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.


  1. Hmm. That seems to imply that Schenk and Lager were essentially the same thing. But this, from the NY times 1881, shows that an American jury did not agree. In fact the article states that Schenk predated lager by 200 years.

  2. There seems to be a differing opinion as to what Schenk was. Some sources say it used lager yeast fermented at ale temps. Other say it was fermented at lager temps but not stored cold. Some simply note it as present use beer of a German tradition. Some reference decoction. While other still simply denote it as Winter Beer versus Lager as Summer Beer. One source defines them simply as the Austrian term for beer that has been krausened while racked.

    The only consensus was, that it was weaker than lager, and was a "present use" beer.

  3. James Dawson Burns, The Temperance Dictionary, from 1861 notes that:

    There are two kinds, the common pot boor (Schank-bicr,) brewed at a temperature of from 54 to 59 degrees Fahreneit, and the more intoxicating bock-bier.

    54º to 59º falls between the standard temps of lager or ale.

    Again, hmm.

  4. Last thing.

    Matthew Vassar's pitch temp for his Double Ale hovered just about 60º in the early 1830s.

  5. But isn't upper 50s where the Scots pitched the yeast?

    1. I guess what I'm trying to figure out is: if Schenk is basically lager not lagered—or more to the point was a brew made almost exactly like lager, just not stored. Wouldn't that make the differences between Scheck and Lager semantic? Wouldn't that be like making a distinction between stock ale and mild, and saying the stock ale is "ale", but the mild isn't? The brewing process is identical, it just a matter of storage. The ABV doesn't look all that different either. Yes, 19th century Schenk was slightly weaker than Lager—but nominally. But there still seems to be some disconnect between Schenck, Lager and stronger brews like Bock.

      If it walks like a duck and talks a duck, right?

      But something's not right.

      I feel like there's something else that might differentiate Schenk from Lager that we're missing. Maybe something has been lost in translation?

      Also, the references to Schenk I've seen—thus far—are noting or analyzing European beer—not the American version. Could American Schenck be something different than Austrian or Hungarian or Bavarian Schenck from the mid 19th?

  6. Interesting discussion. Shenk was really a kind of ale I think. According to his source, its fermentation temperature was clearly higher than for lager although not as high (or always as high) as you referred to, Craig:

    It sounds like cool ale brewing, what many reports say the Scots were doing historically. The yeast could not have settled down to leave the beer substantially clear in only a couple of weeks or so. And the fermentation couldn't have proceeded so far, which is for schenk always a touch under lager in ABV (all things equal). If they brewed it in March and April, that is like the last brewings of English ale, but perhaps at a cooler average temperature (51-55 F does seem under the average for ale). Schenk is not lager though because not stored and the two were always differentiated. Steam beer is probably a type of schenk. The only thing I find odd is the statement in the first source quoted that lager yeast had to be obtained by schenk producers to make lager. But perhaps lager yeast, adapted to freezing temperatures, was necessary to keep a slow ferment going for months on end and the schenk yeast couldn't do the job.

    Net net for practical purposes I would consider schenk as ale even though it was convenient for taxonomy to consider it a present use lager, but really that is a contradiction in terms.


  7. I had an interesting conversation with Ethan about Scheck this weekend (he was in Albany for the Craft New York beer fest.) He said, for him, it's the lagering issue. In other words, lager isn't lager unless it's lagered.

    Maybe that's it. But I don't know if I'm sold on that being the sole distinction between the two.

  8. All I know at this point is, I don't know.

  9. I think it must be lagering, certainly, that is the main difference, but also the fact of fermenting cooler than for conventional ale but not as cold as for lager. Perhaps schenk was a bridge to lager, a transition step viewed historically. "Hey it's April so to be safe let's ferment out in the cave in the hill yonder, or deep in the cellar below, instead in the shed, to make sure the beer won't go haywire".


  10. This might not add anything to the conversation, but here goes anyway. I think that we tend to make things more complicated than they need to be when we look at period terms for beer. We want these terms to refer to one thing only, or to indicate something specific, or to fit our categorization; but, things don’t always work out this neatly. It’s probably more fruitful to look at how contemporaries used the terms than to look for consistency in what they represented.

