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.


  1. Great blog, thanks. My father always talked about Hedrick, but I don't think he ever drank it. He did say all the bars had to carry it, but did that mean they couldn't serve anything else? We always had Schaefer in the house as my father's brother worked there for decades. Was Hedrick a beer you could buy bottled and in the stores? Just curious as I'm not a beer drinker and thought if it was "skunk" beer why did it last so long as certainly I don't think even Dan O'Connell knew what you were buying in the stores!

  2. Thank you—and thanks for reading!

    The bars and taverns in Albany could sell other beer during the Hedrick-era, but lest's say, they were encouraged to also sell Hedrick. It was available in stores, and I've definitely seen cans, but no bottles. That doesn't mean it wasn't bottled, I've just never seen them. As to it's skunkiness, it was most likely allowed to get warm, which isn't a good thing for beer, especially lager. It probably got warm because it wasn't very good and didn't sell all that well so it sat around—at either the bar or store. You see, it didn't make a difference if it was good or not. Hedrick made it's money one way or the other. After prohibition the federal government instituted a three-tier system for beer, essentially to control monopolies in the brewing industry. The system is still in place, with some modification. It works like this: Breweries cannot sell to the individual, be them are owners or just regular folks and bars and taverns can't brew there own beer. A middleman distributor needs to buy the beer from the brewery and then sell it to a bar, grocery store or beverage center. So, back to Hedrick, O'Connell was in a win-win situation. He wasn't just making the bars buy from him, but also the distributors. So, the distributors had to buy the beer from the brewery (cha-ching) and the bars and grocery stores had to sell it, from which he was also most likely profiting from, too (cha-ching #2). But, if it didn't sell, oh well, he still made his money.

    There you go, a lesson on the three-tier system and extortion!

  3. Nice, and would be good to have their recollections of Albany watering holes as well. My own little contribution: I used to frequent a corner establishment in the leafy district beyond the Egg. We could never find it because it had the name of a nearby street but wasn't on the street (perhaps it used to be), and this caused recurrent confusion. Either bar or current street of location was called Macgregor. I used to look for Newman Albany Amber Ale there. Choice comment by a server, circa 1983: "I prefer Michelob, the chemicals must agree with me". :)


  4. My family would tell us stories about Hedrick as my great grandfather owed a bar/grill in Albany. He had to sell Hedrick and a certain amount as well... we would joke that he was made an offer he could not refuse when we were told of these stories. My grandfather ( my great grandfathers son in law) worked at Schaefer for many years.

  5. When the Dobler brand was purchased and the brewery closed in 1959, the new owner was Hampden-Harvard Breweries, Inc. of Willimansett, MA. A couple of years later, H-H would itself be bought by Drewrys (South Bend, IN) in 1961. Drewrys would soon after become part of the larger Associated Brewing Co. chain.

    Also, for most of its history, Schaefer was a primarily a northeastern -mid-Atlantic brand (tho' they briefly owned a Cleveland, OH brewery in the early 60s), impressive for a company that was among the 10 largest breweries in the US for most of the post-Repeal era, competing head to head with many national breweries, peaking at close to 6m bbl/yr. in the mid-70s.

    After selling out to Stroh in 1980, that company expanded the Schaefer brand nationally, along with making it a discount brand, after purchasing the coast-to-coast breweries of Schlitz.

    1. That whole who bought who buy-up in the late 50s and early 60s is really confusing. Every time I think I've got it, I realize I'm still off. In any case, my father-in-law remembers drinking Dobler after it closed in Albany, and he would have been too young to have had it prior to 1959, so it was definitely still in this area into the mid 1960s.

    2. > That whole who bought who buy-up in the late 50s and early 60s is really confusing.

      Ain't it the truth. And the Willimansett's brewery's history is all the more complicated, because when Associated folded, they sold all their mid-Western breweries to Heileman, except Willimansett was not included and continued to run as Piels final brewery for a couple more years.

      Certainly, H-H bought Dobler for the label and market share, and continued to brew the brand, as did the later owners - Drewrys > Assoc. > Piels - since ads exist for the brand into the early 70s.

      It does seem strange how quickly H-H abandoned the idea of re-opening the Dobler facility. Was the initial announcement just PR or, once they got in there, did they realize the expense?

  6. Craig, actually it was Washington Tavern that I meant. It is on Western Avenue even though Washington Street is not that far. Delighted to see it is still going strong and that the Yelp comments echo my own very positive reminiscences of this bar. In the early 80's, I wonder if any beer still labeled Dobler or Beverwyck or Hedrick was sold there, if so I'd have passed them by looking for Newman's Albany Amber. The breweries had closed but perhaps some of the labels survived on tap or as grocery store labels into this period, the way you sometimes saw for old-line brewery names... The other thing I remember at Washington Tavern were Bloody Marys with horseradish floating in it, the bartender said, doing the backstroke. :)


  7. Yes, WT's is an Albany institution. I imagine every college kid from St Rose and SUNY stopped in at least once over the years. The building has been a bar or restaurant forever, dating to the late 1800s (according to their website), so my guess every beer made in the city from the 1880s to today has been drank there!

  8. Very cool, thanks. What longevity. Kind of thing you only see in places with a real sense of continuity..