Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Albany Ale: The Brothers Amsdell

You may have heard the Albany Ale Project has an event happening this Saturday at the Albany Institute of History & Art. Nothing big—just the tapping of the first cask of an Albany Ale made in over 100 years. Ya' know, everyday stuff.

Seriously though, if it wasn't for the Amsdell Brother's and their brewery, we wouldn't be doing any of this—it's their Albany XX Ale from 1901, that the Project and Ryan at C.H. Evans recreated. So I thought I'd give you some info on the brothers, and their brewery, that made it all happen, way back when. It's also a little sneak peak at one of the more than 25 brewery bios we're planning on adding to albanyaleproject.com, in the very near future. Here goes:

In the early 1830s William Amsdell operated a small brewery on Rose Street, in Albany, while also employed as the head brewer at John Taylor's brewery on Green Street. Leaving his employment with Taylor in 1840 and moving his brewery—with his two sons George and Theodore as apprentices—to what is now Guilderland, New York, William operated on the Great Western Turnpike (U.S. Route 20), until 1856. Two years earlier, having purchased the White Malt House, the elder of the two brothers, George, opened his own brewery at Lancaster, Jay and Dove Streets in Albany. Younger Theodore would join his brother in partnership three years later, thus establishing The Amsdell Brothers Brewery.

Throughout the 1860s and 70s, the brothers grew their business into one of the most dominant ale breweries on the East Coast—eventually producing upwards of 100,000 barrels annually—Its success due much to the popularity of their Albany XX Ale. Although, Albany Ale was not the brewery's only product, it made a number of other brews—including IPA, Amber and Burton Ales as well as its noted Diamond Stock Ale, and Porter. The brothers became prominent members of Albany society. George purchased two homes in the city, a brownstone on Willet Street and a mansion on Washington Avenue. He was also elected Alderman of the city's old Ninth Ward. Theodore owned an estate on Madison Avenue, on what is now the campus of the College of Saint Rose (The main house is now the home of the College's Huether School of Business.) In the early 1890s, however, Theodore left his brother's partnership to buy into Dobler Brewery with his son-in-law George Hawley. Theodore held the position of president of that brewery until his death in 1903.

George renamed the family brewery after himself—the George I. Amsdell Brewery—and then as the Amsdell Brewing and Malting Co. He continued to run the business until his death in 1906 when, shortly thereafter, the owners of the much smaller Kirchner Brewery bought the Amsdell brewery out from underneath the Amsdell family. The brewery was again renamed, this time Amsdell-Kirchner Brewery, but fell into bankruptcy shortly thereafter. In 1909 a New Hampshire based company bought the brewery—but continued to run it as Amsdell-Kirchner—until it was sold once again to the New York City conglomerate Knickerbocker Brewing Corporation, who also owned Consumers and Hedrick Brewing Companies. Amsdell-Kirchner closed just before the start of national prohibition. The original brewery building on Jay Street was converted into a hotel, and later into apartments. Those apartments, the Knickerbocker Apartments, still stand in the Center Square neighborhood of Albany.

From the 1830s to 1916 the Amsdell name was associated with brewing in Albany. They weren't the biggest, or the longest lasting, but George and Theodore Amsdell most definitely left their mark on the city.

Tickets are still available for the cask tap event, but going fast. If you can't make it, C.H. Evans' version of Amsdell's 1901 Albany XX Ale will be available at the brew pub, and at a number of locations across the city—including the Lionheart Pub, The City Beer Hall and the Capital City Gastropub.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Ups and Down of Farm-to-Glass

I have my reservation about New York's Farm Brewery law. In theory, it's great. I suppose I'm just wary of the politicization of beer.

It does have some good initiatives. The legislation creates a "Farm Brewery" license which allows farms to sell New York State labeled beer and other alcoholic products at their retail outlets. The intent is for these farms to become Farm Breweries (or Farm Wineries or Farm Distilleries). It also encourages existing breweries—including those not necessarily on farms—to buy locally produced raw ingredients. A point of clarification, the license isn't a brewing license—that still goes through the State Liquor Authority—but it does make it legal to sell beer (and wine and liquor) where it was illegal to do so, just a year ago. It also allows these new farm breweries to operate restaurants which serve New York State labeled beer—as well as allowing for tastings at these restaurants. The new Farm Breweries can also sell brewing related equipment, souvenirs and other products similar to those allowed under the existing Farm Winery statute.

