I added the "Albany Ale" tag to the headline of this post, but "technically", this one's not about Albany Ale, directly. It's about hops, early-American hops—specifically—so the title isn't that divergent. Besides, it I haven't written about Albany Ale in a while, and I didn't want you guys to forget about it.
Alan expresses my sentiment, as well, about our research of the 100 years-or-so of New York beer history between the Dutch control of New York and the American Revolution. Not clear, indeed. In fact it's down right foggy. We know that beer was being made, and at a pretty good clip—in both Albany and New York City, as well as up and down the Hudson Valley—but we don't know much about that industry, or if you could even call it an industry. Let's look at the raw materials needed for beer. We have a pretty good understanding where the mid-19th century Albany Ale brewers sourced their ingredients—central and western New York. Both barley and hops farms were plentiful throughout that region. Rewind one hundred years and it's nowhere near a clear. This isn't just a New York issue either—where did Philadelphia or Boston or Williamsburg get their ingredients?
Alan and I have been inspired by Martyn's recent post about American hops and early 19th-century British beer. His find of a newspaper report of the 1817 arrival in England of the ship Golconda with— among other things on-board—two bags of hops, has opened up a floodgate of questions about those early-American hops.
We do have a slight problem though—a gap, if you will—and I think Alan sums it up best in the first line of the second paragraph of one of his comment on Martyn's post:
"Not yet clear what was going on from 1670 or so to 1770, except there was a hell of a lot of brewing under English rule…"
|Why in the world would an 18th-century |
Albany watch-maker need hops?
So, hops are a good jumping off point. Simply asking where they came from gets the ball rolling on this gap in our research. Where was—or more to the point was there—a hoppy center of the early-American and colonial brewing world in what would become the United States?
Let's start out with what we do know.
We know that by the mid-19th century, New York State had a well established hops industry, and Central New York would eventually produce 90 percent of the United States hop crop. We know that twenty-five years earlier eleven counties in Central New York would be growing and processing hops. Thanks to Martyn, we know that by 1817 the somewhere in United States had the capacity to produce enough hops that could be exported to England—a country, by the way, which had burned the White House and U.S. Capitol just four years earlier. We know that James Coolidge emigrated to Madison County, New York, from Massachusetts, bringing with him rootstock from that area in order to open the first "commercial" hop farm in the state—which he did in 1808. That year is exactly twenty-five years after the end of the American Revolutionary War—just enough time for the state to recover, economically and figuratively, from the war and a nasty infestation of the Hessian Fly which decimated the areas grain crop, after the war.
Newspaper adverts during the late 1780s, and well into 1790s show an increased demand for hops—to the level that non-brewers and non-hop growers were getting in on the act (see the above ad from the Albany Gazette, in 1789). They also show English hops being imported into and sold in New York City in the late 1770s and early 1780s, which makes sense, as the city was occupied British territory during the war. In the 1760s, a Committee for Agriculture was formed concerning a mode or proof for premiums on Agriculture. This committee set prerequisites on the quality of crops and agricultural goods, including flax, hemp, cheese and of course, hops. Prior to that these, admittedly New York-based newspapers, also show a pre-Revolution, thriving hops trade, albeit one that may have been bit un-organized. Throughout the 1740s and 50s, adverts appear for hops arriving through, what looks like inter-colonial trade, particularly Boston, Philadelphia and New York City—the earliest one found, advertising "Boston Hops by the Bale" in a 1749 ad in the New York Evening Post. Hops seem to be moving between these cites fairly regularly. There is almost no evidence that hops were being imported from outside the colonies—with one exception.
In the March 17, 1760 edition of the New York Mercury, a Hanover Square import merchant in New York City advertised "To be sold, a choice parcel of NEW-HOPS…" the ad does not specifically note that these are English hops, but it continues, "…likewise a parcel of Cheshire and Gloustershire Cheese, and Calvert's best Porter." I am assuming that all of these products were British-shipborne.
That leads me to a totally unsubstantiated and evidence-less theory (My personal, favorite kind of theory.) Could it be at all possible for the Crown to have viewed hops as they did tea—a required import that was also to be taxed? Granted, tea was used to support the trade form another British colony, and then heavily taxed to pay for it's standing Army—I don't think that's the case for hops. My theory is that because England had and existing and thriving hops industry, the Crown may have imposed an importation of hops into the colonies in order to regulate the amount of hops grown in North America. The Dutch appear to have done this, during their control of New Netherlands, so why not the Brits?
I'm not saying hops were not grown in the colonies, they obviously were, but think about this—hops grow wild and do particularly well across almost all of the Continental United States. On the East Coast alone hops can grow from North Carolina to Maine—an area several times larger than the hop growing regions of England—If England had supported a hops industry, as they did with cotton and tobacco, it would have killed the English hop industry—simply by the colonies ability to produce them in vastly greater numbers. Why not force an importation which, in case of an emergency—such as the English hops glut of the 1760s, that plummeted the price of hops in England—could be shipped to America and taxed to relieve offset any loss?
Again, no proof—just an idea.
Theory or not, and even knowing what we know, we still don't have a very clear picture of where these hops came from. We know where they were traded or shipped from and how they were sold and inspected when the arrived. But, where they were grown—be it in colonies or not—no. As it sits now, it looks like there wasn't an "industry" per say, more like a loose collective—substance farms growing a variety of crops like flax, corn, hemp and hops, then selling that harvest at market. Enough farms do that, and hop supplies can sustain themselves. While Alan's statement that "there was a hell of a lot of brewing under English rule…" is true, it's also relative to population. Looking at New York specifically, the population of the state of New York in 1850 was a tad over 3 million, one hundred years earlier, the colony of New York in 1750, it was just under 77,000. 77,000 people don't need an industry.
Where does that leave us? About where we started. If anybody has any ideas about the pre-19th century hoppy America—theories or otherwise—I'd love to hear them.
Maybe we can close this gap.