Friday, March 28, 2014

The Celebrity of Beer

Fred McMurray for Blatz.
Now, he was a beer celebrity.
This past Saturday I was lucky enough to get invited to the Craft New York beer fest in Albany, by Ethan Cox, from Community Beerworks. It was fun. I had some great beer, some really fantastic food, and I got the chance to meet some new folks for the first time. In fact, Ethan myself and Matt Whalen from Hamilton New York's Good Nature Brewing had pretty fantastic conversation about farm breweries and the New York Brewer's Association (the organizer of the event) role in helping to move that initiative along. All in all it was a great evening

But I was struck by something I overheard.

A rather well known, local beer blogger was asked by someone what he was doing after the festival to which he responded that he was "just gonna hang out with some of the brewers" at the hotel bar. But why would he want to do that? He just spent three hours sampling beer, with the very same people he was going to sit at the bar with. Granted some of those brewers may have been friends—friends, perhaps he hadn't seen in a while. I suppose that they may have been to busy during the festival to really catch up. Maybe, but maybe not.

Now, I want to make this clear, what I'm about to write is in no way, shape, or form an indictment of this fellow. I don't know him and I don't care one way or the other what he wants to do with his time, but observing from a close distance, he seemed a bit like a groupie—a brewer groupie.

I've starred to notice that brewers are being diety-ized deified. I'm not talking about a generalized noting of the accomplishments of say Fritz Maytag or Peter Celis. I'm not even talking about acknowledging the business prowess of Peter Swinburne or Jim Koch. I mean there is a celebrit-zing of brewers. The New York Times, just yesterday, ran an article about the rivalry between Mikkel Bjergso of Mikkeller and his twin brother Jeppe, the founder of Evil Twin. Apparently these two jut can't get along and we're supposed to care. I'm not sure why we're supposed to care, but we are. Isn't that tabloid fodder? Sam Caligone had, and Martin Dickie and James Watt, from Scotland's Brew Dog, have a TV show for fuck's sake! Brewers went from simply being a folks who make beer, to some kind of beer making gurus. But like Frank Zappa said, what kind of guru are you? More importantly, this whole nonsensical adoration has going to some of their heads—and I'm not talking about beer foam.

The food world has been going through this for a while (actually I like Guy Fieri). But be it beer or food, the focus is being shifted away from the product to the producer. When that happens, guess who suffers?

You and me.

Coincidentally, Alan Richman has an article on about how a new breed of—as he terms them—"Egotarian" chefs are more interested in making food for their own enjoyment rather than the customer. I've pilfered the articles intro paragraph for my own beery needs. See if it rings true.
Something has gone wrong in our restaurant kitchens breweries lately. Suddenly, a new breed of chefs brewers seem to have decided that they should be cooking brewing beer not for your pleasure but for their own. In this competitive, male-dominated school of cooking brewing, the dishes beers that customers are served may be highly inventive and intelligent, but as Alan Richman notes, too often they are more self-indulgent than inspired. The result? Restaurants Breweries where the only person who needs to be pleased is never you, just the chef brewer.
What did I tell you? Not that far off, right?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Yeah...So...If You're Not Doing Anything Later...

...Maybe you can stop down at the Albany Institute of History & Art for their Hudson Valley Hops  (click here to buy tickets) event on April 12!

I'll be there. Alan will be there. Dieter will be there. Roger will be there.

Most importantly, beer will be there.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Albany Ale: Lack of Lager - Part II

Something has bothered me since I last wrote about the lack of lager brewing in 19th-century Albany.

We know that there were a fair number of Central European brewers in Albany as early as the mid to late 1840s and early 50s, operating small breweries. Some of these breweries continued to operate through the 1850s, 60s and 70s—and some for much longer than that. But there doesn't seem like they were making much lager.

It's not that Albany was devoid of lager, quite the opposite. As the 19th century progressed, more and more lager starts to be imported into the upper Hudson Valley. 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." Around the mid-1860s we also begin to see advertisements for lager being imported into the area—like Rochester lager.