Most notable, however, are the tax credits for craft brewers introduced with the Farm Brewery legislation—a credit worth 14 cents per gallon for the first 500,00 gallons produced in New York and 4.5 cents per gallon for the next 15 million gallons produced in the state, for those New York breweries producing less than 60 million gallons or less a year. The law also exempts breweries producing less than 1,500 barrels annually, from paying the SLA's $150 per year brand label fee. Lastly, it eases the tax filling requirements for the farm brewery business.

So what are the Farm Brewery license qualifiers? According to a July press release from Governor Andrew Cuomo's office:

In order to receive a Farm Brewery license, the beer must be made primarily from locally grown farm products. Until the end of 2018, at least 20% of the hops and 20% of all other ingredients must be grown or produced in New York State. From January 1, 2018 to December 31, 2023, no less than 60% of the hops and 60% of all other ingredients must be grown or produced in New York State. After January 1, 2024, no less than 90% of the hops and 90% of all other ingredients must be grown or produced in New York State.

That all sounds reasonable, right?

There's just one catch.

New York's agricultural infrastructure is woefully under equipped to meet even the first 20%/20% quota. Neither barley or hops are—or even can be—grown in great enough quantities in New York, to meet that requirement. Especially since the license is not restricted to breweries located only on farms. Matt Brewery, alone, could easily consume all of the barley and hops grown in New York.

Barley doesn't grow reliably in this climate. It thrives in cool, dry climates like in northern parts of the U.S.' Midwest and Canada. New York wheat farmers are reluctant to take the risk on growing barley. And who could blame them? Wheat grows wonderfully in this state, and there's an enormous demand for it. Why would they risk taking a loss on barley? The expectation for a variety of barley that will grow reliably in New York (from what I've heard anecdotally) is years away.

What about hops, you ask? Hop farms are opening all the time, right?

Yes, they are, but again infrastructure is an issue. Hops harvesters and pellitizers are expensive, and realistically New York's hops farms are small, in fact many are hobby farms. New York grown hops are expensive. The farms in the Pacific Northwest are ginormous, and ginormoty keeps cost down. Hops are also a uni-tasker, they are grown for one purpose. Granted the craft-beer biz is booming, but the demand for hops is still a fraction when compared to the demand for other New York grown crops—like corn and apples.

I'm not saying the farm brewery law is dead in the water, but like most popular-topic laws in New York State, I think it could have been thought out better. I'm not sure how much research—let alone discussions with brewers or farmers—was done before it was proposed. What I fear the most is that this is all for the sound-bite. A showy-show which leaves participants out in the cold when it comes down to it. I wouldn't put it past New York's politicians to jump on the craft beer bandwagon to garner votes, and then not follow through.

Okay, enough of the Negative Nancy bit.

How does the farmer brewer overcome these odds?

It just so happens that my pal Rebecca Platel of the Carey Institute for Global Good had a pretty good idea a while back. The Carey Institute was developed around the philanthropist and businessman William Polk Carey’s defining principle of “Doing Good While Doing Well”. Polk's ideas of bringing together innovative and dynamic people from around the world to seek creative solutions to the most pressing challenges of the day is the cornerstone of the Institute. Located at the Carey Conference Center—a world-class, state-of-the-art retreat, meeting, and conference center in Rensselaerville, New York—the Institute is purpose-built to bring people together to discuss ideas—so why not brewer's and farmers?

So what was Rebecca's idea?

Open New York's first two-barrel, model farm brewery on the grounds of the conference center. Through business incubation, educational programs, and agri-tourism workshops the Carey Center will address some of the problems and limitations addressing New York's "farm-to-glass enterprises". Rebecca aims to make the Carey Institute's Farm Brewery Project a hub for collaboration and aims to connect farmers, brewers, distillers and consumers—all focused on overcoming the barriers that now limit New York's potential farmers, brewers and farm breweries.

Still need convincing?

What if I told you the Center was planning on housing their model brewery in a Dutch Barn built the 1760s? That's right, the Carey Center has partnered with Albany engineering and construction management firm, CSArch, to move a New World Dutch Barn, donated by Randolph J. Collins, 20 miles from Guilderland, New York to Rensselaerville. CSArch, isn't just going to move the structure, they're planning on upgrading the 250 year-old structure by adding solar, steam and possibly bio-mass systems to the building. If you're interested in learning more about the project, contact the Carey Institute at 518.797.5100

Whatever the hurdles there are with the farm brewery law, they're sure not going to stop Rebecca and her Dutch Barn model brewery from trying to get over them.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Why Beer?

I'm back. I needed a little break. A recharging of the beery batteries, if you will. The break was a good time for me to do a little inward introspection. Nothing existential, just a little thinking about what makes beer my topic of choice.

