with "brewing (or naming) to style".

      Some ads for cream ales in the 1800's stressed the "creaminess" of beer, particularly the head, which doesn't bring to mind most modern US examples.

      100 Years of Brewing says of the use of chip cellars that the method was unknown in Germany until the 1860's and that's its more popular use in the US designated it as "specifically American". The book also notes that wood chips were made of beech or maple (I've also seen brewers in the late 1800's that used cedar) and, though I can't find the reference, prefabricated metal "chips" were also experimented with. From descriptions I've read, many lager breweries in the US still were using chip cellars when re-opening after Repeal, though it eventually died out leaving only AB as the last notable survivor.

    3. Jess—I've been waiting to hear from you.

      I've seen the sparkling and present use ale usage as well—but not associated with any of the Albany brewers. That doesn't mean they didn't use them, I just haven't seen. But, I also doubt Polar was advertised as a Cream Ale. I also agree that "cream ale" is a bit of a red herring. It seems that the term was popular throughout the 19th century, I've also seen it relate to the "creaminess'" of beers—but like you said it's doesn't really mean anything, because breweries used it a bit willy nilly.

      Cream isn't the only word used like this—"Imperial" gets thrown around quite a bit. My guess the association with this word has more to do with New York's nickname the Empire State than with what we would today consider to be an Imperial style—or for that matter even the more commonly excepted 19th-century idea of an Imperial beer. It think it's akin to Budweiser being the "King" of beers. John Taylor also uses the word "Astor" in conjuction with both Cream and Imperial—as in "Cream, Imperial Astor Ale." Maybe Astor is a nod to the richy-rich Astors of NYC—but I really have no idea. But to Taylor's credit, he covered his bases.

      Cream, Imperial and Astor seem, to me, like advertising frima-framas during the 19th century—the beery equivalent of the snake-oil pitch: "The Genuine article guaranteed to reinvigorate instantly." Amber, Pale or XX speak to style, or at least actual descriptors of the beer. The other phrases seem to be all about marketing.

      At least they didn't make it confusing for us 150 years later.