Friday, October 3, 2014

Albany Ale: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I was watching TV this morning.

That's a pretty normal occurrence at 6:30ish in the a.m., at our house. My usual routine is get up, make coffee, surf the internet, watch a little local news, and wait for the kids to wake-up. Normal every day stuff. Beer—let alone historic beer advertising—does not normally play into this equation.

Today it did—and from a rather unusual source. A local heating and plumbing company's 30 second TV commercial.

Crisafulli Brothers, the aforementioned contractors, have been servicing Albany, Schenectady and Troy’s residential heating, cooling and plumbing issues since way back in 1939. Their most recent advertisement plays off their longstanding service to the community. It opens with a photo of Albany’s N. Pearl Street from the late 1940s. The nearly subliminal blink that the photo is shown could not best my keen eagle-eye when it comes to Albany’s beery past. For even as quickly as the black and white image flipped past I saw it like a beacon in the night—“Beverwyck”.

It just so happens I know the principal player in the advertising agency who put the piece together for Crisafulli Brothers—one Mr. John Schaefer of Schaefer Media & Marketing. A few quick emails back and forth with John, and I now present to you the image for your own inspection:

“First truly great beer and ale in 8 years! Beverwyck Golden Dry Beer and Irish Cream Ale” 

Eight years? The photo was taken in 1948 or 1949, so what happened eight years prior to that?

Quite a lot, actually. 

In 1948 the U.S was still recovering from the Second World War. As of about 1942, the use of cereal grains—like barley—and other fermentables, like sugar were being restricted and rationed for the war effort. Bread, for a 20th-century, 12-million strong military is more important than beer. Not to mention that rationing stateside continued even after the war. But that only puts us at six or seven years prior to the photo being taken? How do we get to eight years earlier? Eight years would put us in the pre-war years of 1940 or 1941* when grain was not restricted.

Actually it was restricted, but not by the government. It was restricted by Mother Nature. Those same U.S. mid-western and Canadian prairie grain farmers, who’s grain was being grown under their respective Government’s contracts during the early 1940s, were also still recovering from the Dust Bowl droughts of the mid and late 1930s, which means really good quality brewing grains were hard to come even as early as 1940. It seems, at least according to the billboard in the photo, that things don’t start to turn around—as far as quality brewing materials for breweries to use—until the late 1940s.

There’s another possible twist in this story.

Just after this photo was taken—the period from the early 1950s to the mid 1960s—marks the beginning of the era in U.S. brewing history when the country's large brewing companies began buying up smaller regional breweries. Including Beverwyck who was purchased by the east coast behemoth, F&M Schaefer (no relation to John Schafer, above) Brewing Company in 1950.

Perhaps, what happened wasn’t simply a scenario that companies like Anheuser Busch or Pabst had grown so exponentially—both before and after prohibition—that they had become so large as it was nearly impossible for smaller, regional breweries to compete with, and were therefore forced out of business or bought out; but rather that the thirteen year hiatus of national prohibition and the obvious negative affect it had on all brewing, which although, some regionals did survive, was compounded only a few years later with the lack of readily available brewing materials in the late 1930s, due to drought, and then Government restrictions on the use of cereal grains (and sugar) during WWII, five to ten years later. All of that combined is what ultimately killed the small to mid-sized regional brewery in America. It’s the old one, two, three punch. By the mid-1960s you have regional breweries that cannot sustain themselves without a merger or buyout, and in-steps the large brewing conglomerates to buy those business that would have collapsed anyhow. 

That also sets up another scenario.

Maybe companies like AB, Pabst, and Schaefer didn’t kill American brewing—maybe they saved it.

*The U.S. doesn’t enter WWII until December 8, 1941, so most of 1941 is pre-war.

1 comment:

  1. That's a great photo, you almost feel as if you are walking down the same street. I believe it was taken in 1948 since the car license plate states that year. Licenses are usually renewed annually.

    Until recently and probably still on 3rd and 1st Avenues in NYC, you still see storefronts like these.

    In Toronto, you see exactly the same wiggly streetcar tracks and unlike in Albany where they were partly paved over by this time (clearly in favour of buses), we still have streetcars here. Not so long ago, we had the cigar-shaped President's Conference Car type, which ranged American cities in the mid-1900's. We called them Red Rockets.

    I need to get back to Albany, I must have visited there a baker's dozen times in the 1970's and early 80's. Jack's seafood restaurant, beverage stores that sold Murphy Stout that had an 1800's slightly smoky taste and Ballantine IPA or early APAs from the West Coast, Newman's Albany Amber on cask in that corner bar next to the brewery, and the Egg. Also, a bar called MacGregor in a leafy area past the Egg or that was on MacGregor Street, I can never remember which.

    Craig, I hope to do this some day and that we can have a beer or two in your home town.