As I mentioned in my original post, there is however, very little advertising evidence that German brewers in Albany were producing lager before the 1860s. This was from my original post:  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. 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 early-lager breweries in the city are from historical or industrial publications from the mid-1880s.

So what were they making, if not lager? Certainly not Anglo-style ale. A conversation between myself, Ethan Cox of Buffalo's Community Beer Works and Alan McLeod may have shed some light on the these pre-1860 German brewers.

Ethan, came across a reference to a Buffalo brewer, Rudolph Baer, supposedly brewing lager in that city as early as the late 1830s. Looking a little further, it appears that Buffalo stakes claim to a number of brewers making lager during the late 1830s and 40s, all of whom, according to Buffalo, were making it previous to Philadelphia's Johann Wagner. It's generally accepted that the Bavarian-born Wagner was the first brewer in the U.S. to make lager—in 1842. Buffalo seems to not agree with that—and hasn't for quite a while. This beery-rivalry between Buffalo and Philadelphia dates to the the 19th century. 

A publication put together by the U.S. Brewer's Association in 1896 might just answer what those Buffalo brewers—and those early Albany Germans—were making. Here's what Documentary History of the United States Brewer's Association says about the whole matter: 
Philadelphia, as has already been stated elsewhere, is generally regarded as the birth-place of the lager-beer trade. In the absence of authentic information to the contrary we may accept this statement by which both the exact date of the first introduction of lager-beer and the name of the first American lager-beer brewer have been definitely established. It is upon the authority of Lauer, who brewed lager as early as 1844, that trade historiographers hold that Wagner, a Bavarian brewer, established in business at Philadelphia, first brewed lager-beer in 1842. This claim is controverted by local historians of the city of Buffalo, who assert that as early as 1838 Jacob Roos brewed lager-beer in his establishment upon the site of the present Iroquois Brewery. Without going back quite so far, the same authorities present a still stronger case against the Wagner claim in the statement that Schanzlin & Hoffmann brewed "lager" in 1840, and both Joseph Friedmann and Magnus Beck, previous to the year 1842. The earliest German brewers of the city of New York certainly do not claim priority in this respect. In Sommer's brewery, for instance, which in 1840 was located on Broadway, near 18th Street, only small-beer was brewed. And when the Schaefers, Fritz and Max, two venerable pioneers of the trade, bought this brewery in 1842, this mode of brewing was retained and continued for several years, probably as late as 1849. Fritz Schaefer is the gentleman whose name occurs in nearly every chapter of this history in connection with the financial status of the association, as he held the treasurership for many years. It would be an unprofitable and useless task to scrutinize the testimony presented for and against Lauer's assumption, or to enter into a methodical discussion of the matter. There is this to be said however. If the Buffalonian claim rests upon a solid foundation concerning the dates and the brewers named, a closer enquiry, if it were at all possible, would probably reveal the fact that the malt-liquor brewed prior to 1842 was not lager-beer, but of a kind generally known as "Schenkbier." If it were really Bavarian lager-beer, then Lauer's version as to the date of its introduction becomes clearly untenable; but right here we are confronted by certain facts as to brewing in the city of New York, which justify a strong presumption in favor of our explanation as to the nature of the beer in question. It is known that Gillig, the founder of several "dynasties of brewers," when beginning his business, in 1840, upon the very spot where now stand the Vanderbilt palaces, did not brew lager-beer. He continued to brew an ordinary Schenkbier until 1846, when, after removing his establishment to Third Street, he obtained from Philadelphia the necessary yeast for brewing lagerbeer, and thenceforth manufactured this beverage. In like manner every available bit of information obtained by the writer in this and other cities seems but to confirm the Philadelphia claim to the effect that "lager" was introduced in 1842. Before the end of the decade— German immigration having in the meantime assumed unprecedented proportions—a considerable number of lager-beer breweries were established there as in every city having large German populations. Charles Engel, C. W. and Gustavus Bergner, C. C. Wolf, L. Bergdoll, C. Psotta, John Klumpp were among the more prominent pioneers. In the city of New York we have in addition to Gillig, the forty-eighter A. Schmidt, founder of the Lion Brewery; the two Kupperts, Franz and Valentine, A. Huepfel, John Bechtel, John Kress, Traudtmann, Rosenstein, Greunewald, Kirchhoff and a few others, whose names are not as familiar to the present generation.
Today, "Schenkbier" or "Schankbier" are low ABV, top-fermented brews—Central European-style "ales"—and definitely not lager. The name Schankbier literally translates to "draft beer", and is a term used for German beer taxation purposes—its low ABV denotes a lower levied tax. The taxation bit would not have traveled with the style, but it makes sense that those early Buffalo and Albany brewers were making something more in line with Schankbier rather than lager, or for that matter Anglo-style ale. The breweries were small—especially compared to Albany ale breweries at the time—and Schankbier at 2% (or lower) would have been far cheaper to produce than standard Anglo-style ale; they wouldn't have needed refrigeration or lager yeast; and brewers from similar ethnic backgrounds in New York City were also, commonly, making a similar product. 

