The Many Early Vassar Breweries Of Poughkeepsie

The more attentive readers will recall how back in July 2012 I wrote about the Vasser brewing book of the mid-1830s and then in November 2014 wrote about the Vassar general ledger of 1808-11. Then I wrote a whole lot about New York brewing over the last couple of years starting about here…  but I never got back to the Vassars even though, due in large part to the founding of a university, it is one of the more famous 1800s pre-lager American breweries. Wonder why? Too easy? The story is pretty much out there already for all to see. Matthew Vassar is a mid-century magnate along the lines of John Taylor of Albany and perhaps even a more wealthy brewer at the time. Everybody knows that.

But then a notice in a paper like that one up there grabs your attention and off you go again. It’s from the Poughkeepie Barometer of 14 April 1807 and it was placed by James Vassar, the father of Matthew. See what he’s doing? He has imported a European barley strain “more productive and valuable than the common Barley” and is selling it or leasing it to his neighbouring farmers. Leasing. That is fabulous as is the fact that the leased seed is “returnable next fall”! We learned the years around the 1700s becoming the 1800s was a time of crisis and innovation in the grain zones of the youthful USA. And, as Craig has shown, six row reigned far longer as base brewing grain than was understood – just as wheat lasted far longer and was used more widely as the main brewing base before six row was accepted. So, by bringing in European barley and propagating it for a few years until he had enough to spread out to neighbouring farms, James Vassar is in his way participating in the great experiment of making America.

 

 

 

 

Notice that the ad way up top was placed in Feb 1807. A few weeks later, as we see to the nearer left, James posts a notice seeking hops in the same newspaper. And he wants them to be not frost bitten and “gathered last season” too. But which one could gather he was advertising for local hops. Would it be obvious that they would have to be local Hudson Valley hops? Sixteen years later, above middle, we see a notice from the New York Spectator dated 8 April 1823 that gives an update on the London hop market as of the 4th of Mark – and it is all about English hops: Kent, Sussex, Essex and even Farnham* hops all being sold from 42 to 120 shillings. I do not see, however, hop market notices from much before that point.** Hop notices appear to be more of the “I’ve got a few bales” variety like with the one to the upper right from the New York Gazette of 28 September 1821. So… my bet is that in Feb 1807, James Vassar was looking for local hops when he placed his notice in the local paper. That being the case, he is brewing local ingredients but of the best quality he can find both in terms of barley and malt.

 

 

 

 

Which brings us to the 1808-1811 ledger. Vassar is making good ale branded under the name of his town. The ledger, as I mentioned in my 2014 post, places Vassar in the heart of a farming community centered on a supply town. Some of the same farmers who are growing his grain are also his customers. He also is buying hops by the pound from his neighbours, confirming my suspicions from that notice above. He is selling his beers in a town where there is a range of spirits, wine and other luxury goods from around the world according to the grocers notice next to Vassar’s November 1807 notice in the Poughkeepsie Barometer. And note something else important. The ledger runs, as you might have guessed, exactly to a point in the year 1811. This is because it is only the brewery ledger of the father, James Vassar. If you click on that thumbnail to the right you will see that the firm of James Vassar & Co. was dissolved on 15 November 1810 and accounts were settled with the partnership of John G. and M. Vassar, being the sons of James – John Guy Vassar and (“the”) Matthew Vassar.

 

 

 

 

The first brewery hands off to the second. And the next generation has its own dreams. They are brewing both ale and beer and also buying barley as well as hundreds of bushels of oats according to the notice placed by the partnership in January 1811. And they are continuing in their father’s practice of selling seed barley to the local farmers according to the notice in the now fancier Poughkeepsie Political Barometer of 17 April 1811. A happy and successful succession plan has carried forward. It doesn’t last. Weeks later in mid-May, as the article from the 15th of the month to the right explains, the brewery burns as they all seemed to burn in that era at one point or another. After the fire is controlled, however is when the real tragedy occurs. Two days later John G., the elder son of James, goes into the destroyed brewery to see how much can be saved but is overwhelmed by a gas that has settled in one of the vats and dies apparently in agony a short time later. Horrible. Sadder than even the story of Eugene O’Keefe a hundred years later.

