Thursday, March 10, 2016

Albany Ale: Chico and The Man

Stan is currently working on his forthcoming book Brewing Local, and he's been kind enough to inquire about Albany Ale for the project. We've been emailing back and forth about Albany's historic hometown brew and our conversation headed toward to yeast—specifically the conundrum of early American ale yeast. That is to say, the "where did it come from?" rabbit hole... er, uh...I mean discussion. The assumption is that American yeast is born of Great Britain, stowed away in the casks and bottles of colonial and early 19th century Brits bound for America.

All roads on a discussion of such things will eventually lead to Sierra Nevada's house yeast—the Chico strain. The proto-craft beer strain. The yeast which launched a thousand home brewers, brewpubs, microbreweries and ten times as many IPAs. A strain which is believed to be derived from P. Ballantine & Sons' proprietary house yeast. Ballantine XXX, is as many of you know, one the the great, long lasting, nationally distributed American ales, and its maker, P. Ballantine & Sons in Newark, New Jersey was one largest breweries in the United States. An ale-focused brewery*, even in the post-repeal era, when lager dominated the beery landscape.

We know for certain that Ballantine was experimenting with yeast microbiology as early as the 1870s. That isn't all that surprising, it stands to reason that anyone making beer would want to understand (as best they could at the time) how those mysterious little "plants" (as guided-age brewers believed them to be) actually did their booze making business.

Granted, the 1870s are early on the timeline of zymology, just a few decades after Louis Pasteur's work with yeast. But, going back further, even before Pasteur, the question is begged, where did "American" yeast originate? One might think Peter Ballantine, a Scot, may have followed the presumed pattern, bringing with him some variety of Scottish saccharomyces cerevisiae upon his immigration to the U.S in the 1820s. But Ballantine might actually be an exception to that rule.

The journey of Peter Ballantine to become one of the most import figures, and breweries, in American brewing history began in Ayrshire, Scotland, where he was born in 1791. In 1820 Ballantine arrived in the U.S., first at Black Rock Connecticut, but eventually making his way to the upper Hudson valley. He was first employed in the area by Robert Dunlop, and learned malting at Dunlop's West Troy brewery**. Ballantine himself testifies to the New York State Senate, that prior to April 28, 1835, he was employed in Schenectady by Isaac Schermerhorn for two years; for two years by Robert Boyd; and a year by Andrew Kirk, both in Albany. He also testified that at the time of his testimony he had been self-employed for two years. (In 1833 he had purchased Robert Dunlop's brewery on North Market Street, in Albany.) All said and done, he told the panel he had been "in the business of brewing ale, porter or strong beer" for a total of seven years—from 1828 to 1835†. In 1838 Ballantine moved his operation to Lansing Street. In 1840, Ballantine again moved, this time out of Albany, to Newark New Jersey where partnered with Erastus Patterson and rented the former Cummings brewery. By 1845 that partnership had dissolved, and in 1857 Ballantine's sons Peter, John, and Robert entered the family business and changed the firm's name to P. Ballantine & Sons—the name which the brewery would be known by for the next 150 years.

What makes Ballantine interesting is not just in the scope of his role, and his company's role, in American brewing. It's that Peter Ballantine wasn't a Scottish brewer who came to America to ply his trade; but rather he's a Scot who immigrates, and learns to brew in America. Peter Ballantine did not bring yeast with him, and yet the brewery which bore his name, supposedly, spawned the definitive American ale yeast. The yeast which helped to give birth to the American craft beer movement.

The obvious question becomes: "Where did Ballantine get his yeast?" There are a number of speculative possibilities. Remember the rabbit hole I mentioned earlier, here it comes:

1) Ballantine propagates his own proprietary strain in Newark.

2) Ballantine acquires a strain, which had originally come from Scotland, from another Albany Ale brewer, three of which—Kirk, Boyd, and Dunlop—are his former employers. From this strain he propagates his own proprietary strain at one of his breweries in Albany. He takes this master stock with him to Newark.

Number one is, of course, a totally plausible possibility. But let's focus on number two for minute, since the current assumption is that American yeast is borne of yeast originally from Great Britain. Boyd, Kirk, and Dunlop could have done exactly what is assumed of them. They could have brought Scottish yeast strains with them to the U.S., and yes, at some point any one of them could have given a cup-full to Ballantine and wished him good luck in his brewing endeavors. But there's another possibility. It's the possibility that the American yeast strain was already here—before Kirk, or Dunlop, or even before Boyd opened his brewery way back in 1796.

3) Ballantine propagates his own proprietary strain from local stock at one of his breweries in Albany. He takes this master stock with him to Newark.

Remember Isaac Schermerhorn—Ballantine's boss in Schenectady in 1828? There was a fellow by the name of Schermerhorn who was brewing in this area before Isaac—190 years before Isaac, in fact. Jacob Jansen Schermerhorn was the patriarch of the Schermerhorn clan, a fur trader, and a brewer‡. Granted, six generations is pretty wide gap to span between a 17th century brewer and a 19th century brewing magnate, but my point is that the upper Hudson valley, even as late as the 1830s was still very Dutch, culturally. Dutch was still being spoken, Dutch customs were still being practiced, and one of the more popular customs to survive was making and drinking beer. Peter Gansevoort was requesting barley at his brewery six years before Boyd opened his brewery—and  Gansevoort's brewery, at that point, had been making beer, in Albany, for at least 130 years.