The Albany Ale thing is ramping up. The website is up and running—soon to be added to. The cask tapping event is less than two weeks away (get your tickets now they're going fast!). Not to mention there's a book in the works. But, I know why I'm involved in all that. That's clearly defined. Albany has a history that is forgotten, and someone needed to bring it to light. Truthfully, The Project, in my mind transcends beer.

What about the other stuff—like this blog? What is it about beer that I'm drawn to? I'm not the kind of beer geek that needs to bunt down the latest and greatest. I don't need to try the newest gooseberry-infused double India Pale Porter. But I'm not a purist either. Do I like craft beer? Yes—a lot. Do I consider myself one of its evangelist? No.

So, why beer?

I got my answer this past Saturday morning, at a soccer game of all places.

It was a beautiful morning. The sun was bright in a baby-blue sky and the fall leaves were a dazzling array of orange and yellow and red. Ritualistically, we parents stood on the sideline and watched a clump of fourteen seven and eight-year-olds chase the ball around the field. Someone brought up the league's travel team Friday-night practice schedule. To which was commented on, "Who schedules soccer practice on a Friday night? Don't they know about happy hour?"

Then it happened.

An hour long discussion, between four or five dads, that morphed from favorite beer bars in the area, to the newest brews just arrived in Albany—and maybe a little Albany beer history thrown in for good measure. From New England Brewing Company's Ghandi Bot to the Madison Pour House, it was an ebbing and flowing discussion purely about beer, with nary a pint glass in sight.

Here's the interesting part for me. I don't know these people. Sure, I see them at the weekly soccer game, but I don't know them. The obligatory hello and idle chit-chat prior to this was the extent of our interaction. But, now it appeared that we all seemed to have a shared experience with beer. Toward the end of the match, the conversation swung to football and Sunday's match-ups. The discourse's beery theme faded and we disbursed from our klatch to collect our respective kids after their end-of-game handshake. An unexpected beery moment, in the midst of what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill Saturday morning on the soccer field.

Conversations like that—with or without beer—is, for me, why beer.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Albany Ale: Broadway Empire

I've been wanting to write about Albany and Prohibition for some time now. I wasn't sure how I wanted to go about it. The problem is prohibition isn't really a beer story.

Don't get me wrong Albany was affected by Prohibition just as every other city in the United States was. By law, the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol was illegal. Because of that, Albany saw its share of  illegally produced, and or cut, “bootleg” alcohol as well its fair share of speakeasies. As a capital city, the demand for alcohol by powerful political figures was high. Being located half-way between the Canadian border and New York City on U.S. Routes 9 and 20, also made the area a stop-over for whiskey leaving Canada bound for New York City, Boston, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Albany was, for lack of a better term, “wet” with strong, alcoholic spirits like gin and whiskey.

Beer however, was another story. Because of its low alcohol content it can't be cut with water, or spiked with another form of alcohol, without notice. At the time, to be profitable beer had to be made in quantity, and therefore required large facilities to make it. Large facilities are hard to hide from Prohibition officers and other law enforcement officials. By 1920, the first year of national prohibition, only three of the seven breweries operating in the city, a year earlier would still be open—Beverwyck, Dobler and Hedrick.

Beverwyck, began operating as Beverwyck Co. Inc, and closed its ale producing counterpart Quinn & Nolan, focusing on making malt vinegar, near beer and soda. Feigenspan Brewery, the parent company to Albany’s Dobler Brewing Co., shut down its brewing operations in Newark, New Jeresey and convert that brewery into a coal and ice producing facility. In Albany, Feigenspan kept Dobler open and produced near beer and soda, as well. 
Dan O'Connell in 1937.
Courtesy of the Times Union

Hedrick Brewing Co. was the exception to this. And, it's a big exception. Almost as if it were right out of HBO's  Prohibtion-themed, television series Boardwalk Empire. We could call this version Broadway Empire, after Broadway in downtown Albany.

Initially Hedrick closed, but was purchased by a group of local businessmen who appeared to be operating the business legally making a non-alcoholic concoction of apples and malt. They were in fact, bootlegging. Producing beer and pumping it out through the basement of the brewery. They were eventually caught and prosecuted in the mid 1920s. Former Albany County District Attorney John J. Conway, would defend the group, taking ownership of the brewery in lieu of owed legal fees. Conway was a close friend of the Albany County Democratic Committee head, political boss, and ultimately the driving force behind Albany’s nearly sixty year Democratic Machine, Daniel P. O’Connell.

