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.