 

 

 

 

What happens then? From the notice to the left placed on 25 May, 1811 James Vassar is scrambling to call in debts from both his time running the brewery as well as the term when his sons were. then, according to the notice posted again in the Poughkeepsie Barometer on 24 July 1811, Matthew is out on his own buying up cider which might place him away from the family business at this point… or maybe diversifying. He is only nineteen years old. That Wikipedia entry says M. Vassar & Co. started up in 1814 but this add from three years earlier clearly uses that name. The next year, James is in the market seeking 10,000 bushels of Barley in September 1812. That looks like the continuation of the brewery. Which would make for the third phase. Dad. Sons. Dad.

 

 

 

 

Then what? In the 13 January 1813 paper, Matthew himself is both buying barley and selling ale and beer. Dad. Sons. Dad. Dad/Son? Then on 14 July 1813 he is entering into a brewing partnership with a Mr. Purser, rebuilding the brewery and accepting the casks of James Vassar that are still out there more than two years after the fire. And he gets into other gigs. Matthew is also running a store with a particular focus on cigars… or rather segars – but that ends up in the hands of another partner, a Mr. Raymond as you can see from the notice above to the right dated 14 July 1813, the same day the notice goes up about the new brewery. Dad. Sons. Dad. Dad/Son. Son in Partnership? Maybe. All muddling along. Moving forward.

It’s actually quite the thing that later in life he becomes a magnate given all the ins and outs of the family’s early years in the brewing trade. It starts a bit like the hapless Horsfields of Brooklyn half a century earlier but then, somehow, they spawn a genius. After the early years of the century, Matthew gets into banking and brick works, railroads and politics. But that story, the story of the rise of the great Vassar brewery, is really a separate later one.

*Interesting, given the price being so much higher, that Farnham hops were discussed in New York newspapers as early as this story in the New York Journal of 20 January 1785 shows. This talk of Farnham is all for Ed, by the way.
**See also this set of New York Gazette notices from 20 February 1818 including two for hops and how geographically sourced goods are referenced expressly – Jamaica rum, Sicily Madeira, English Leather, Baltimore flour. Not the hops.

How To Deal With Folk Like Elynour Rummyng?

So said John Aubrey in his book Perambulation of Surrey written between 1673 and 1692. When I came across reference to the book I was hoping it was going to be an economic survey similar to The Natural History of Staffordshire from 1686 by Robert Plot. But instead it was more of a gazetteer, a recitation of things which can be found in the churches and hints as to where the bridges used to be. However, as one must, I ran a few beery words through it and the passage above sprang outThe town in question is named Letherhead alias Ledered alias Lederide by Aubrey. It is still there under the spelling Leatherhead.

And near Leatherhead lived Elenor Rumming who sold her good ale. According to Aubrey in the late 1600s. But in John Skelton’s poem, “The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng which celebrates its 500th anniversary (very probably… well, maybe) this year its really not the goodness of the ale that is celebrated.

And this comely dame,
I vnderstande, her name
Is Elynour Rummynge,
At home in her wonnynge ;
And as men say
She dwelt in Sothray,
In a certayne stede
Bysyde Lederhede.
She is a tonnysh gyb ;
The deuyll and she be syb.

The devil and she be siblings. And fat – a tonnish gyb. Yet also a “comely gyll” or Jill… “this comely dame”… hmm. Armed with only my trusty half-an-honours BA in English Lit from over 30 years ago, I thought about this as many other had before me. The poem is beyond unflattering. It’s libelous. Unless, of course, it is true. But what is the truth five centuries later? How to deal with such a thing. How true is it? In The Pub in Literature: England’s Altered State by Steven Earnshaw published in 2000 he argues:

Whilst John Skelton’s “The Tunnyng of Elynour Rumming” draws on a traditional view of the alehouse as wholly disreputable, its twist on Landland’s* alehouse scene is that Elynour’s establishment is graced only by women. Even though her name has been traved to an actual Alianora Romyng who kept the Running Horse near Leatherhead in Surrey, it is highly unlikely that the all-female drinking den is taken from actuality. According to Peter Clark, women would probably have been customers on special festive occasions, but not at other times. The level of the ballad derives from a genre which present groups of women together as gossips, and the list of names Skelton uses for the drinkers is mostly taken from a fifteen-century carol, “The Gossips Meeting.”

