Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Albany Ale: Remember When...

Writing about the recent beery past can be more challenging than say, the 1830s.

Truth be told I dread writing about the craft beer parts of our upcoming book. It's kind of like in the movies when the cop's partner is killed, and the Captain has to back him down off the investigation because he's too "close". I'm too close, and sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees.
So, I decided to look for a little perspective. 

Over the last few months I've had the pleasure to participate in the Facebook group "Albany…the way it was"—curated by the wonderfully witty Ms. Julie O'Connor, a born-and-bred Albanian. The group has become a repository for images and stories mostly about Albany's recent past—that is to say the 1950s, 60s and 70s—with the occasional late 20th century blip, and earlier history—in some cases delving into the 19th century. It is an amazingly interactive collection of Albany-centric, baby boomer nostalgia for ex-pats and locals alike. As a bonus there are a good number of members who are also interested in beer, so it's also win-win for this Generation X'er.

As an experiment á la social media, I put to the witnesses of Albany's beery past the question: What does Albany beer mean to you?

The answers were quite varied, some offered names of bars and bartenders, others thought back to the non-Albany made beers of the past—the usual suspects like Schlitz, Ballantine and Utica Club. One person mentioned the grandfather of East Coast craft brewing, Bill Newman, but none of the area's brewpubs of the past twenty to twenty-five years made even the scantest appearance. That says something, doesn't it. The answer that came up the most however surprised me—but at the same time didn't surprise me.

Three breweries survived prohibition in Albany—Dobler, Beverwyck (later Schaefer) and Hedrick. But it was the later that seems to be the beer most associated with Albany. The two other breweries were mentioned, but almost as after thoughts. Sure, these boomers acknowledged those beers and breweries, but they don't seem to embrace them.

Granted, Dobler's heyday was during its post repeal, Feigenspan-owned era from the 1930s to the early 50s—a bit earlier than the coming-of-age of most of the group's followers, I'd guess. Dobler was purchased and closed in 1959. Plans by the brewery's purchaser, were to re-open and continue operations in Albany after a rehab of the facility, but those plans never came to fruition. The brewery remained closed, but Dobler was still sold in Albany into the 1960s, brewed by the Massachusetts-based Hamden-Harvard Breweries, an eventual subsidiary of Associated Brewing Co.

What became Albany's Schaefer Brewery, formally the Beverwyck Brewery—a facility steeped in Albany history, mind you—also seems to be a bit overlooked. Although the building had been a brewery since Michael Nolan opened it in 1878, Schaefer wasn't a true Albany brewing company. Brooklyn's F&M Schaefer purchased the Beverwyck Brewery—the only brewery in Albany large enough to produce at a national level—in 1950. Its beer was distributed nationally, and as a company, especially in the late 1950s and early 60s, was huge. A company very much in mold of the large regional brewery, like Genesee in Rochester.

Hedrick however, was the one they all remember. Hedrick was everywhere.

Ironically, Hedrick was the smallest of the three breweries—significantly smaller than Dobler and, truthfully, insignificant compared to Schaefer. It was also the cheapest. Julie, the site moderator, recalls the price of Hedrick in her pre-legal drinking days hovering somewhere around 27¢ a quart. It also seems to have been universally disliked.

Nevertheless, Hedrick had something neither Beverwyck or Dobler had. Was it spunk? Determination? Or as Mattie Ross might say, true grit?

Nope. It had political connections.

Had Dan O'Connell, Albany's gangster-esque, Democratic political boss, not "acquired" the brewery, it most likely would not have survived Prohibition—or quite honestly general competition. You can read about how O'Connell got Hedrick here. Hedrick was the very definition of "it's not what you know. It's who you know." Almost all of those who answered my question on the form, with an answer of Hedrick, also noted, implicitly or otherwise, that it was O'Connell's shadow—not its taste—that caused the beer's ubiquity. I've heard many times on the forum, in person, and from many other sources, that if you didn't sell Hedrick, you didn't have a bar. In fact, one commenter recalled a bar from his youth that only had three taps, and all three were Hedrick.

So, there it sat. In 1936 or, 1947, or 1955, or 1963. Keeping the ward bosses happy and the bars open. But everything has its time, even the pervasive Hedrick. The Hedrick name was purchased in 1965 by Piels Brothers. Piels themselves had been acquired, as Dobler had, by Associated Brewing in 1963. The brewery was torn down, eventually replaced by the Central Towers apartment building. Hedrick, like Dobler, had a life after Albany at Hamden-Harvard. The brand was sold, again in 1974 to Eastern Brewing Co., of Hammonton, New Jeresy. Production of Hedrick stopped when that brewery closed in 1990. Now, instead of being in every bar in the city, it's in the memories of the men and women who grew-up in Albany during its height.