Here's one more interesting connection. The Weber family opened a small brewery in the now defunct area of Kingston NY in 1858. By 1872 the Weber's had relocated to Albany. The Weber's didn't make lager however, they made Weiss bier—and became fairly well known for it. Maybe—and this is pure speculation—those Weber Weiss Biers weren't so much like a Bavarian Weiss, but more like a 2% ABV, Schankbier-esque, Berliner Weiss?

Nur etwas zu denken.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Green Beer and Homophobia

I can't say that I'm a socially active person. I think I have a pretty level moral compass, I'm just not all that vocal about it. Sure, I bitch about things as much as the next guy, but I'm more likely to rant about brewery hypocrisy, than say, some one's civil rights being trampled on.

On a different, and yet somehow related note—I love a parade.

Here's how those two points come together. Boston, home to perhaps the country's oldest St, Patrick's Day Parade and, New York City, home of arguably the biggest and most well-known Irish-themed parade in the country, have banned gay and lesbian activists from marching in their respective parades.

That sounds like a bit of a dick move, to me.

Yeah, yeah, I get the parade is supposed to be about "Irish-ness" not sexuality, or whatever, but how many other political and social organizations are allowed to march? Here's what really gets me. Isn't the whole point of a St. Patrick's Day parade to celebrate a people who have suffered centuries of oppression? Isn't it a public display of a group overcoming the odds and succeeding despite intolerance? Who better emulates that, in this day and age than the LGBT community? Besides, what difference does it make if you're a boy who likes to kiss boys or girl who likes to touch boobies if your wearing green today. Seriously, are people not going to out today and get shit-faced because a group is marching under a rainbow flag? That's everybody's—Gay, Straight, Irish, American New Yorker, Bostonian—inalienable right.

Oh yeah, this is a beer blog, right?

Here's the beery angle. To show their support for city's gay community, Samuel Adams has pulled their sponsorship of the Boston parade and Heineken and Guinness (yikes!) reciprocated with a similar drop-out in New York City.

Big props to those guys.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why Don't You Pass the Time By Playing A Little Solitaire?*

I came across an article in the North Carolina-based online magazine Triangle Business Journal, that takes an interesting look at the possibilities of craft beer bubble in that state's "Triangle" area—or the area in and around Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. The author, Dawn Kurry, leads her article with a quote from a lawyer, and brewery start-up advisor,  John Szymanliewicz, who operates the Beer Law Center in Raleigh.
"If you’re making less than good beer or if you’re not totally engaged and managing your business intelligently and actively, you may be at risk for being subsumed in a ‘bubble’ burst...”
He adds later in the article, “If you’re not making good beer, I think the market will quickly show you the door…"

Kurry also interviewed Bart Watson, an Economist with the Brewer's Association. He assures Kurry that the growth of the craft industry within, the Triangle follows the national growth of steady increase.
“I see very little signs that this is a bubble in the Triangle...There is increased support for local product and support for small, local, independent businesses. I don’t see that going away. Across the nation, producers are putting out a more innovative product than ever before. The variety is pretty incredible.”
Here where it gets interesting. At it's heart, the article isn't really about a bubble. It's about the Brewer's Association jingoism, and their "It's all good" mantra—although I don't know if that was the authors intention. It all becomes clear when she asks one really important question. Does variety and innovation mean the beer is good? 

