Friday, October 17, 2014

Albany Ale: The Preposterous Processes of Amsdell's Porter

It dawned on me the other day that I’ve not really written about historic porter in and around Albany.

The epiphany came earlier in the week when Chad Polenz of, asked if I was interested in doing a dual book signing at the Homebrew Emporium. Chad’s book The Handbook of Porters and Stouts hits shelves in the next few weeks, and the Emporium just received a shipment of my book, Upper Hudson Valley Beer. A dual signing at the area’s best home brew shop is a no-brainer, and when in Rome, I suggested we also brew a historic porter (specifically from a recipe in the turn-of-the-century, George I. Amsdell Brewing & Malting Company log-books, held by the Albany Institute of History & Art) on the day of the signing. As of right now, our tentative date for the brew day/book signing is December 14.

A homebrew shop, a book on beer history, a book about porter, and a historic porter recreation—the event sells itself, right?

So, down the rabbit hole I went. 

Arguably the defining beer of 19th century London, and historically popular in U.S. cities like Philadelphia and Boston, porter was also produced in the Upper Hudson Valley—although it seems not to the extent of ale. Perhaps this is because porter stems from a British tradition, and the Upper Hudson valley was still quite Dutch, culturally, into the early 19th century. However, it's likely that many of the area's breweries were making some variation of porter in the 18th century. In 1791 William Faulkner (No, not that William Faulkner) was advertising porter at his Arbor Hill brewery in Albany; and nearly all of the Hudson Valley brewers were making it during the first half of the 19th Century. Brewers up and down the Hudson testified to making porter in the 1835 hearing before the New York State Senate. By the very late 19th century porter was still being made by a number of area breweries—at Fitzgerald Brothers in Troy; in Albany at Quinn & Nolan, and Taylor Brewery—among others—and of course at the George I. Amsdell Brewing Company & Malting Company.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of Amsdell’s porter, I need to pause here and clarify something. I mentioned ale earlier. It’s not until recently (recently being the 20th century) that porter has gained an association as “ale”. Yes, it’s fermented warm, and top fermented, but for the majority of its life, porter was considered to be its own animal, and not simply black ale. Advertisements in Britain and America throughout the 18th and 19th centuries clearly differentiate the two brews. Brewers—and the public—obviously saw them as not one and the same.

Speaking of Britain, British brewers in the late 18th and early 19th century often aged porter. This aging altered the flavor of the porter, mostly because Brettanomyces claussenii in their wood fermenting tubs and unions contaminated the beer, causing it to sour over time as it aged in large vats. Later in the 19th century, brewers and pub landlords took to a more cost saving method of achieving what had become known as the “British flavor”. By blending an amount of a Brett infected aged, strong, stock or "old" ale (or, often additional aged porter) with fresh porter they could achieve an aged flavor, without actually aging it. Guinness continued this practice into the 1970s, adding 3%—or so—sour beer to their wort to achieve a slight tang. However, for the majority of brewers in Great Britain, old ale additions fell out of fashion during the mid-19th century when beer began being served "mild"—that is to say shortly after conditioning—and a slightly soured tang was no longer desirable.

In 1901, Albany’s Amsdell Brewing & Malting Company’s porter was a bit of an odd duck, because they were doing both—blending and aging—well after either practice had been dropped in Britain. According to brewing logs held by the Albany Institute of History & Art, Amsdell blended old ale into their porter wort after the boil, and then vatted it after fermentation (rather than racking it with kräusening wort as they did for many of their other beers). It was an exceptionally high amount of old ale they added, too—sometimes as much as 21% of the total volume, up to 65 barrels. Amsdell's old ale, however, may not have been old ale in the British, strong, soured ale sense of the word, but literally old beer that had been sitting around for a while, which had not been sold. Whether that beer was sour, remains to be seen. It may have been used as an adulterating agent, or simply as a way to get rid of overstock. Along with the heavy addition of old ale, Amsdell also added everything but the kitchen sink to their porter—licorice root, capsaicin (the stuff that makes chilies hot), and grains of paradise. The other additives may have masked the flavor of the older brew.