Highly uncomfortable stuff in these times. As Judith M. Bennett discusses in her 1991 work Misogyny, Popular Culture, and Women’s Work:

Literary critics laud the descriptive power, wittiness, and irony of The Tunning of Elynour Rummyng, yet its misogyny is blatant, vicious, and terrifying. Satirically twisting the traditional literary commendation of a woman 170 History Workshop Journal through a detailed catalogue of her appealing features, Skelton describes Elynour Rummyng in careful detail as a grotesquely ugly woman. Beginning by telling us that she is ‘Droopy and drowsy/Scurvy and lousy’, Skelton then details her features: her face bristles with hair; her lips drool ‘like a ropy rain’; her crooked and hooked nose constantly drips; her skin is loose, her back bent, her eyes bleary, her hair grey, her joints swollen, her skin greasy. She is, of course, old and fat. She is also ridiculous, wearing elaborate and bright clothes on holy days and cavorting lasciviously with her husband like – as she proudly tells it in Skelton’s poem – ‘two pigs in a sty’…

In the 2008 text The Culture of Obesity in Early and Late Modernity: Body Image in Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and Skelton by E. Levy-Navarro there is another somewhat related view in the chapter “Emergence of Fatness Defiant: Skelton at Court.” See, Skelton wasn’t just anyone. In the late 1400s, he was he was appointed tutor to Prince Henry, later King Henry VIII of England. Bennett states “Skelton’s social world was broad, running from the royal court and various noble households, through the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, to the lanes and fields of his parish at Diss, in Norfolk.” Levy-Navarro builds on the idea to take another view – that in the last decade or so of his life, Skelton was on the outs with court and in fact may have had a strong distaste for court:

Much scholarship has assumed that Skelton aligns himself with men in power. A long line of modern scholars makes this point when they assume that Skelton is a modern “man”… who aligns himself with the men of Henry’s court against the lowly women of the tavern world.

Levy-Navarro states that such readings ignore the discontent and defiance in Skelton’s work and, further, that “The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng” is a defiant statement against the courtly styles and superficiality:

Skelton offers outrageous, bulging and revolting bodies of the tavern women. These bodies may not yet be “fat” per se, but they are protofat to the extent to which they are seen as revolting against a civilized ethic.

As such, Skelton is observing a the point of the English Renaissance at which manners come into being in a sense that we can recognize as early modern, materialistic self-made people showing wealth and power through a display of expensive and even architectural clothing as well as through the dismissal of intellectual and priestly men like Skelton. In this way of reading the poem, Skelton may not admire or completely side with Elynour Rummyng but he expresses something admirable about her liberty and perhaps is noting the impending passing of that sort – as well as his own sort – of life.

Taking all that in hand, the poem is no longer just a now grotesque, obviously misogynistic romp through the low life of those found in her tavern but also a larger social commentary. It might well be, yes, making fun of the horrors found there but also lamenting a day when such a free and lewd life could no longer possible given the plans for society being made by the newly formed betters to be found in court.

If that is the case, as with science-fiction today, the structure of the alternate reality needs firm grounding in truth as it was understood by the audience. Farce and fantasy do not mix well. There needs to be substance that is credible for the commentary to be acceptable to its contemporary audience. Let’s have a look from, for ease, a modern reading of part of the text which can be found here. Notice first that the tavern sits on a hill, near a road and is readily accessible:

Now in cometh another rabble:
And there began a fabble,
A clattering and babble
They hold the highway,
They care not what men say,
Some, loth to be espied,
Start in at the back-side
Over the hedge and pale,
And all for the good ale.
(With Hey! and with Ho!
Sit we down a-row,
And drink till we blow.)