Szymanliewicz's response:
"…I do think that there’s a lot of good beer out there right now. Is it great beer? I’m not so sure.”
Watson's response:
“Quality is always a concern, but craft beer lovers are more educated than they ever have been”
Szymanliewicz gets it, but I think the Brewer's Association is missing the point—or ignoring it for their own rhetoric. Leading off the response by saying "Quality is always a concern" reads that quality really isn't that big of a concern—at least not to the BA. "More educated than they ever have been" is brainwashing mumbo-jumbo—an attempt to get people to drink the "anything-goes-in-the-craft-beer-world-as-long as-it's-local-and-independent–but-you-already-know-that-because-you're-cool-and-smart" Kool-aid—than anything else. 

I understand towing the party line, and the Association's job is to advocate for American "craft brewing" but lock-stepping over a cliff seems a bit counterproductive. 

In the article, Watson defines a a bubble as "A period of over-investment where asset prices aren’t aligned with reality. In other words, people are betting on a future that won’t exist." But, isn't trying to convince people that the craft beer industry will sustain itself on an ever-increasing number of micros, brewpubs, and nanos, who build their business on a foundation of a "variety" of over-priced gimmicky, moderate-at-best, yet "innovative" beer—that are of course local and independent—exactly "betting on future that won't exist?"

*Just curious, does anybody get this headline?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Albany Ale: The Thomas Dewey Affair

The first time I heard "Ya' know, back in the good old days, if you didn't serve Hedrick at your bar, then you didn't have a bar." was in the late 1990s while I was doing the advertising and design for the Big House Brewing Company—a now defunct brewpub, here in Albany.

At that point, I knew enough about the city's history to know that it had, in the recent past, been run by the political boss and Albany Democratic Party head Dan O'Connell. O'Connell came to power in the early 1920s, and he and his brother Ed ran the city with impunity for the net 50 years. Aside from their political manipulation, the O'Connell's Democratic Machine also oversaw the cities darker side—and sometimes beer fells into that "darker" category. The brothers legally purchased Hedrick Brewery almost immediately after the repeal of prohibition, (Although they most likely were the beneficiaries of the brewery's nefarious operations between 1920 and 1933, as well) and for all intent and purpose, saved the brewed from obscurity. They continued to run the brewery until 1965.

I understood that the O'Connells were two, pretty powerful figures; and that they owned a brewery, and with that they received a little extra, shall I say "endorsement" from the local watering holes. But, I figured the O'Connells and Albany for that matter were, quite honestly,a pretty small fish in a pretty big pond. I always thought the "didn't have a bar" rhetoric, was just that, rhetoric. A little Albany hyperbole to make for a good story. A mythologizing of a local character.

That was until I came across an article in the Thursday, October 27, 1938 edition of the Sliver Creek News and Times of Chautaqua County, New York, about—among other things—the O'Connells. For those who don't know, Chautaqua County is on the opposite end of the state, south of Buffalo—some 350-odd miles from Albany. So, why would a newspaper in western New York be writing about the local political bosses of Albany?

Because a gubernatorial candidate was talking about them.

By the mid-1930s, Thomas E. Dewey was the golden-boy off the New York Republican party. Dewey had mounted a one main campaign against in the mob and corruption in Manhattan—first as a federal prosecutor, than as a special prosecutor appointed by Governor Herbert H. Lehman, and finally as District Attorney of New York County. Dewey prosecuted mobsters like Waxy Gordon and Dutch Schultz; he targeted Tammany Hall officials with ties to organized crime; he convicted former hard of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Whitney, of embezzlement; and clipped the wings of American Nazi leader F.J. Kuhn.

