Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Albany Ale: The Times They Are A Changin'

Last week I wrote about New York’s barley growing issues.

That got me thinking about the history of barley growing in the state—more specifically when did the switch from wheat (or other non-barley grains) to barley-based beer happen?

As I mentioned in last week’s post, the early Dutch, and later the British settling in New York seemed to have leaned toward non-barley grains for their brewing. In 1646, Father Issac Jogues, a Jesuit missionary visiting New Netherlands, on behalf of the Governor of New France, noted in his diary, wheat and oat farming in Beverwijck for the purposes of brewing. Daniel Denton, confirms wheat ale brewing in the Upper Hudson Valley some three decades later, noting “their best Ale is made of Wheat Malt, brought from Sopus and Albany”. By the early 1700s, wheat had become one of New York’s agricultural staples, for both domestic use and exportation. Peter Kelm, a Swedish professor mentioned in his travel diary of 1748 to 1750 that both wheat and rye were grown in abundance—and malted—but not barley, because it simply wasn’t profitable.

During the 1760s, however, something changed. I came across a newspaper advertisement in the October 1st, 1764 edition of The New-York Mercury. The advert read:
The highest Price for good Winter Barley, be given by
Hendrick Rutgers, Brewer, Near Corlears Hook, N.York.
Within 15 years, barley goes from unprofitable to being specifically requested by a brewer. But there’s a clue in that advertisement as to why—the phrase “winter barley”. By the 1780s, winter barley was becoming more popular as a cash crop. Even George Washington began growing it at Mount Vernon after multiple years losses of spring barley in the early 1790s.

So what’s so special about winter barley? Well, it’s a bit of a “what’s in a name" scenario, because in the 18th and 19th century the name winter barley is an alias. A few of it's other psudomyns  include square barley and Bigg or Bere (pr. “bear”) barley—a variety often associated with Scotland and Northern England. It was also distinctive because it had 4 or 6 rows of grain on it’s head. Winter barley was euphemism for 6-row barley, and it was 6-row barley that would grow in tremendous amounts across western New York during the 19th and early 20th-centuries.

But let’s back track a bit—back to the 1790s. It seems to me that the post-Revolutionary War period is the tipping point for barley over wheat. I’m going to use two examples to illustrate this. The first is an advertisement placed by Peter Ganesvoort—heir to the Dutch Gansevoort family brewing empire of 17th and 18th century—in the May 15, 1794 edition of the Albany Gazette.

The good General Gansevoort is clearly offering to pay a premium for what appears to be a less than available crop. You probably wouldn’t do that unless there was a demand, right? The second example comes four years later. James Boyd—a decidedly un-Dutch Scot, who opened his Albany brewery in 1796—was, according to his ledger of 1798, buying more barley (617 bushels) than wheat and rye combined (219 and 289 bushels, respectively).

So why was this happening?

My guess is cultural change, teamed with availability. There seems to have been a Anglo-fication of the Upper Hudson Valley starting in the mid-1700s. What had once been an area steeped in Dutch-traditions was changing. The area began seeing an influx of British-influenced cultures (either from Great Britain, or from New England and the Southern colonies) and a sustainable variety of barley—6-row barley—was becoming more readily available. New York's new population began demanding barley-based beer over wheat-based brews, because that's what those cultures drank. Barley beer was a taste of home. In the very early 19th century we still see wheat being used in conjunction with barley (Walter Grieve was making a 50% wheat/50% barley beer at his brew house in Geneva, NY in 1803) But, by the 1830s, barley had fully supplanted (pun intended) wheat as the main brewing grain of the Upper Hudson Valley.
Interestingly, Gansevoort’s brewery closed within ten years of his 1794 advert (after having operated for 150 years), while Boyd’s brewery thrived for almost 125 years after his ledger was written.

If that’s not a sign of “The times they are a changin’“ then I don’t know what is.

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