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