Sounds like good fun for these ale-slugging women patrons. Note also that the ale is made in the tavern.. the ale house – with a bit of a special twist as this section in the original indicates:

But let vs turne playne,
There we lefte agayne.
For, as yll a patch as that,
The hennes ron in the mashfat ;
For they go to roust
Streyght ouer the ale ioust,
And donge, whan it commes,
In the ale tunnes.
Than Elynour taketh
The mashe bolle, and shaketh
The hennes donge away,
And skommeth it into a tray
Whereas the yeest is,
With her maungy fystis :
And somtyme she blennes
The donge of her hennes
And the ale together ;
And sayeth, Gossyp, come hyther,
This ale shal be thycker,
And flowre the more quicker ;
For I may tell you,
I lerned it of a Jewe,
Whan I began to brewe,
And I haue founde it trew ;
Drinke now whyle it is new ;

So chickens run around the tavern and even into the mash vat, leaving their droppings of dung on the fermenting ale. As learned from a Jewish brewer when she was young, the hen-dung is skimmed but sometimes some is left in the yeast tray so that the ale might be thicker and the yeast “flower” quicker. And it is not just chickens. She has to “stryke the hogges with a clubbe” because they have drunk up her “swyllynge tubbe”! Note how many of the elements of her brewery operations are described.

Look a bit more at more of the language about the ale. It is offered both new and stale. It is nappy and noppy. It is stated to be “good” twice. It is also worthy of a lot in payment or barter so some pledge their hatchet and their wedge, some their “rybskyn and spyndell”, even their “nedell and thymbell” because it is that good:

Some haue no mony
That thyder commy,
For theyr ale to pay,
That is a shreud aray ;
Elynour swered, Nay,
Ye shall not beare away
My ale for nought,
By hym that me bought…

By him that me bought. Christ. It is all so excellent even if, effectively, otherworldly. You may read it many ways but what you are reading is a window not only to a now uncomfortable commentary on early modern life but life within a tavern. Even if a ribald farce, it’s still a tavern as they would have known it. Lovely.

That Time In 1986 When Mr. Jackson Came To Albany

This is an interesting notice in the October 31, 1986 edition of the Times Union from Albany, New York under the heading “Newman’s Brews Beer Tasting”:

English beer authority Michael Jackson will visit Albany Nov. 4 to conduct “The Quintessential Beer Tasting,” at 8 p.m. at the Century House in Latham. The international beer tasting, sponsored by Albany’s Newman Brewing Company, will be open to the public. Jackson, known as “The Bard of Beer” and author of “The World Guide to Beer,” has been called the world’s best authority on beer. He has led beer tastings at Harrods in London and the Pierre Hotel in New York City. For the Albany show, he will lead a guided tour through a selection of 13 international beers. Tickets at $6 per person are available through Newman’s Brewery at 465- 8501 and at the door.

What is really fun about the item is that a few days later, on 5 November 1986, a report on the event written by Fred LeBrun was published in the same paper under the headline “Beer Guru Salutes Newman’s” which I need to reproduce in full to properly undertake a review of the implications:

The real Michael Jackson came to Albany yesterday. Downtown was snoring because it was Election Day, so he did what he frequently does when he’s on the road anyway. He had a well-thought-out Newman’s Albany Amber Ale at Ogden’s. Now Ogden’s, a reasonably serious restaurant, is not a bistro that would first come to mind for a casual beer. But then the real Michael Jackson is not a casual beer drinker.

It should be noted about here that this real Michael Jackson rarely sleeps in an oxygen tent, at least by choice, nor is he likely to be caught fondling a Pepsi. He did wear a sequined glove for a while as a goof, but grew tired of it in a couple of hours. This real Michael Jackson is 44, bearded, a touch pudgy, tweedy and scholarly, wears glasses and speaks with a pleasant, all-purpose British accent. He is also the world’s most respected authority on beer. His “The World Guide to Beer” of a decade ago is still the definitive text on the subject, and his newly published “Simon and Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer” will do still more to educate a world awakening to the great variety and styles of beers and ales available, using much the same critical language in the past reserved for fine wines. From Adelaide to Nairobi to Anchor Steam country out in San Francisco, wherever beer and ale is brewed, this Michael Jackson is The Word.

He was in Albany on a pilgrimage of sorts, paying respects to one of his favorite American alemakers, William Newman, and sampling a fresh batch of Newman’s Winter Ale, due out for the general public in a couple of weeks. A few months ago, when Jackson was interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times, he listed Newman’s Winter Ale as one of his five favorite American beers. Anchor Steam, for the record, remains his favorite.