Kirk, Boyd, and Dunlop come to Albany—unlike Ballantine—to ply their trade as brewers, because  by the 1790s, the area was already a brewing center. A brewing center built by Dutch colonials, and perpetuated by the Dutch, even under British-rule. The Scots came to Albany because it was the path of least resistance. They came because Albany had an long-standing and established brewing infrastructure. A brewing industry. A 175 year old brewing industry by 1825, in fact. The trade routes, malt houses, cooperages, breweries, bung factories, wheat, barley, hop fields and yes, the yeast were already here. It's completely reasonable that Kirk, Boyd, and Dunlop didn't bring any yeast with them at all.

Annnnnnd of course there's a fourth possibility.

4) Ballantine's yeast—the original "American" ale yeast—was, and is, truly American. Part Old Wold and part New World. Part East Coast, and part West Coast. A little bit of all of it—17th century Dutch, post-Revolution Scottish, early 19th century Albany late 19th and 20th century New Jersey, and finally a dash of California thrown in for good measure.

We now call it Chico, but I think we can all agree: Peter Ballantine was The Man.

*Yeah, yeah I know Ballantine made lager, too.

**I suspect, Ballantine not only learned the malting trade at this point, but was also an apprentice brewer. 

By the early 1830s Ballantine was also partnered with Fidler & Taylor and Robert Dunlop in a malting operation.
Jacob Schermerhorn was banished from Beverwijck for a short while, and spent time in a New Amsterdam prison for selling guns to the Mahicans—a business venture that the DWIC felt  should be best left to them.

A History of American Manufactures from 1608 to 1860, Volume 3, John Leander Bishop, Edwin Troxell Freedley, Edward Young, 1868

Monday, February 29, 2016

New York Beer: In the Beginning

"Hello? Anybody here?" I say as I drop my backpack to the ground.

"I'm back."

It's been 179 days since my last I post. Yeah, yeah, I know I'm slacking. But I'm slowly getting back into the groove.

In any case, in my absence you may have noticed my partner-in-crime, Mr. McLeod, has started expanding his beery research, away from Albany and the Hudson Valley, into other areas and eras of New York state Specifically, he's been looking at Central New York, around the turn of the 19th century, and New York City from the period just before the Revolution, and just after. I'm following suit (just take a look at my brand-spankin' new "New York Beer" title, up above). I'll still be digging into Albany's beer past, but it's time to spread my wings a bit and see what other beer history related trouble from around the state I can get into. 

So where to start? At the beginning, right? The very beginning. Where and when was the first brew house in New York built?

It's said, Dutch private-trader Adriaen Block and his fellow Captain Hendrick Christiaensen ordered their men to construct a brew house on the southern tip of Manhattan in 1612. That may be true, but the trouble is, there are as many versions of Block and Christiaensen voyages to the new world, as there are chili recipes in Texas. Quite often one version gets mixed with another, and events of the duo's first foray in 1612 are mingled with their subsequent trips. The facts are very much hidden under a plate of mis-informational spaghetti*. It's almost as if "1612" has been co-opted to encompass "the explorational endeavors of Adriaen Block and Hendrick Christiaensen between 1612 and 1614." A phenomenon not unlike the usage of "The War of 1812", which implies the start of the war in 1812, but reflects the entire two and a half years of the conflict.

A detail of the Block Figurative Map.
Cornelis Doetz/Adriaen Block, 1614.
Block and Christiaensen did indeed travel to what would become Manhattan in 1612—but not to settle it. At least not at that point. The objective of the 1612 mission, as to seems to me, was to determine the viability of the area—which had been previously explored by Hudson, only a few years earlier—as to its ability to continually fill the warehouses of Amsterdam with beaver pelts. The duo's 1612 trip was the very definition of an exploratory mission—a testing of the waters (pun intended) of their business partnership with each other, the merchants of Amsterdam, and the New World.

If Block and Christiaensen were on Manhattan not to establish a settlement, but rather to act as speculators in the fur trade there, intending to only stay in “Terra Nova” for a short time. Logically, they would have stocked their holds with enough beer, spirits, water and food for a trip from Europe and back again—so then why build a brew-house? 

I have a theory—and it's very much a theory—since primary sources are few and far between. Block and Christiaensen may have built their brew house,  but perhaps not in 1612. Perhaps it happened, instead, on their second trip to Manhattan in 1613. Sailing for Amsterdam merchants—the Van Tweenhusyen Syndicate—the duo returned to the New World on a mission of not just trading, but securing the beaver pelt trade. The 1612 trip had produced in spades, so, the idea of establishing a trading post at that point seems logical, and because of an incident in late 1613 or early 1614, and as the old saying goes, misfortune breeds opportunity.

