Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Albany Ale: Albany Ale in G.A. Sala's World

I've been doing a little digging on mentions of Albany Ale in non-American sources. Taking the path of least resistance, and seeing as how I can't read French, German, Flemish, or Czech, I hit British sources first, and got lucky. I came across two mentions of Albany Ale by British journalist George August Sala from his dispatches to London's Daily Telegraph in 1863 and 1864 as he documented the United States during the American Civil War.

Full color Sala.
The first mention I found was from a search on The British Newspaper Archive. It was from the Northern Whig's (Belfast) September 9, 1864 reprint of a Sala correspondence to the Daily Telegraph
"It is a six hours' run from New York to Albany, per the H. R. R. (Hudson Rail Road) The cars are not very uncomfortable, and they are tolerably ventilated. Of the refreshment rooms en route it may be sufficient to state that pie, in every phase of atrocity, and quite equalling the doughy horrors of Schenectady, is to be found at all the intermediate stations. The choking diet is, however, mitigated by the Albany ale, kept on draught, and which is a very sound and refreshing beverage."
Yikes! Sorry Schenectady! 

That little blurb led me to investigating more of Sala's writing on Google books—of which there are a number of examples. In 1865 Tinsley Brothers, of London, published a two-volume collection of Sala's dispatches from North America, titled My Diary in America in the Midst of War. It's there, in volume two, I found a second mention.
"If you eschew "supper," and seek perpendicular refreshment at the counter, you have first of all the bars where, in the non liquor-law States, you may obtain poisonous whisky, brandy even viler, mawkish lager beer, excellent Philadelphia and Albany ale, a wretched decoction known as sarsaparilla—not unlike the coco the men with the turrets behind them sell in the Champs Elysées—and in New England cider as good as any to be procured in Devonshire."
Reading these passages I began wondering how food and drink framed Sala's world. 

Sala was born in London in 1828. His father, was an Italian theater man of some means, and his mother an actress and signing teacher.  He spent time as a teen in school in Paris, and took up writing at a young age. His talent caught the attention of Charles Dickens who, mentoring the young journalist, gave him his first assignment as a correspondent in Russia in 1856. Through the 1850s and 1860s, Sala wrote a column for the Illustrated London News and became a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph. According to his biography on Wikipedia, not only did Sala contribute articles to the Telegraph, but contributed to the paper’s reputation as well, “His literary style, highly coloured, bombastic, egotistic, and full of turgid periphrases, gradually became associated by the public with their conception of the Daily Telegraph; and though the butt of the more scholarly literary world, his articles were invariably full of interesting matter and helped to make the reputation of the paper.”

Sala continued to write throughout the end of the 19th century, publishing both fiction and non fiction, novels and essays, but working most often as he had always done, as a journalist. By his death in 1895, Sala had earned the reputation as one of the most productive and popular day-to-day observational journalists of the 19th century.

In his work Sala often wrote about extensively about food and drink. A clue to Sala's love of the good life comes from Peter Blake's partial-biography of Sala—George Augustus Sala and the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press: The Personal Style of a Public Writer. Blake asserts that Sala had an on-again-off-again relationship with the Bohemian lifestyle of London and Paris in the mid-19th century. Sala wrote of Hamburg businessmen he met while in St. Petersburg who, "drink and smoke and play dominoes and billiards, and otherwise dissipate themselves all night. What lives!" Although Sala may have been drawn to the Bohemian lifestyle, he doesn't seem to have been a die-hard, Henri Murger -like character, but more of a fond observer of Bohemianism. Practicing it as a matter of convenience—traveling nearly penniless one week and then attending royal galas at the Russian court the next.