I'd like to thank those people, and everyone on the "Albany…the way it was" forum, who helped in this wholly unscientific poll.

To all of you, I raise my glass.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A House Divided

I've noticed something over the last few years of writing this blog.

American craft beer is fighting amongst itself. All of the boats that are raised by the rising tide of craft beer have begun to spring leaks. The focus of craft beers fondest argument has started to shift away from micro versus macro or craft versus crafty debate, and is starting to turn inward. While the perception still lingers that the big boys remain "the enemy", the debate is ebbing away from that point, and cracks in the foundation are forming. Cracks that are emanating from both sides of the trade—from the breweries and the consumers.

Last month Tony Magee of Lagunitas took to Twitter to engage in a proverbial pissing match with the Boston Beer Company, accusing the larger brewery of developing its Rebel IPA, a so-called West Coast IPA, as a surreptitious tactic to undermine and supplant "true" West Coast IPA brewers. Jim Koch, denies the targeting of other craft brewers—but that remains to be seen.

Granted, this is a pretty stupid argument. Brewing is an industry, and with that comes competition. More importantly, however, this little tiff gets at the point that craft brewing isn't the big happy family that it is touted as.

An interesting debate popped up on Facebook between two friends of mine (who shall remain nameless) one involved in the beer industry and one a consumer—all over a spilled bottle of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. The debate devolved from a question of preference: "Everything is better bourbon-barrel-aged" versus "Lacks balance. Too much bourbon",  to essentially an argument that good beer is good beer regardless of where it comes from, with the other side stalwartly defending the position that craft beer is better because it's not coming from a giant corporation. 

But, the lock step mentality of macro beer is always "bad" and micro beer is always "good" is starting to crumble. Consumers are starting to realize that the big boys of brewing can make, or facilitate the making and distribution of, some pretty great beer. Don't get me wrong, the standards and guidons of "Up with Craft" are still flying pretty high, but the reality of beer purchasing is starting to become decidedly more gray rather than black or white.

Max and Alan's book The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer, may illustrate the rift in craft beer best of all. As interesting as the book is, what I find most intriguing, is that two people who love beer, in literally opposite ends of the world—Canada and the Czech Republic—have become fed up with the bullshit of what they both love. Think about it, two men who have a combined 16-year, public history with beer—both drinking it and writing about it—have become so disillusioned by the nonsense of its production that them felt it necessary to write a nine chapter book about the ridiculousness of it all.

That, in and of itself says something, doesn't it? 

I think craft beer, or microbrew or the resurgence of beer not produced on a mass scale—or whatever you want to call it—is reaching a maturity. By no means is it a middle-aged a father of two, with a dog and house and a white picket fence, but at the same time it's no longer a gangley, teenager. It's the beery equivalent of a twenty-something, a bit older, but still apt to make the occasional bonehead mistake. Now, however its capable of taking responsibility for its actions, and adjusting occasionally. This maturity, however, hinges on the industry's ability to listen to what the consumer's are saying, and in turn also hinges on the consumers ability to not follow for the sake of following.

Craft beer needs to realize that it's gotten to the point that being independent isn't enough. The sales of craft-like beers made by large breweries is enough to prove that. The beer is what is important—not that the brewery started in a garage or that West coast IPAs belong to California. That idea needs to be embraced by both the breweries and consumers. We are at the point where it's not all about the craft beer mantra, but should be about the mantra of good beer.

In my mind, that's the next step.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Shirking My Responsibility

I freely admitting to trolling the internet and news outlets for beery stories and then rifling them back at you with my own witty and/or snarky twist. Yeah, I know it's a bit of a cop-out, rehashing someone else's beey material, and all, but I haven't received your subscription check yet, so watcha' gonna do?

Most of the time it's because a certain article—or rather the article's topic—has caught my eye. Rarely is it because the writer has crafted a well written piece of news or information. Every once in a while though, that happens.

A case in point is Michael Filtz article on German beer's "Exsistential Crisis"—as he puts it—from The New Yorker's website. The article is chock full of stats and numbers, but also little tidbits like this:
It’s not that Germans aren’t drinking anymore. From my own admittedly unscientific research—which includes losing count of the number of people I’ve observed drinking lagers on the train during my morning commute in Berlin—Germans still consume a lot of beer.
It's worth the read, so I'm passing it along—without my own reinterpretation muddying the water.