Block and Christiaensen planned to expand and divide-up trading territories in North America; extending them inland and up the Hudson, or Mauritius River as it was known to the Dutch, and east past the treacherous waters of the East River’s Hellegat, or Hell Gate, which led to the Long Island Sound; and to diminish the success of any other traders working for competitor merchants. Christiaensen left Amsterdam first, onboard his ship the Fortyun. Upon his late-autumn arrival in the New World, he engaged in a trading war with Volckert Mossel, a Captain working for a rival syndicate who had also recently arrived in the area. Block's ship the Tijger sailed into the harbor shortly thereafter.

Trading was excellent for the Captains, despite Mossel. However, as Block and Christiaensen prepared to depart for Amsterdam the Tijger caught fire and burned to the waterline. Block’s cargo and provisions were completely destroyed. Block and his crew were stranded. Christiaensen’s ship was no where near large enough to accommodate a second crew, and although Mossel offered to split the crew between his ship, the Nachtagael, and the Fortuyn, (in exchange for half Christiaensen’s pelts), Block refused Mossel's offer and chose to stay the winter on Manhattan with his crew. It's unclear if Christiansen stayed the winter with Block or sailed north before the river froze, but eventually he would head north, 150 miles, looking for trading opportunities with the Mahicans.  

Soon, ice on the rivers prevented any serious navigation. In fact, the winter of 1614 was so harsh, that in March, eight disgruntled members of Block's crew seized Mossel’s ship, and abandoned Block for the West Indies. Building a brew house would have been a logical course of action for Block wintering on Manhattan. Beer is liquid bread. Beer is the perfect supplement to dwindling food supplies and scare game and vegetation. Beer provides plenty of calories, and also has a most enjoyable side effect which helps take ones mind off being stranded on an island in the middle of winter. Beer also helps to prevent scurvy. In cool climates, beer keeps wonderfully—and winter on the southernmost tip of Manhattan is definitely a cool climate. Alan has, noted that ships of the 17th century often kept stores of malt in their holds for such situations, and offered a letter written in the late 1660s about the Hudson Bay Company’s ketch, Nonsuch, a ship which overwintered in the arctic ice of the Northwest passage in the late 1660s. It reads:
“Last Satterday night came in the Nonsuch Ketch from the Northwest passage. Since I have endeavored to find the proceeds of their voyage, only understand they were environed with ice about 6 months first halting their ketch on shore, and building them a house. They carried provisions on shore and brewed Ale and beer and provided against the cold, which was their work:"
There’s no evidence that Block or Christiaensen traded beer made on Manhattan with the Lenape, but alcohol was often used by the Dutch to keep the neighbors happy. Metal trinkets and beads were nice, but alcohol played a two-fold role for Dutch traders. It provided a more desirable trade item, and it also clouded the judgments of the Indians, allowing the Dutch to take advantage of them. Robert Juet, an officer aboard the Halve Maen, on Henry Hudson’s 1609 journey up the Hudson, described in his journal an encounter with the Mahicans. The locals were given wine and aqua vitae—to excess—and two days later returned with gifts of wampum and venison.

Undeterred in his mission, Block used his extended stay in the new world wisely. Over the winter he had a yacht built, the Onrust, from salvaged pieces of the Tijger. As soon as the ice cleared, he used the small and maneuverable vessel to trade the coastlines of Long Island, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Cape Cod, the eponymously named Block Island, and explored the Connecticut River, to Hartford. 150 miles to the north Christiansen, for his part, built a small warehouse surrounded by a stockade to use as an inland fur trading post, named it Fort Nassau—in honor of the House of Orange-Nassau—and it maned with a garrison of ten or twelve men. 

The Fortuyn, less its men who stayed at Fort Nassau**, sailed south from the outpost and rendezvoused with the Onrust off the coast of Massachusetts in the late spring of 1614. She made Amsterdam in July of that year.  The warehouse Christiaensen built became the fist permenant Dutch settlement in the New World, and later, Albany.

*An example of the confusion: Victor Palsits, archivist, librarian and New York history scholar, was quoted in the Nineteenth Annual Report, 1914, of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, saying: "Working wholly from the original sources of documents and contemporary printed works, I claim that Block's Tiger was burned up the Hudson in the vicinity of modern Albany and that the Restless [Onrust] was built there." However, two years later in 1916, the remains of what was most likely the Tijer, were unearthed by construction workers digging the Seventh Avenue line of New York's subway system.

**Christiaensen's fate is another mystery. At some point Christiaensen was murdered by "Orson", one of two sons of a Lenepe sachem, who traveled with the Dutchman. Some sources indicate that Orson, and his brother Valentine were "adopted" by Christiaensen on his first journey to the New World in 1612, and note that the brothers travelled with Block and Christiaensen  back to the Netherlands that same year. Others imply that they met the brothers on their second trip. Christiaensen's death date is usually given as 1616. However, some sources state that Block was informed of Christiaensen's murder upon the Onrest's rendezvous with the Fortuyn in the summer 1614. Meaning he was killed at the fort. Other sources say Christiaensen, returned with Block and made numerous trips—as many as ten—back to the New World, after the dissolution of his partnership with Block. Meaning that he would have had to have returned to Europe at some point after establishing Fort Nassau in 1614.