Friday, December 13, 2013

Albany Ale: Shuffle off to Buffalo—but First to Schenectady and Geneva

Okay, so I realize that none of the cities that I'm going to write about in this post are Albany, but Schenectady is just a hop, skip and a jump down the Mohawk River, and I'd say that it falls under the Albany Ale umbrella.

That's where the story begins—in Schenectady. Okay, technically is doesn't, but that's where I'm starting the story. I was digging through some books and searching the interwebs for information on Schenectady's brewing past. The industry was quite a bit smaller there than in its neighboring cities of Albany and Troy, but there were some notable breweries.

New York State in 1795
courtesy of
Especially during the first part of the 19th-century. According to The History of the County of Schenectady from 1662 to 1886. Schenectady say a burst of breweries opening on Washington Avenue in what is now the city's historic Stockade District. The first of those Washington Ave breweries was opened by a "Mr. Moffatt" in 1820. The brewery operated until 1827 or 28 and then closed.

That info sent me looking for Mr. Moffatt, and a page in Orasmus Turner's 1851 book on the Phelps and Gorham Purchase—a 1788 purchase of 6 million acres of Western New York from Massachusetts by two business men—caught my eye. Turner mentions a number of the early merchants living in the tiny village of Geneva, New York. Including Samuel Colt, and the owners of the regions first brewery Grieve & Moffat (less one t).

Grieve? That sounds familiar. Didn't Alan come across a reference, and write a post about a brew house owned by a Grieve in Lord Selkirk's travel diary of 1803 and 04—including diagrams of the building?

In fact he did.

According to a post on Genesee Country Village Museum's—a living history museum just outside Rochester—website, Walter Grieve and John Moffat were indeed business partners—or at the very least owned property together. According to Orasmus Turner's book, the duo seem to have met around the mid-1790s while working for Cpt. Charles Williamson at Sodus, New York. Williamson was the first land agent for the Pulteney Estate, a group of British investors who had purchased land in 1792, within the area of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase, east of the Genesee River. Grieve and Moffat were with Williamson in Sodus around 1795 and moved to the settlement of Geneva in 1796 and their brewhouse* is suspected to have begun operation in 1797.

Genesee Country Village's post speaks more to the history of Walter Grieve, and doesn't mention much about Moffat. It does reference Lord Selkirk's diary and the Turner book, noting that Selkirik mentioned a "Moffat" in regards to a new patented still, and that Turner mentioned that Moffat had "removed to Buffalo". The GVC post also says that Geneva Historical Society gives credit to Moffat for opening the brewery, rather than Grieve, but Moffat doesn't show up on any census for Ontario County, and it appears that he sold off his holdings in Geneva sometime in the late 1790s. John Moffat did however obtain a patent for a still in 1803.
The Albany Argus, May 1815

Although there is no record of a John Moffat in western New York in the last few years of the 1790s, there was a John Moffat living—or conducting legal business—in Schenectady by at least 1818. An advertisement in the Tuesday May 23, 1815 edition of the Albany Argus also mentions ale from Moffat's Brewery in Schenectady was for sale at 22 Quay Street in Albany. The ad was reprinted from January of that year. It looks like the 1820 date in The History of the County of Schenectady is off by five or perhaps six years, at the very least.

But was the John Moffat in Schenectady the same John Moffat? A little more digging seems to have cleared that up—in a round about way.

Another Moffat popped up in my research at this point, as well. James Moffat appears to have established Moffat Brewery, one of the earliest breweries in Buffalo, New York. According to The Western Brewer: and Journal of the Barley, Malt and Hop Trades, published in 1919, James set-up shop in Buffalo in 1810. Both John and James (along with William Moffat) were also listed in a 1835 Buffalo directory, as brewers in Buffalo. 

Was James a brother or son?

 In fact, he was John's son. According to Municipality of Buffalo: A History, Vol. IV, published in 1923:
The business which has now become the Moffat Flour Mills, Inc., had its real beginning in 1792, when John Moffat, great-grandfather of William L. Moffat, began establishing breweries throughout the Albany and Schenectady sections of the State. About 1828 the business was moved to Buffalo by his son, James, who continued to conduct it until 1856, under the name Moffat Company, when he turned the business over to his son Henry C., who continued to successfully manage the business for a great many years, finally being succeeded by his son William L. James Moffet... 
That bit cleared a lot up. But, something got messed up somewhere, and there's some conflicting info. 

Was it 1810 or 1828 that the Moffats established their brewery in Buffalo? My guess is closer to the later date. Another publication from 1919The Niagara Area: A Monthly News Journal has a blurb about James Moffat purchasing the land on which the existing brewery (existing as of 1919, anyhow) was built on, in 1832. It looks like the Mofftas moved in 1828, but didn't begin brewing in until 1832—or perhaps built a new brewery in that year. 

Another inconsistency in the the story comes from Orasmus Turner. He implies that the elder Moffat left Geneva for Buffalo, at the turn of the 19th century, but it seems like he went east to Schenectady first—or what I'm starting to think is that he returned to Schenectady. The Municipality of Buffalo: A History, notes a date of 1792—that's three years prior to his work with Williamson and Grieve in Pultney Esate Purchase. If the Municipality of Buffalo book is to believed, Moffat may have been living—and brewing—in the Albany/Schenectady area well before 1815.

It seems that the brewhouse in Geneva was a business venture that just wasn't going to work out. Western New York at the turn of the 19th century must have been a desolate place. In fact, it might have well been California. According to the Genesee Country Village Museum's post, no breweries were identified in Ontario County in the Tench Coxe’s 1810 census. Perhaps Grieve and Moffat had a falling out or maybe it was just an adventure without the payout—at least for Moffat. A return to the Albany/Schenectady area, and its more fully developed brewing industry, may have been the best move for him, but with the full opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, it seems his adventurous spirit rose again.

The Moffat brewery, one of the oldest in Buffalo, continued to operate throughout the 19th. Closing as a brewery in 1920 due to national prohibition, the Moffat family re-opened as Moffet Flour Mills, Inc. From what I can tell, unfortunately, a fire destroyed the brewery building turned flour mill in 1926—eliminating any chance for reopening after repeal.

In any case, John Moffat, connects 128 years and 270 miles of New York brewing history—and that's cool be it Albany Ale or not. 

*The Genesee Country Village has a fully functioning reproduction of Walter Grieve's 1803 brew house, based on the information from Lord Selkirk's diary.


  1. Excellent research article ! John Moffats tomb is in Forest Lawn Cemetery and if I recall correctly birth date was 1796, I will forward link to others who know more than I do and maybe they can help solve the mystery. I know someone who lives in Moffats former home on Prospect Ave in Buffalo. Can we have permission to print in our bottle club newsletter ?

    1. Thanks! I'm pretty sure this is his grave marker. Feel free to re-print it, just make sure to mention this blog and the Albany Ale Project and!

    2. Hi Craig, I am a direct descendant of the Moffat's. I only became aware of this recently in doing some genealogy. I found some of the same records you found and it looks like the Moffat's moved around a lot in the late 1700's and early 1800's. If you ever find more I would be really interested.... Craig Maefs

    3. Will do!

      So far, it appears Moffat was, like I mentioned, in Schenectady until leaving for Geneva. He also appears to have been in Geneva for longer than was previously thought—perhaps as late as 1810. Although there is no indication that he was still involved with the Greive brew house. He's back in Schenectady after that. I think the next earliest mention of him in Schenectady is 1813 or 1814. He stays east like the post above says until the end of the 1820s.