You'll thank me for that later.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Albany Ale: The Lack of Lager

The more I research Albany Ale, the more I realize that the story of brewing in Albany is an ale story.

What I mean by an "ale story" is that it's ale that built the brewing industry, and sustained it for the majority of it's history. Lager is a pretty small part of that history. It never got a major foothold in the city and surrounding areas. Albany stays very much an ale brewing hub well past the point of when lager had ascended to its beery height in the rest of the country.

The first lager brewed in the U.S. was made in Philadelphia in the early 1840s, but it took a while for the cold-fermented trend to catch on—especially in the Northeast and Albany. It's not that lager wasn't being being brought into the city, or sold here, it was. There is just very little hard evidence of it being made here prior 1860. It did, however get a fair bit of press. During the 1850s Albany newspapers were rife with articles about "lager-bier" and the saloons in which it was sold, but the papers mostly reported on its appearance in other cities like Cincinnati and Baltimore, and it's differences from top-fermented ale. An article in the July 3, 1854 Albany Journal (reprinted from the New York City publication, The Journal of Commerce) notes:
"The frequency with which placards bearing this inscription meet the eye, the recency of its introduction into this city, and the cabalistic character of the words themselves may perhaps render a brief article upon this topic not uninteresting."
The article also mentions that "We know of but one lager brewery in New York." I suspect that means the city, not the state, but the scarcity of lager is proven nonetheless.

As far as Albany goes, we do know that Prussian-born Frederick Hinckel and Bavarian-born John Hedrick both opened breweries in Albany in 1852, the earliest Central European immigrant-owned breweries in the city. What we don't know is if those breweries opened as ale breweries or lager breweries. They may have been brewing Bavarian-style Weiss Bier. As the 1850s wore on, circumstantial references to lager brewing in Albany appears, but nothing noting a named brewery. In 1857, Templeton's—a furniture store on Albany's main drag, Broadway, advertised refrigerators for sale. Suitable for, as the ad expresses, "Grocers, Butchers, and Lager Beer purposes." 

In 1860, Daniel Ayer began advertising one acre of land for sale on the Burt Farm "For A Lager Bier Brewery", what became of that acre, is unknown. There was also an 1865 attempt by the Albany lager sellers to raise enough capital to build their own lager brewery, but it seems to have failed. I've not come across anymore information on that endeavor. It's not until the 1870s that there is any significant newspaper mentions of lager breweries in Albany—and honestly, they are pretty scarce, at that point too. In fact, most references to lager breweries in the city are from historical or industrial publications from the mid-1880s. If Albany was ale-centric, then Troy was down right exclusive. Nearly all of the breweries in that city were ale producers.

To be fair, the arc that lager brewing has taken thus far in Albany's brewing history, isn't that far of from what was happening in the rest of the county. By the 1870s that all changes. The 1870s see the start of the first wave of German immigrants hitting the shores of the U.S., a trend that would continue over the next 30 years. The decade would also bring technological innovations and advancements in commercial refrigeration—both game changers in the world of lager.

But, not in Albany. 

Albany, because of the Erie Canal, saw more people pass through it than stay. The city and its canal was the start of the journey, not the end. Albany also had a large, established ale brewing industry—and ale breweries didn't need refrigeration to operate. This established ale industry was also hard to compete with. It was easier for wealthy German and Central European brewers and businessmen to establish breweries in areas in which they had no serious competition, and had growing, similar immigrant populations—cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago and St. Louis.

We see this in Albany's beer production numbers. In the 1850s, 60s, breweries like Amsdell and Quinn & Nolan could produce 75 to 100,000 barrels of beer, and Taylor—the largest—even more. Hedrick and Hinckel were barley breaking the 1,000 barrel mark. By the late 1870s a few small lager breweries—Frederick Dietz, Jacob Kirchner and William Schinedler—along with the larger Dobler brewery had opened. Hedrick and Hinckel were definitely brewing lager at this point, but still all of the lager producing breweries production numbers were dwarfed by the large ale breweries. Hinckel, by far the largest, was only capable of producing 30 to 40,000 barrels per year. In 1884, ale production numbers pushed 300,000 barrels while lager was at around 95,000.  

There was one exception to the ale trump card in Albany. In 1884 H.P. Phelps wrote in his Albany Hand-Book A Strangers' Guide and Residents' Manual,
“For many years Albany had been noted for its ale, but it was not until 1878 that it became equally famous for lager.”
So what happened in 1878?