    The information available is that schenk was a lighter, weaker beer that was for ready use. As described it was "draught beer, or beer ready to be drawn." If you look at contemporary descriptions the main distinction between lager and schenk is storage (or lack thereof). By this definition “schenk” could be top or bottom fermented. Given that the name for lager comes from the German for storing and the name schenk comes from the German word for “pouring out” this appears to be the prime difference. This tells us very little about the beer itself.

    In 1872, Peter Lund Simmons, in The Commercial Dictionary of Trade Products, Manufacturing and Technical Terms defined Schenk as “Bavarian pot or small beer, intended for immediate use in contradiction to lager or store beer: the one being drunk in the summer [lager] the other in the winter [schenk].” According to the United States Brewer’s Association by the early 20th century “schenk beer” wasn’t being brewed at all because there was no longer a need for division based upon storage. According to the association, the advent of new technologies had made long-term storage for lager beer unnecessary, thereby making the distinction between “present use” and “lager” unnecessary. This does imply, however, that there had never been any fundamental difference between schenk and lager, other than storage (in Germany “schenk” and “jung” bier seem to have been the same thing).

    In the United States, the use of the term schenk beer primarily came up in regards to trials in the 19th century -- generally for violation of Sunday laws. For much of the 1860s and 1870s, people got away with selling lager on Sundays because it was deemed "non-intoxicating." In the 1880s and 90s, lager was considered intoxicating and so people shifted to selling "schenk beer." This might be nothing more than a new tactic to avoid prosecution, although it might imply selling a completely different beer. Some trials indicated that schenk was “an entirely and distinct and different article [than lager], and recognized as such in the trade.” (Commonwealth v. Blos, 166 Mass. 52). There was also a lot noise about “lager” being sold too young and not being “real lager.” The complaints about such young lager, and the biliousness that it caused, can be found in many places and written by both beer lovers and temperance advocates (who saw the rise of poorly made lager beer as an avenue to attack beer). Given that American lagers varied wildly in alcohol content, the distinction between schenk and lager might be no distinction at all. In 1899 the U.S. government tested over 400 beers and found that the alcohol content in lager ranged from .76% to 4.5%. All this points back to the fact that in the American context “schenk” meant different things to different people depending upon context, but that it generally implied a weak beer served young. But at the end of the century the same was said of lager. As I said at the start, this comment might not add anything to the conversation.

    1. No, Gerry I think you're very much onto something. And I've been meaning to add this—I think you may have hit the nail on the head. I think Schenk may be the 19th century equivalent of "Session". The term session means different things to different people—in the UK it means a generally a 3-4%ABV, generally under hopped brew, while in the US Session beer is a bit stronger 4-5%ABV, and can be IPA bitter. It's all matter of context.

  11. I used to hold this mantra in my head that storage was magical, it did something to the beer that was special, rounded it in some way (although presumably this would lessen hop character), took out some rough edges - I think it does do that but do you need 6 months, or 6 weeks? Then a few years ago I read an interview with a Czech brewmaster and they asked him about lagering times. He said (paraphrasing), well now we don't hold it as long but quality is unchanged, in the old days especially under communism, we couldn't sell it so fast, so we had to store it, but now that is not a problem so we only keep it as long as we need to.

    I can't say myself, I've never been able to compare the same beer at different aging schedules.

  12. re: shorter lagering periods for "modern" lagers

    I always found this comment from AB brewmaster George Reisch III interesting. Reisch claims lagering at warmer temps today speeds the process

    Reisch family owned the Reisch Brewing Co. in Springfield, IL, from the 1850's - 1966. In discussing the time it took from brewing to bottling in that brewery, he says:

    "It probably took a long time because in general it takes about a day to brew, it takes about five days to ferment, and then you go to the lagering and krausening. At that time they lagered it at very cold temperatures. When you think about the yeast it does not work quickly at cold temperatures. So they probably needed maybe eight weeks to finish it off, where as nowadays we can lager at warmer temperatures because we have better control of microbiology and we don’t see micro infections. So they lagered at a colder temperatures."

    Reisch's "resume" -