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Albany was still making ale after the 21st Amendment repealed prohibition in 1933—a good bit of it, too.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!


  1. One note- Ballantine did not buy the Feigenspan-owned Dobler Brewing Co. in Albany, only the "home" facility, their next door neighbor Christian Feigenspan Brewing Co. in Newark. I suspect the death of Christian Feigenspan, Jr. (who was also the President of the United States Brewers Association during the enactment and early years of Prohibition) in 1939 was a major factor in the company selling the Newark brewery.

    Dobler continued on after the Feigenspan purchase, run -and, apparently owned- by the Feigenspan family, with Edwin Feigenspan as president and his nephew, Lewis Ballantyne as VP. (Yes, coincidentally, Feigenspan's sister had married a "Ballantyne" with a 'y"). Dobler was much smaller than the original Newark brewery - with a 150,000 bbl. capacity.

    I think that by the turn of the 20th century and, certainly, the first two decades after Repeal, Albany's brewing industry and ale consumption was probably not that different from other upstate NY and New England brewing cities. In 1945, for instance, all 13 MA, 5 CT and both RI breweries still brewed ales (with several "ale only" breweries left- Croft and Hanley the best known). NH's last brewer, Eldridge dba "Frank Jones" was still strictly an ale brewer.

    The nine total breweries in Rochester, Syracuse and Utica all brewed ales and Buffalo still had 8 breweries with what looks like only one exclusively "lager" brewer in Magnus Beck's. Syracuse still had one exclusive ale brewery in Moore & Quinn's. Pretty sure I have a newspaper article about Syracuse's beer market in the '40's that claims ale still made up about a third of market there - at the time the US ale total was probably down to 5-10%.

    Ha! re: Schaefer Irish Cream Ale's revival. Can send you some of those ads if you'd like.

    When Schaefer came out with a cream ale during the late 1970's "Great American cream ale scare" that was driven by Genesee's success and when many brewers followed suit, I toured their big brewery in eastern PA (now run by Boston Beer Co.) , I asked the bartender there about it - especially the rumor that it WAS the old Irish Cream Ale recipe. He was a retired Schaefer worker and said, "No, nothing like the original...", with a wistful sigh in his voice. He did, however, pull an unlabeled "test" bottle of it out of a cooler for us to enjoy.

    1. I'm always amazed that the history has become that German immigrants brought lager and "lager killed ale." at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 20th century. That's far from the case. I have a post planned about the first lager in Albany, coming up soon.

      What's intrigues me about "Beverwyck/Schaefer Irish Cream Ale" is the name itself—since cream ale isn't specifically Irish. My guess is that it's a nod to Michael Nolan the original owner of Beverwyck and the first Irish-born mayor of Albany. The brewery was located in North Albany as well, an historically the Irish section of town. I'd love to see the ads.

  2. Yeah, that's certainly the "pop" abbreviated history of US brewing industry, and the numbers eventually but steadily went that way but it took a century - roughly mid-19th to mid-20th century.

    I think in recent times Ogle's Ambitious Brew certainly re-enforced that viewpoint but her's was mainly a history of the "winners" (the big Midwest brewers like AB, Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, Stroh, Heileman that rose to become "national breweries") and she conveniently ignored those "outlier" breweries than didn't fit her viewpoint.

    But the exclusive ale brewers were dying by the time Prohibition hit and (as your theory about their lack of modern equipment shows) they were probably more likely to not re-open after Repeal than the lager brewers.

    An example I always like to note about ale vs lager in the late 1800's is that P. Ballantine & Sons was exclusively an ale brewery in 1877when they were the 4th largest in the US. Two decades later, they were still among the largest brewers in the US, #5, and the largest that started as an"ale brewer". But in that period they had bought a local lager beer brewery and their lager sales, by 1891, had passed their ales, porter and stout production.

    Ballantine would be the main "ale" exception in the post-Repeal era (rising to be tied for #2 with AB in the late '40's) but they benefited from new ownership that was willing to spend lots of money on new equipment and lots of advertising.

    Most of the other "ale brewers" after Repeal, small and under-financed, either died off quickly or, attempted to market, a "light/cream" ale and/or a lager beer in order to keep up with popular tastes.

    1. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had that 1905 Hudson Valley Breweries Company, really gotten off the ground.

    2. The late 19th-early 20th century "insane craze" (as The Western Brewer termed it) of brewery consolidation was set off by what are usually called "British syndicate" speculators, followed by other brewers joining together to protect against them, as well as to take advantage of joint purchases, reduced capacity (from closing some breweries) and to prevent price wars, etc. Most of them failed, and of the breweries which did get involved in them those that re-opened after Repeal did so as independent companies again.

      Cochan's _Brewed in America_ [1962]* has a good - if brief - examination of them in his Chapter 30 "Consolidations and Syndicates", and he even mentions that some Albany brewers were bought.

      (* From which I borrowed The Western Brewery quote above :) ).

  3. Excellent all-round.

    From everything I've read, I'd agree that the ale-to-lager or lager-like beers in the North East did ultimately occur before the revival of craft brewing there in the 80's, i.e., it just took a lot longer than the simplified view has held. I agree again with Jess when he said that the latter view tends to reflect the national success of the largest, mostly Mid West-based breweries, in other words pockets thrived elsewhere. But yes finally the American taste did seem, just as the Canadian taste in the Eastern part of the country, to give up on ale. Well into the 60's and 70's in Quebec for example the major brands of ale (Molson Export and Laurentide Ale, Labatt 50, O'Keefe Ale, etc.) still had lots of sales but it started to decline from about 1980 on just as it did much earlier in the West. I studied briefly in Manitoba in the early 70's and was surprised how dominant lager was there, the odd ale was available and porter too but not much. The final indignity to ale is that so much of what is labelled that in Canada from the bigs is indistinguishable from lager - not quite all though. Labatt 50 especially draft is still a good distinctive ale of the older type. Anyway all this is largely moot due to the rise of the craft brewers.

    By the way I still tip my hat to Genesee Cream Ale draft in Rochester. It isn't ale-like in craft terms but has its own distinctive taste, it just does. It did come too with a good head in the local bars when I last had it and the super-freshness of the beer probably accounted in part for this. It suits the summers in particular in the Region including the Finger Lakes.