An immigrant opened a lager brewery, but not a German immigrant, an Irish one. Michael Nolan had become one of the richest and most influential men in the city of Albany, by 1878. He had recently acquired full control of his ale brewery Quinn & Nolan, due to the death of his partner Terrance Quinn, and had been elected mayor of Albany. Nolan, seeing the rise in the popularity of lager, completed his trifecta of 1878, by opening a lager brewing facility—Beverwyck Brewery. The new brewery was the largest and most up-to-date brewery in the city, boasting the most modern pumps, boilers and refrigerators available in the late 1870s. Between Quinn & Nolan and the new brewery, the two facilities could brew upwards of 120,000 barrels a year—60,0000 of that was lager. Throughout the late 19th-century Beverwyck and Quinn & Nolan continued to expand, ever increasing Nolan’s wealth and power. By the 1890s the two breweries were easily the largest and most productive in the city—Beverwyck alone was capable of producing 100,000 barrels. By 1909 that number had exploded to 250,000 barrels The brewery's 185 feet tall chimney had become a city landmark. Adorned with electric lights advertising “BEVERWYCK LAGER”, it literally became a beacon for the brewery.

Although ale had dominated Albany for 250 years, the collective omission of Albany's ale brewing history is directly related to the success of Beverwyck. By the first decade after the turn of the century Albany's brewing industry had waned, both ale and lager—with the exception of Beverwyck and Quinn & Nolan. The mighty Taylor Brewery closed in 1905; Amsdell Brothers faltered after the death of George Amsdell; Dobler was on the verge of bankruptcy and Hedrick was barely producing 10,000 barrels per year. When prohibition hit, the Albany brewing industry heard its funeral dirge.

Beverwyck however, was the only brewery in the city—ale or lager—that at the turn of the century was capable of producing more than 100,000 barrels a year—the minimum to compete, on a national level, with the ever growing midwestern breweries. By the mid-teens, Beverwyck had garnered itself quite a reputation, becoming one of the major breweries on the East Coast. After repeal, Beverwyck continued its earlier success, eventually folding Quinn & Nolan in, under the Beverwyck name, as well. Michael Nolan and Beverwyck did for Albany Lager what Taylor did for Albany Ale, the only difference was that Beverwyck had no real local competition. So, Phelps' quote rings true, and it also helps that the collective conscience has a short-term memory. 

Interestingly though, when F&M Schaefer bought Beverwyck in 1950, and then discontinued Beverwyck's famous Irish Cream Ale, public outcry was so loud that the Brooklyn-based brewery brought the Irish Cream Ale back a year later—under its own name. They didn't do that with Beverwyck's lager.

See, I told you, brewing in Albany is an ale story.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Money Well Spent

Admittedly, I'm not one to back way from the gratuitous self promotion of my own projects (HEY! don't forget about the Albany Ale Project, albanyaleproject.com, and the upcoming book on said topic!), but today, I thought I'd share the spotlight with three of my beer writing compatriots. Two pretty fantastic books have hit the market and I thought I'd give you the low-down on them.

First up—for all the home brewing history nerds out there…

Although Ron the-one-man-beery-encyclopedia Pattinson, has written a number of books—Mild!, Bitter! , War!, Scotland!, and of course his Amsterdam Pub Guide (which has a phenomenally well designed cover, I might add.) His latest release is a bit different. In The Homebrewer's Guide to Vintage Beer, Ron has compiled a how-to for recreating historic beers from the beginning of the 19th to mid-20th century. From Brown Ale to Burton, Stout to Stock ales, this volume digs into the history of each of these well-known brews and then gives you all the grists, hopping info and techniques for making them in the comfort of your own home—time machine unnecessary.

The Homebrewer's Guide to Vintage Beer is available at Amazon and Ron's blog Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, for a mere $22.49.

And now for something completely different...

The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer—A Rant in Nine Acts dropped (as they say in the music biz), just this morning. Written by the international dynamic-duo of Alan McLeod and Max Bahnson, The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer is a witty and sometimes acerbic look at the state of the craft-beer world today. Set in, well… anywhere they choose—from Alan's backyard shed to 19th century England. All I'll say is that the space-time continuum is a bit bendy in this rant. Alan and Max dissect everything wrong and right with craft beer—slicing through the bullshit, but also extolling the virtues—of an industry that can sometimes stray from the course. This one is perfect for those who haven't drank the Kool-Aid—or better yet, for those who have.

The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer is available for $3.99 as a Kindle purchase on Amazon. Also check-out the book, and the fellas on Facebook, as well.