For Albany, in its Tricentenniel year, Jackson’s visit offers a double dose of irony. Albany, and the Capital District in general, was once a brewing center of the United States, according to Jackson, along with Philadelphia. At one time, there were breweries in practically every Albany neighborhood, brewing a variety of styles – 18 at one point. But when the Newmans, William and Marie, opened their microbrewery five years ago exactly, there wasn’t a single brewery left in town. Schaefer, the last major brewery, was newly gone, and shortly before that Hedrick’s, owned by Albany County Democratic Chairman Dan O’Connell, and Fitzgerald across the river.

Yet in the five years since, the Newmans has struggled mightily to carve out a steady little market for itself with deep, full-flavored, hoppy ales sold in kegs and jury-rigged take- home containers. They have fought against the biggies, which in this market is Genesee, and Miller, and the ever-present Budweiser, and recently a hot run by Stroh’s. They have eked out standing in this crowd. Now Albany Amber Beer is available in bottles, created to Bill Newman’s fussy specs by the Schmidt’s Brewery in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the active center of new breweries in America has moved to the West Coast, notably Oregon and Washington State.

Out there, the Newmans are positively venerated, idolized, for what they’ve done. They were the first on the East Coast to create a new-style baby brewery offering traditional beers and ales of great character. Now there’s Samuel Adams in Boston, and New Amsterdam and Royal Amber in New York and dozens more. “Newman’s has never had the credit it deserves,” writes Jackson in his newest guide. “Its misfortune is to be in Albany, which may be the state capital but is an unimaginable distance – about 140 miles – from downtown Manhattan.” Prophets in their own land.

Jackson strongly recommended making the trek up the Hudson to sample draft Newman’s, much better than the bottled stuff. Good news for Jackson’s next book, as far as the Newmans are concerned, was his delight with the soon- to-be-released Winter Ale, an ale Bill Newman varies each time it comes out. “It has a very rich aroma, with a lot of fruitiness to the palate,” Jackson said Tuesday, referring to a little notebook he always keeps with him. The Word has spoken.

Craig mentioned a Jackson visit in our 2014 book, Upper Hudson Valley Beer. A photo caption states that Michael Jackson, in the middle sporting his Jeff Lynne lid, said on a 1985 visit: [i]f Newman succeeds in his heroic venture, he will undoubtedly inspire many others.” Newman is the guy in the necktie. As we told the tale, Newman spent three months in 1979 under the tutelage of the father of the British independent brewery movement, Peter Austin, at his Ringwood Brewery in Hampshire England. With Austin, Newman received a crash-course in all things brewing, and toured many of the countries breweries—both big and small. He returned to Albany with plans for his own version of Austin’s 10-barrel, open fermenting brewing system and, within a year, was brewing Newman’s Albany Amber as the 1980s were hitting their stride. 

Look what the LeBrun article notes. Jackson knew in the mid-80s that Albany had been one of the great brewing centres. As Craig has learned, that was forgotten history locally.  And Newman’s wasn’t just early, it was good if Jackson’s word the Winter Ale was worth anything. There is an implication that the west coast had passed an earlier east coast prominence in micro brewing – not part of the triumphalism of today but, as we know, history gets forgotten. And Newman was considered their forebearer.

In December 2015, Gary wrote about his own trips in the 1980s from Montreal south to visit Newman’s. It makes for a great companion piece. It was all over soon. On 15 August 1987, it was reported in the Knickerbocker News that Newman’s had filed for bankruptcy and, while it would live on as a contract brewed beer for a few more years, the brewing era was over.

Imperial, Yes, But Cream Ale Was Also Light As Well As…

The more I get into the records referencing cream in 1800s New York brewing, the more obvious it is that the term was pervasive. It illustrates excellently, as a result, how branding existed independent of those claims to copyright we suffer from today. In law, there is an excellent and better word for such stuff that applies as much now as then – puffery. Claims made as to quality that are never ever really expected to be challenged. Look at that ad from the Jewish Daily News of 30 November 1916 again. Imperial Cream Ale. Is that the same as the Imperial Cream Ale of the Taylors of Albany from the early 1830s to the late 1860s? Or is the cream just a puff?

That image to the upper right? It’s a part of a column in the Plattsburg Republican from 21 August 1858 entitled “Items: or Crumbs for all kinds of
Chickens.” Is that puffery? Seems a bit more than that. Cream beer is being lumped into a class: non-intoxicating drinks. Sounds like a bit of a vague concept but at the same time the courts in New York State were struggling with the same term as it related to lager and the wider issues related to acceptance of the German immigrant wave in the middle third of the 1800s.