According to the Amsdell logs, porter was only brewed two or three times a year at the turn-of-the-century, and its grist was similar to other brews in Amsdell's line-up at the time—6-row and black malt, corn grits, and sugars. Tangential, and not distinct only to Amsdell's porter, a substantial amount of "Quick" malt was also used in the breweries second batch of porter in 1901. Martin Mowrer patented the process for making "Quick" malt in 1891. The process allowed for the malting of degerminated barley in as little as 24 hours—1/10 of the normal time. A good bit of salt and Irish moss was also included in the recipes.

The porter was moderately strong, about 6.3% ABV, with an OG in the low 1.070s, finishing around 1.023, making its attenuation about 65%; on par with Amsdell's other brews. 500 to 600 pounds of hops were used in each batch (~2 lbs/barrel), and were also added when the beer was stored.

The brewery also produced a second variation of porter—their Stock Porter—which looks to be nearly identical to their standard porter, except it seems to have not been vatted. The notation of “Stock” might mean, in Amsdellian parlance, “best”—as in the breweries top quality effort, regardless of style. At the time Amsdell was making its Stock Porter, it was also making in its regular rotation, Diamond Stock Ale, and far less often, India Pale Stock and XXX Stock. Old school specialty beer, perhaps?

Be it stock or standard, Amsdell’s porter, with its long list of ingredients, and odd techniques made it one of the brewery’s most unique brews—and one of its rarest, as well.

Now that's out of the way, we need to re-make it. See you on the 14th.

Coincidentally, today is also the 200th anniversary of the great porter flood in London


  1. That sticking all the old beer back in was exactly what the London porter brewers were doing early in the 19th century. See Beer: The Story of the Pint p128. And in British terminology the "stock" beer would be the one laid down to store, so generally more highly hopped ...

    1. Exactly, why throw out perfectly "good" beer? The question is: Was that early 19th century old beer that those London brewers were sticking back in sour?

      As to the stock beer, there seems to have been a divergence, at least with Amsdell, and the British use of the word. Amsdells stock brews don't seem to be significantly stronger, or more heavily hopped. The Porter is actually their most heavily hopped beer at 500 to 600 lbs/barrel—for both what is entered as "Porter" and "Stock Porter". The only difference between to two is the Porter seemsto have been aged, while the Stock Porter was not. Another of their stock beers—their Diamond Stock—comes in around 350 lbs/barrel. That's higher than their other standard brews—Polar Albany XX, and Scotch—but not by much, they average between 200 and 300 lbs/bbl. None of the beers other than the porter were aged, either.

  2. That is very interesting. British brewers in London blended old porter and new porter to get a balanced taste and supposedly this emulated the 1700's entire porter which was aged 6-12 months. However it gets confusing because a student of 1700's brewing, the pioneer Mathias, reported that the majority of porter stocks in the 1700's - of the breweries he studied - was mild porter. So perhaps it was always mixed.

    In the 1800's, in the country (not London), some brewers added in old ale, so similar to the Albany practice, either before the ferment or after, and the blend was aged for a time before being sent out. The use of capsicum and grains of paradise derives from early 1800's books which had assumed that London porter had secret ingredients to give it a special taste, which (to all appearances) it did not. This "factitious" porter caught on, evidently, outside England in certain places.

    Since sour beers are quite available today, you might try adding up to 10% to a glass of ordinary porter or stout. The result can be very nice. Either old ale of some kind or old porter or stout work well. To my taste, 10% maximum should be allowed for the stock element, but some people would like it more tart so you can go higher. Up to one-third old ale was added by English country brewers to fresh porter or porter wort, based on sources I've read.

    Good luck with the book!


  3. Interesting. But, the difference is the Practical Brewer addition of old ale seems to be post-fermentation, while Amsdell addition was added prior to fermentation. Almost like an extract brewer would add make-up water to a concentrated wort.

  4. Craig, that's true, but at the bottom of page 149, the authors state some brewers add old ale to the gyle (a practice of which they disapprove). This is clearly adding it post-boil during fermentation, their use of the term gyle in the book, as well as tunning, means the wort in primary fermentation and then cleansing in troughs respectively (see pg. 115).

    Amsdell seems to have preferred this latter way for whatever reason.

    If you do an Albany beer recreation again, it would be interesting to use old ale or old porter in one of these two ways.