The History of Beer: Albany, New York, Once the Largest Brewing Hub in America
Sudsy state: The Valley’s extensive beer history is rediscovered
Workers at George I. Amsdell Brewery in Albany, circa 1910
Unidentified photographer c.1910. Toned gelatin silver print. Albany Institute of History & Art Library, P2657.84
If there’s one thing beer blogger Craig Gravina wants you to know, it’s that Albany was once the largest brewing hub in the country. Yes, Albany, New York. Before there was Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller, there was Hedrick, Dobler, and Beverwyck. Never heard of these? You’re not alone. “Nobody really remembers,” says Gravina. “We have forgotten our brewing heritage.”
Albany was a major player in the worldwide beer industry starting with the first Dutch settlers; by the 1660s, there were at least eight breweries in the area. In fact, many of the city’s founding fathers were brewers — and they made good use of the abundant wheat and hops that grew nearby. Over the ensuing years, the Gansevoort, Van Schaick, and other prominent families continued to make a tidy profit by producing beer. Things took a turn for the better in 1825, when the Erie Canal opened. Savvy Albany businessman John Taylor, who had just started a brewery with his brother-in-law, took advantage of this new source of transportation to get his ale out to the rest of the country. The brewing bonanza was on. By 1852, Taylor’s incredible success led him to build the largest brewery in the country — in fact, the only breweries in the world larger than his were located in London. Taylor’s mega-brewery soon started producing the famous Albany XX Ale — a drink so popular that, by the time Anheuser-Busch was getting started in 1852, Taylor was brewing 200,000 barrels a year.
An early 20th-century serving tray depicts the Beverwyck Brewing Company’s facility
The H.D. Beach Co., Coshocton, O. Printed and painted sheet iron. c.1901-1910. Albany Institute of History & Art, gift of Ivan C. and Marilynn Karp, 2005.18.6
But Taylor wasn’t the only Valley brewer with a booming business. Although best known as the founder of Vassar College, Matthew Vassar made his fortune as a brewer. In fact, by the 1830s, his Poughkeepsie brewery was one of the largest in the country. In the 1867 book Vassar College and its Founder, author Benson Lossing recounts Vassar’s early success:
With a few kettles and tubes he made ale at the rate of three barrels at a time, which he sold to the citizens in small quantities, and delivered it with his own hands; and in the spring of 1812 he hired a basement room in the County Courthouse, which was “an elegant and substantial edifice of stone,” erected in 1809, on the corner of Main and Market Streets, in which he opened a shop for the sale of Ale and Oysters. This was the first “oyster saloon” established in the town. All day long Mr. Vassar might have been seen brewing at the dye-house, or going about the village with his ale... while his evenings, until midnight, were devoted to his customers in his “saloon.”
The local beer industry began to decline after the Civil War. The expansion of railroads throughout most of the country eliminated Albany’s monopoly on beer distribution. Albany Ale’s popularity faded. By the turn of the century, local companies, fearful of British brewery expansion, hatched a plan to consolidate all of their facilities from Hudson to Troy in an effort to avoid buyouts. While the idea never came to fruition, some larger breweries did acquire smaller ones.
Made stronger through this consolidation, the remaining Valley beer businesses thrived until the onset of Prohibition in 1920. Unlike bathtub gin or bootleg whiskey — which can be made in small batches and cut with water — beer is only profitable if produced in large quantities. As a result, most of the large beer facilities were forced to close their doors — with the exception of a few that produced lager, which requires the use of refrigeration; these were converted into ice cream or other food facilities. Of the 11 breweries operating in Albany before Prohibition, just three lager facilities — the aforementioned Hedrick, Dobler, and Beverwyck — reopened after Prohibition ended in 1933. “We embrace lager because that’s what everybody remembers,” says Gravina. “That’s what survived.”
Remember this? A six-pack of Hedrick Brewing Company’s lager from 1960
Hendrick Brewing Company, Albany, NY. c.1960. Aluminum, cardboard, ink. Albany Institute of History & Art, gift of Anna Cipolo, 1994.23.1
But things were never quite the same for those Valley breweries. Although Hedrick, Dobler, and Beverwyck endured Prohibition, they never regained national distribution; by the 1970s, they were outsourced by the big Midwestern breweries. And — says Gravina — another, more elusive, factor also contributed to the local beers’ demise. “Tastes change,” he says, simply. “We’re seeing that now, as craft beer is really starting to get a foothold over some of the bigger macrobreweries.”
Popular beers come and go, but suds production has remained relatively unchanged since the heyday of Albany XX Ale. Despite assumptions that old-time brewers were using “kooky” production practices, Gravina’s research proves that beer has long been a fermented concoction of malted barley, water, hops, and yeast. The processes are so similar, in fact, that a present-day brewer can reproduce a 19th-century beer if given the recipe. And that’s exactly what Gravina and his partner, Alan McLeod, are working on: a recreation of the historic Albany XX Ale. The two beer bloggers recently joined forces to create the Albany Ale Project. Now, together with the Albany Pump Station and the Carey Center for Global Good, they hope to offer contemporary Valleyites a taste of the ale that made the city famous back in the 1850s.
But it’s not all beer-tasting and schmoozing. The pair holds extensive knowledge on the history of beer based on hours spent investigating old documents, speaking with international beer experts, and searching for illusive recipes. But there’s one question Gravina can’t answer. “What’s my favorite beer?” he laughs, marveling at the question. “I don’t know if I could put my finger on just one. I like to try as many different kinds as I can. But as long as it tastes good, I’m happy with it.”
Check out Craig Gravina’s blog at http://drinkdrank1.blogspot.com