The book De Witt’s Connecticut Cook Book, and Housekeeper’s Assistant from 1871 includes these two recipes, one after the other, on page 100. The first for “common beer” has yeast added, the second, for “cream beer” doesn’t. Is “cream” then code for no alcohol? When I was a kid out east in Nova Scotia, one of my favourite things was cream soda. There were two types as I recall. Pink or clear. Pink was like drinking candy floss. Clear was like drinking candy floss… but was not pink. I hated pink cream soda. I was a clear cream soda man. Crush, if you have it… but only in Canada. Pop… soda… soda pop… was a class of soft drink that morphed out of beer. In the 1850s you could speak of California Pop Beer. In the 1830s you could speak of the Lemon Beer of Schenectady. In the excellent short book Soft Drinks – Their Origins and History by Colin Emmins, small beer is described as a progenitor of British soft drinks along with spa waters, syrupy uncarbonated cordials and that favourite of George III, plain barley water. [Continuum. Perhaps continua.] Consider the simple lemon…

The earliest English reference to lemonade dates from the publication in 1663 of The Parson’s Wedding, described by a friend of Samuel Pepys as ‘an obscene, loose play’, which had been first performed some years earlier. The drink seems to have come to England from Italy via France. Such lemonade was made from freshly squeezed lemons, sweetened with sugar or honey and diluted with water to make a still soft drink. 

It appears that 1660s lemonade plus small beer could be a cause of that fancy 1830s upstate NY lemon beer. Could be. There would be other intermediaries and antecedents. Think of how the sulfurous spas of Staffordshire in the late 1600s, saw the invention a drink introduced the local hard to swallow spa water into their beer brewing. Is this how it works? Isn’t that how life works?

When you consider all that, I am brought back to how looking at beer through the lens of “style” ties language to technique a bit too tightly for my comfort. The stylist might suggest that in 1860, this brewery brewed an XX ale and in 1875 that brewery brewed an XX ale so they must be some way some how the same thing. I would quibble in two ways. Fifteen years is a long time in the conceptual instability of beer and, even if the two beers were contemporaries, a key point for each brewery was differentiation. The beers would not be the same even if they were similar.

Layered upon this is the fact that “style” is an idea really fixed somewhere in the 1980s after Jackson’s original expression which was altered in the years that followed. The resulting implications are important given how one must obey chronology. This means if (i) Jackson’s 1970s “classics and cloning” idea didn’t last more than ten years until (ii) the more familiar “corner to corner classification” concept comes into being then the application of “style” to brewing prior to the 1970s (if not 1990) is also a challenging if not wonky practice. Brewers brew to contemporary conventions even though they are but points in a fluid continuum. You can’t conform to an idea that doesn’t yet exist.

All About Beer published the article “How Cream Ale Rose: The Birth of Genesee’s Signature” by Tom Acitelli on 17 August 2015 which, as we can see above, contains an origins narrative for cream ale which (though very condensed so somewhat unfair to parse) is now really not all that sustainable:

Cream ale is one of the very few beer styles born and raised in the United States. Predating Prohibition, the style grew up as a response to the pilsners flooding the market via immigrant brewers from Central Europe. Cream ales were generally made with adjuncts such as corn and rice to lighten the body of what would otherwise end up as a thicker ale; brewers also fermented and aged them at temperatures cooler than normal for ales.

I think I am good until to the word “the” in the second sentence after the comma. If style can be applied to the concept at all, cream ales at best probably represented styles. They were not a response to pilsners as they predate Gillig and were in mass production happily in their own right though the mid- and latter 1800s. They became made with “adjuncts such as corn and rice to lighten the body” but so did ales as our recreation of Amdell’s 1901 Albany XX Ale illustrated. The last sentence may well be fine.