O'Connell, who came from nothing and grew up in Albany's south end, had been elected in 1919 as City Assessor, but quit a few years later to head the Democratic Party in Albany. From that point, he and his cronies—including O'Connell's brother Solly, and the longest-termed mayor in the history of the United States, Erastus Corning II—ran Albany like Capone ran Chicago. O'Connell's power wasn't limited to just Albany either. His Democratic Machine had links to both the State Capitol and Washington D.C. As one of the dominant political forces in New York, O’Connell had deep influence—both legal and illegal. Along with the polling places and political patronage, O’Connell controlled Albany’s police force, its red-light district, gambling, bootlegging—and with Conway’s acquisition of Hedrick Brewery—its beer. Hedrick continued producing illegal, full-strength beer after Conway assumed ownership, and although Conway owned the brewery, its profits benefited O’Connell. The last thing O'Connell was going to allow was competition—be it in politics or booze—and he did an amazing job of keeping out both the Republicans and the rackets out of Albany. 1931

That year John Moran—better known as Jack "Legs" Diamond—showed up in the city.

Diamond (center), just after being released
from the hospital in 1931.
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library.
Diamond, the flamboyant associate of the recently murdered Manhattan gambler and racketeer Arnold Rothstein, was attempting to expand his former boss’ booze and crime empire up the Hudson River. This expansion did not go unnoticed by the other mobsters in New York. Since the late-1920s, Diamond had been in a turf war with a Bronx-based gangster Dutch Schultz. A war that resulted in a number of lead slugs being pulled from Diamond's body. In 1930 Diamond—having recently been kicked out of Europe, when officials there realized he was on the hunt for narcotics and booze—was shot at the Hotel Monticello on the West Side of Manhattan. The gunmen peppered him with four rounds. He recovered, but by that point Schultz had moved from the Bronx into Diamond's territory in Manhattan. Diamond new it was time to get out of New York. He and his crew set up shop at the Aratoga Inn, in Cairo, New York, a tiny hamlet an hour south of Albany. 

Why Cairo, you might ask? 

Rural Greene County was the perfect place to pinch the supply of booze moving from Canada to New York City. It was secluded which made hiding liquor easy, yet close enough to Albany to satisfy Diamond's insatiable appetite for the nightlife. Diamond was becoming a celebrity. The press glorified his antics. They portrayed him as a gentleman gangster; a daring, Robin Hood-like character—stealing from the rich and giving hooch to the poor. In reality, that was far from the truth. Diamond was a brutal killer, and he laid claim to the "whiskey highway" with a vengeance. In the spring of 1930 Diamond beat a truck driver he believed was running booze. Shortly thereafter, he kidnapped and tortured a local bootlegger named Jack Duncan. Arrested for both assaults in the spring of 1931, he was tried and acquitted on the first charge, but the charges of kidnapping and torture wouldn't be so easy to avoided. The law wasn't Diamond's only problem, either. Six days after his arrest, a gunman sunk three bullets into Diamond while he was eating dinner at the Aratoga. Again, he recovered. The acquittal and attack only bolstered Diamond's reputation as the un-convictable, un-killable gentleman gangster.  

During Diamond's recovery, New York State Troopers raided his headquarters in Cairo, recovering $5,000 worth of illegal alcohol—which added federal bootlegging charges to his list of crimes. In August of 1931, Diamond and his lieutenant Paul Quattrocchi were tried on violations against the Volstead Act, and sentenced to four years in prison. Diamond appealed the conviction. Within a few weeks, Diamond's kidnapping case began. His savvy lawyer, Daniel Prior, petitioned to have his trial moved from Catskill to Troy, New York. Prior seriously doubted a conviction from a Rensselaer County jury enamored with Diamond's charming ways and reputation. Out on bail and bidding his time during the federal appeals process, Diamond set-up shop at the Kenmore Hotel in Albany. Diamond used the hotel's Rain-Bo Room like his own personal living room, dancing, womanizing and playing the hotel's piano well into the night. 

Obviously, a man in Dan O'Connell's position did not like having such a high-profile threat to his empire cavorting the night away at one of his city's premier establishments. O’Connell tolerated the gangster at first, and actually arranged for police protection for him, at the Hotel. But when rumors that Diamond had plans to get into the beer and extortion business in Albany arose, tensions escalated.

Prior was right, Diamond was acquitted of the kidnapping charge. On December 17, 1931 Jack Diamond was free and clear, and the federal charge of bootlegging was under appeal. The world was Diamond's oyster. He headed straight for the Kenmore, and spent most of the evening celebrating there with friends. He left around 1am, stopping first at his mistress Kiki Roberts place, before going home to his Dove Street apartment. Just before dawn on the morning of the 18th, three shots rang out. Legs Diamond, the un-killable killer, was found face down in his bed with three bullets in his skull.