In Sala's writing food references are abound—in fact too many to mention. One that caught my eye, however, was an interesting connection between road food in traditionally beer and cider producing countries versus wine producing countries, in a footnote in Under the Sun: Essays Mainly Written in Hot Places (1872):
"It is curious that in countries where wine is plentiful there should be nothing procurable to eat, and that in non-wine-growing, but beer or cider-producing, countries the traveller should always be sure of a good dinner. Out of the beaten track in Italy, a tourist runs the risk of being half starved. In Spain, he it starred habitually and altogether; but he is sure of victuals in England, in America, and in Russia. Even in the East, fowls, eggs, kids, and rice are generally obtainable in the most out-of-the-way places; but many a time have I been dismissed hungry from a village hostelry in France with the cutting remark: 'Monsieur, nous n'avons plus rien.' There is an exception to the rule in Germany —In except Prussia—which bounteous land runs over with wine, beer, beef, veal, black and white bread, potatoes, salad, and sauerkraut."
Interesting that he notes Germany—which today would be considered one of the great beer producing countries or the world—is the exception to the wine rule.

Speaking of booze, Sala was not afraid to assert his preference for drink—sparkling brandy—which he refers to as 'nectar of the gods' more than once. Moreover, price seems to be a big factor in Sala's drinking. Blake writes in his book that in 1859 Sala had his nose busted open by a London landlord for complaining about the price of said publican's champagne—not so ironic after having just spent 3 weeks in a debtor's prison. He mentions a few times that wine—good wine, at least—was often beyond his limits, and usually mentions the price difference between different liquors and different kinds of beer, relative to their locality.

Sala also knew what was good and bad. Since he traveled extensively, his views were not confined to London—or England for that matter. He saw what other cultures ate and drank, and often commented on that—sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. He recalls, slightly sarcastically, in reference to foreign accents, how pretty "Paliali ale" sounded after seeing announcements for Cervesa Ingles, Paliali de Allsopp y de Bass on a trip to Andalusia in 1865 in his book Living London (1883). He notes the regular consumption of Bock beer by Europeans in Algiers—and how bad the brandy was—in A Trip to Barbary by a Roundabout Route (1866). He mentions Bock again in his travels through Paris in 1878 and 1879, in Paris Herself Again, noting its unintoxicating effects, and its unusually high price in that city. He mentions Belgian faro, briefly in his auto-biography, The Life and Times of George Augustus Sala (1895), with much dislike. 

Sala was also good not just at framing drink for himself, but also relating his drinking experiences back to his readership. He returns to the topic of ale, briefly, in My Diary in America in the Midst of War, remarking on the pale ale being served at a the Clifton House—a high-end hotel built in the 1830s—on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, in regards to British tourists visiting the falls:
"In addition to the usual colony of English tourists and officers—who are just like English officers and tourists all over the world, and who would admire the Falls a great deal more if the pale ale at the Clifton House were not sour instead of bitter, and if there were any soda-water to be obtained."
Sala's quip gives insight to whatever the Clifton House was serving, and some indication of its quality, at least by mid 19th century British tourist's standards. I'm taking Sala's meaning that sour meant aged, rather than off. The 1860s are right around the time where Brett-infected, aged beer begins to fall out of fashion (with the exception of stock ales and porter), en lieu of "mild" or fresh ale—which was decidedly un-sour. Perhaps the brewers of Clifton House's were a bit behind the curve. It's worth noting that Sala's first mention of Albany Ale in My Diary in America in the Midst of War, comes 30 pages after the Clifton House comment. We might infer, since Sala seemed to find Albany Ale agreeable, then perhaps Albany Ale fell more in-line with 19th century British ale served mild, rather than earlier aged and soured brews? 

Although, Sala may have been being sarcastic, and Clifton House's Pale Ale was just shit. 

In any case, Sala's writing spans the hey-day of Albany Ale, and he's written extensively enough about food and drink of the mid- to late-19th century, to gather a pretty good idea of what he drank and how he liked to imbibe. Considering Sala’s life experiences I take his assessment of Albany Ale to be "excellent", with some credence, and it was—at least in his opinion—better than what was being served in Niagara Falls—or most of the U.S. for that matter!