1938 was an election year and Dewey was the Republicans best chance against the Democratic incumbent, Lehman. Dewey took to the airways, campaigning in a radio address on WJZ, against corruption in Brooklyn and Albany—both cities under the control of Democratic political bosses. In his stump, Dewey railed against the whole of O'Connell's Machine politics in Albany, but brought beer into the conversation as well. The News and Times reported verbatim Dewey's inclusion of the O'Connell's connection to the beer business and Hedrick brewery. They reported the candidate said: 
"When a tavern keeper puts in Hedrick's 100 per cent. The sky is the limit. He gets his license renewed without a hitch. He can have slot machines, hostesses, music and dancing. He can forget every technical regulation. He can stay open all night and throw away the key."
But it's a line, from near the very top of the article, that really caught my eye.
"In Albany the barrooms sell Hedrick's beer—or else."
There it was. The hearsay, was no longer hearsay. Thomas E. Dewey, had called out O'Connell's beery strong-arming in a public and recorded forum. In mind mind that's proof that the "didn't have a bar" comment isn't as hyperbolic as it seems.

So what happened? Not much, actually. Dewey lost the 1938 election—albeit by a narrow margin. He did win however in 1943. He became one of the most successful New York State Governors, serving until 1954. He ran, unsuccessfully, as the Republican candidate for President in 1944 and 1948. Throughout his governorship, he continued to pester the O'Connells. Although, annoyed they were essentially un-phased. Hedrick continued to be seen in every barroom and tavern in Albany, well into the 1960s, and the Democratic Machine continued its control of the city. sSome of its effects can still be felt today.

Although Dewey may have been O'Connell's nemesis, their relationship did work to O'Connell's favor in, at least once. Frank Robinson writes about it in his book Machine Politics: A Study of Albany's O'Connells. He wrote:
A classic story is told of the 1942 race for governor. The Democratic nominee was John J. Bennett, way as attorney general had conducted an investigation of Albany, which made him distinctly unpopular there. A group of big gamblers from New York figured to make a killing, and offered to wager that Bennett would not carry Albany by 20,000. Dan turned them away, saying, "those guys are anxious and will be back." A few days later they did return, this time offering to bet on a margin less than 15,00. Dan took all the bets he could on that figure, and the amount involved may have approached $100,000.
Bennett lost the election to Thomas Dewey, but carried Albany. By 19,000 votes.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Jimmy Crack Corn and I Don't Care

It sure is a good thing the Brewer's Association has back peddled on their use of adjuncts in "craft" beer. The BA has a laundry list of amended items in their "Strategic Changes" press release, sent out yesterday, including a more benevolent view of "innovative" adjuncts. According to the release:
The revised definition recognizes that adjunct brewing is quite literally traditional, as brewers have long brewed with what has been available to them.
"The revisions to the craft brewer definition reflect the evolution in thinking regarding the elements of the definition. As the industry continues to rapidly advance, so must the framework that upholds and reflects it," said Gatza*
Fish** concurred: "The revised definition provides room for the innovative capabilities of craft brewers to develop new beer styles and be creative within existing beer styles." He added: "Taken as a whole, these changes are about looking forward, about the BA of the future, making the association stronger and keeping staff focused on the vital work they do for all of us in the craft brewing community."
So, why the about face? Is it really about developing new beer styles and being creative within existing beer styles—or is there something else going on? Like, perhaps that a 2.5 million barrel brewery—that regularly uses adjuncts—has recently joined the Association? 

Maybe I'm being cynical. 

It might actually be about the ingredients. Like the release says, "brewers have long brewed with what has been available to them." I'm sure there was a pig bollocks shortage at some point in U.S history and brewers were forced to make the switch to bull testicles. The same goes with moon rock beer. Everybody knows Martian iron dust is far better than plain, old moon dust—but you make do with what's available. Technically those falvori aren't "fermentable" adjuncts, but hey, the door's open, right? Everybody in the pool—Corn, honey, berries, transmission fluid, silly putty, Campuchin Monkey dander. It's all good.

And if brewers can double the selling price of their beer afterwards, everybody wins!

Uh, waaait a minute...

*Paul Gatza – Brewer's Association director.

**Gary Fish – chair of the BA board of directors and president of Deshutes Brewery.