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.


  1. Geez, Craig. Keep writing long informative posts like this and no one is going to need to read your book. BTW, I haven't forgotten about my research assignment. Life and work have gotten in the way.

    1. Maybe none of this will be in the book! Okay, it will be.

      Seriously, though, what I'm hoping the book will do is present the whole story in one place. A coherent arc from the mid 17th century to today—with pictures!

      Please buy it (I may or may not be on my knees right now.)

  2. Excellent, well done. Would be interested in the differences pinpointed between ale and lager in the 1850's press stories.


    1. There's not a whole lot of comparison between lager and ale in those 1850s and 60s newspapers. The article are more of an explanation of "what is lager? i.e It's German, and cold-fermented, etc. There's also quite a bit about the Lager Beer Riots in New York and Chicago, a result of the Know-Nothings versus Immigrant strife in pre-Civil War America. There are a few ads for lager bier saloons and bars, and a variety of pro and con articles on State liquor laws involving lager.

  3. I think that you'll find that the first lager brewery in Albany was that of Johann Von Schlagenhauer. He set up a brewery on Grand Street below Westerlo in 1847, although he did not begin brewing until 1848. Business wasn't good and he only kept the brewery going until sometime in 1850. After that the next lager brewer in Albany was Charles Schindler. In Troy, George Koob (or Coob) started a lager brewery in 1858 that was considered the earliest, although there could already have been one or two small lager breweries operating in West Troy by that point.

    Lager certainly wasn't the main product for breweries in Hudson Valley and continued to be the minor part of production, but I wouldn't say that lager is not part of the story of Albany Ale. Many local ale breweries in the early part of the century had had strong export businesses, but by the latter part of the century their products were being primarily distributed and consumed locally. They had been outflanked by lager and their potential for growth was limited because local population, although growing, wasn't continuing to grow that quickly.

    Even if lager wasn't being produced locally in great quantities, a lot was being imported. According to some accounts, there was almost as much lager imported into Troy in the 1870s as there was beer (ale and lager) being produced in the city. Many people in Albany and Troy in the 1850s, '60s and early '70s, looked to Philadelphia, Rochester, Buffalo, or Schenectady lager to slake their thirst for the product. From the late 1850s up until almost 1880 a series of trials had taken place in regards to whether or not lager was intoxicating. These were the results of Sunday liquor law violations. Whether in Syracuse, New York, Brooklyn, or Albany, the verdict was almost always "non-intoxicating," which meant that lager could be consumed on Sundays, whereas ale could not. So local drinkers who wanted a pint on a Sunday would have to drink lager, and for the most part, imported lager.

    Michael Nolan saw the writiing on the wall and acted on it. Clearly Beverwyck took off quickly and soon surpassed Q&N in terms of production.

    So, while Albany was clearly an ale producing city, it seems that it was also, at least in part, a lager consuming city in the second half of the 19th century. The story in Albany and the region is complicated; while not a lager-focused tale, it is certainly a story influenced by lager.

  4. Von Schlagenhauer, eh? I hadn't come across him. I know that there were German brewers in Albany by mid-century, I've just seen very little evidence from the 1850s and 60s referencing those breweries specifically making lager. As I mentioned many references to early lager brewing—that I've come across—are from later publications and articles from the mid to late 1880s.

    To your second point, I'm not sure I ever said lager wasn't part of the story. In fact, I think I hit on just about all of the points you brought up—including that lager was brought into the city. But the long and short of my point is that with the exception of Beverwyck, the history of brewing in Albany is much more of an ale story than a lager story. Regardless of how much lager was being imported in, Albany and Troy's brewing industry—as a whole—was focused on ale rather than lager.

  5. I wish there was even one historical account surviving of what lager was as compared to ale - I mean in the bar, on the palate, in this particular region.

    We read lager was cold-stored (except when made in winter when it was schenk or present use beer), cool-fermented and, by modern accounts, less estery and more rounded than ale. In this period, it was less alcoholic and probably more fizzy, too.

    But what was the real difference on the ground, as perceived by the locals? Not an easy question to answer, I know.

    My own view, zooming out from the problem, is that lager took off where there were large Germanic populations to support it. They knew it from home (albeit lager was fairly new even in many parts of Germany and Austro-Hungary). Albany was more old Dutch and English or other British, so they held on to ale because that is what they knew ancestrally, top-fermented cottage-style beer.

    Cincinnati, St. Louis, Milwaukee and New York all had significant populations of German-speaking incomers. Philadelphia less so, but I don't know the specifics there (ale vs, lager sales, exact population mix). Even if there were anomalies, in general the picture seems culturally driven until of course lager became American, just as the hot dog did.

    Another factor to spur lager's rise was probably that it was weaker than ale - not the inoffensive beverage its boosters often argued, but a few points lower than ale. This would have been more palatable in the looming Maine Law/Prohibition environment.

    By the way that is interesting about an 1847 start year for lager since isn't that year the reputed first brewing of lager in America by one Wagner, in the First City?


  6. HI Gary, I just saw your question about Wagner and the first lager now, so this response is coming a little late. Wagner brewed the first lager in the U.S. in 1840 (or 1842 according to some accounts). His was a very small operation. The first "large" lager brewery was opened by George Manger in Philadelphia in 1844. He got yeast from Wagner and began brewing in a sugar refinery for private consumption, having convinced two others, Charles Engel and Charles Wolf, to work with him. They later founded the Engel and Wolf brewery. Thomas Spengler opened a lager brewery in St. Louis in 1842 and George Fry started one in Buffalo in 1843 (although there is some dispute about the who and where of the first NY lager brewery). While lager certainly started where there were concentrations of German immigrants, it pretty quickly spread into the general population. There just weren't enough Germans in the U.S. to push it's production and consumption up so high so quickly.