Rumors were abound about the killing of Americas favorite gangster. Suspects included his biggest rival, Dutch Schultz, Arnold Rothstein's protegé Charlie Luciano, and the Philadelphia bootlegger Waxey Gordon. The most accepted theory, however, is that O’Connell had Diamond killed for trying to move in on his bootlegging and beer operations. William “Doc” Fitzpatrick—a friend of O’Connell’s and an Albany police sergeant and future chief of police—was most likely the triggerman.

Diamond was dead and the official repeal of Prohibition went into effect almost exactly two years later on December 15, 1933. Hedrick Brewing Co., closed in 1965*, and Dan O'Connell would continue to run his Democratic Machine in Albany until his death in 1977.

Albany doesn't have many gangster related prohibition stories—nothing compared to New York or Chicago. But the one it does have, sure is a Duesy.

*The Hedrick name was sold to Piels in 1965 who continued to make it at Hamden-Harvard Breweries in Willimansett, Massachuset, until the name was again sold to Eastern Brewing Co., in Hammonton, New Jeresy in 1974. Production of Hedrick stopped when that brewery closed in 1990.   


Tuesday, October 8, 2013


For a while now, I've contested that gimmicks are, what gimmicks are. Usually I take them with a grain of salt. If the beer is good, I usually give the stunt little mind, if it's bad I move on. Yeah, I know that gimmicks and ploys jack up the price of beer—but that's business. The price of everything that we purchase or consume is at some level effected by marketing, or gimmicks and promotions. To expect the brewing industry to not do that is moot. Gonads, Beers of Thrones, maple/bacon-ification, and season-creeped brews are not going anywhere, anytime soon.

 I, however, reserve the right to contradict myself at any moment. Dogfish Head's Celest-jewel-le is exception to the rule. Yes, that's right, I'm calling bullshit on DFH's newest publicity stunt. From DFHs website:

Celest-jewel-ale is made with lunar meteorites that have been crushed into dust, then steeped like tea in a rich, malty Oktoberfest. These certified moon jewels are made up primarily of minerals and salts, helping the yeast-induced fermentation process and lending this traditional German style a subtle but complex earthiness. 

I decided to do a little investigating on these "lunar jewels". I stopped by the office of Dr. Marian Lupulescu, Curator of Geology at the New York State Museum. Dr. Lupulescu is an expert on Mineralogy, Petrography and the Geology of Ore Deposits—oh, and the geological aspects of the surface of the Moon. Conveniently, his office also happens to be just down the hall from mine.

In DFH's defense the science behind their claim that "…moon jewels are made up primarily of minerals and salts…" is solid—kind of. The lunar surface is comprised of two kinds of rock—basalt and anorthosite. When you look at the Moon in the night sky, the light areas on its surface are the anorthosite, while the dark areas are basalt. Since lunar meteorites are launched from the Moon after impacts from other celestial objects—like other meteorites or space debris—they share the same properties as the surface of the Moon. Marian agreed that both anorthosite and basalt are pretty high in aluminum, calcium and iron, and they probably would affect the pH of DFHs mash water, if enough was added. 

But, here's the problem.  Lunar meteorites are rare. And not just rare—but really, really, rare. 

According to Marian's colleague, Dr. Randy L. Korotev, of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, of the approximately 45,000 meteorites listed in the Meteoritical Bulletin Database, only 1 in about 285 are from the Moon. All said and done, we're talking about 100 pounds of known lunar meteorite material—total—on Earth, right now. Two sentences in an email from Marian sums up my whole point .
"There are only 186 lunar meteorites recorded! And they are much more important for science than for other things."
I couldn't have said it better, Dr. Lupulescu. 

So how much lunar material did DFH destroy? Using a whole bunch meant destroying quite a bit, and using a tiny, tiny amount, then who cares and what's the point? More importantly, if they did grind up a lunar meteorite just to sell beer, that seems like pretty irresponsible thing to do. To make matters worse, both basalt and anorthosite are available on Earth. In fact, the rock that made the Moon came from Earth. Granted, rock from Hawaii or the Adirondacks doesn't have the same panache as "Moon rocks", but Moon anorthosite and Earth anorthosite are exactly the same thing. The same goes for basalt.

So, what's next, Javan Rhinos? I hear they make a fantastic Porter. How about we grind up a Gutenberg Bible and make and Alt beer? 

Remember this Mr. Calagione, the old adage is true—just because you can, doesn't mean you should.