Now then, where's my ten percent?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Pot Shots

I'm going to preface this post by saying while I can be a joker, and an ex-smoker, I'm not much of a midnight toker. Pot really isn't my thing. But with New York on the precipice of possibly legalizing some amount of medical marijuana, and a number of other states decriminalizing the possession of pot, and yet others having made it out-and-out legal, Jim Galligan, a TODAY Show contributor, brings up an interesting notion. He asks about newly legalized pot competing with craft beer sales in Colorado. To quote Galligan "Will cannabis cannibalize craft beer sales in the state."

The article leans decidedly towards no, and I have to agree. I think beer sales are going to be fine—at least in the short term. But the article does hit one one point that I think can't be denied. One of Galligan interviewees, Marty Jones, a Denver-based beer journalist and craft beer fan, adds "The era of Colorado pot connoisseurs can't be far off."

Therein lies the rub. When I hear the word "connoisseurs," I take that to mean the craft-tification of pot. And that's where the competition will come from.

If the trend for the legalization of pot continues, and spreads to other states, as seems likely—half of the U.S. already has decriminalized or medial marijuana laws on the books—can we not expect the oncoming wave a precious treatment of weed? We've hipster-ized everything else—from small batch bourbon and cheese, to coffee and dog clothes. Do we really think the same thing isn't going to happen with pot? Quite honestly hasn't it already happened? Didn't Bill Murray's character from Caddy Shack, Carl Spackler, make his own hybrid of Kentucky Bluegrass and Northern California Sensemilia—way back in 1980!? That's sounds par for the craft course, if you ask me.

I don't expect the mainstream craft-tification of pot will be an overnight phenomenon. It took well over twenty years for craft beer to make the mainstream. At this point, only in 1/25 of the U.S. is legal ghanga even an entity, so I can see how the beery soothsayers might not think pot is much of a competitor to craft beer—but what about in five years, or when 35 to 40% of the country has legitimized it? What happens when the first coffee-infused pot makes it to market? Or when the New York Times or Saveur start writing about cannabis and food pairings?

I suppose all that remains to be seen—but If the trend is towards making pot legal, how can we not expect the "craft" phenomenon to not permeate the pot industry? A multi-billion dollar business, mind you. I guess we'll see how everything pans out in a few years.

I will take a hard line on one position, though. Every beer I've had that's been brewed with hemp or claimed to have use pot in the brewing process has sucked—granted most of these were made by stoned out of their gourd home brewers. But, can we all agree to leave the pot in the bongs and the beer in the bottle, and never the twain shall meet—at least not in the same glass.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Excavating Beer

I'm much for new year's predictions, but I think 2014 is shaping up to be the year of archeo-beer. In just over a month I've seen not one, not two, but three stories on the convergence of archaeology and beer. I'm not talking about speculative recipes and gimmicks, either. I mean holes-in-the-ground, dirt under their finger nails archaeology and beer that was brewed thousands of years ago.

Khonso-Im-Hebs tomb.
Courtesy of The Atlantic/Supreme council of Antiquities
At the end of November, the Huffington Post reported that a group of "diggers" in Cyprus unearthed a site what they suspect was a bronze-age brewery, including what may have been a grain kiln. The HuffPost was kind enough to include a recipe—a very detailed and labor intensive recipe, mind you—to boot. 

A month later on December 20, Martyn posted on Facebook an article from the U.K.'s Daily Mail. The gist of the article is that a group of scientists—not the least of whom happens to be University of Pennsylvania's Dr. Patrick McGovern—are stating that it was beer rather than bread that was the impetus for paleo-man to quit his huntin' and gatherin' ways and put down roots—and by roots I literally mean roots, as in they started farming.

McGovern and his compatriots—spurned by the University of Chicago scholar Robert Brainwood who first proposed that beer was a human existence-changing phenomenon in the 1950s—note that beer was nutritious, may helped to develop community and may have even led to the domestication of barley and other fermentable grain. McGovern, by the way, is the science side of Dogfish Head's Ancient Ales series.

And finally, from this morning, The Atlantic (among others) is reporting that a group of Japanese Egyptologists, working in Luxor, have discovered the 3,000 year old tomb belonging to the ancient Egyptian brewer Khonso-Im-Heb—the royal brewer to Pharaoh Amenhotep III. The T-shaped tomb is decorated with images of the brewer himself, grain fermentation and, well the end product of that fermentation—beer. As well as images of beer given as an offering to Mut, Egypt's mother-goddess.

It looks like we're off to a pretty cool start to 2014. Pharaohs and Bronze age breweries, what's cooler than that?

Can we all agree to ride this wave, and not fuck it up with another bull testicle beer?

I'm just putting that out there.