BUT! – now notice the gem of a wee factual trail actually setting out as the specific origin of Genesee Cream Ale as related to Acitelli:

His father and grandfather, a German immigrant, had been brewers in Belleville, Illinois, about 15 miles southeast of St. Louis. Bootleggers had approached his father, in fact, about brewing during Prohibition, but he demurred. Clarence Geminn himself was completely dedicated to the craft, according to his son, a fourth-generation brewer. “Saturday and Sunday he would go into check on things,” Gary Geminn told AAB from his home in Naples, New York. “Summer picnics had to wait until the afternoon; any outing had to wait.” As for the exact formula behind his father’s most enduring beer, no one’s talking—obviously not the brewery itself, nor did the beer’s progenitor.

Mid-west Germans? Now that starts sounding more like the parallel universe of cream beer than cream ale. Does its DNA include Germans moving to Pennsylvania in the 1700s, then on inland into Kentucky in the early 1800s then into the Mid-West later that century only to back track to upstate NY by the mid-1900s? Can we draw that line? Either to connect or perhaps delineate? Maybe we need to be prepared to do both if we are seeking to understand events prior to the point of conceptual homogeneity that is achieved with the crystallization of style when MJ meets what becomes the BA.

As for cream? It’s a lovely word. So many meanings. So many useful applications. So many more leads to follow.

Cream Ale, Cream Beer And Creamy Goodness

This ad in the Jewish Daily News of 30 November 1916 published out of New York has my wee brain spinning – and not only due to the works I can read and those I cannot read. I am starting to think “creamis a nugget of a folk tale, an indigenous memory that keeps appearing generation after generation from, as Gary proposed, the later 1700s to today in the northeastern US for no other reason than its useful pleasantness.

Gotta think about this.

Session 121: Bock – Unloved And Sorta Local

Jon Abernathy of The Brew Site (the great-grandfather of beer blogging to my great-uncle of beer blogging role) is hosting this month’s version of The Session and he askes about bock. As M. Noix Biereois d’Irelande pointed out excellently today, bock-style beers aren’t as common on the shelves as they were seven or eight years ago. As true in northeastern North America as it is in Ireland. Bock does not demand respect and it no longer attracts many of the inquisitive. Yet, I asked in 2009 whether Mahr’s Weisse Bock was the greatest smelling beer of all time. I must have once had an interest. A year later I tweeted my admiration for Koningshoeven Bock. Indeed, as recently as just three years ago, I posted about two Canadian craft takes on bock that I had received as samples.

Yet I do not hunt them out. Well, I hunt out fewer and fewer beers as enough good beer to satisfy anyone short of a case of dipsomania comes to me care of (i) the new wave of local small scale brewers and (ii) the slump of the Canadian dollar to US dollar exchange rate. Who in their right mind would? It’s fun actually, given that reality, to watch the last gasps of globalism inspiring the junketeers to still – just in this one week – witness them trundling up to the groaning buffet spreads of Asheville, New Zealand and even Peru! Oh, how I do need that report on the craft replicants of Peru. Please hurry.

Bock, however, is not that at all. Not a flog is being offered for bock. It is fusty. Maybe even owly. Bock, however, has a venerable North American heritage. It is a traditional local beer if we are talking about the Great Lakes watershed and environs. As Craig posted on Facebook, it stood amongst the greats – if the Free Press of Waverly, New York from 1886 is to be believed. In the New York Herald of 30 April 1860 there is something of a primer on the nature of bock in a column from “Our Berlin Correspondent” which might indicate that bock came here to our shores after that date, much later than lager in the 1840s or that earlier shadowy thing, cream beer. Bock is described by OBC in slightly harrowing terms:

The stronger more heady sort is termed bock beer, from the German word bock, which means a billy goat, the person who drinks it being excited to such a pitch of exhilaration that he capers like a goat… the above mentioned bock as hitherto kept up its reputation. Recently, however, a company has been formed on shares with a handsome capital, for the avowed purpose of opposing it…. They have built a large brewery, with extensive cellars, saloons and other accommodations, on the same hill, and propose to brew a lighter and milder beer than bock., selling it at a lower price, and the mania for imbibing vast quantities of the cerevisian fluid being still on the increase, they are very likely to succeed… 

Terrifying stuff. If I can find me some on the way home I might buy a bottle if I can find one in these times of IPA driven hegemony and homogeneity. So I can, you know, imbibe a vast quantity… and caper like a goat.

Beer and Art: The Harvesters, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565

Nosing around the Met‘s digitized collection a bit more, I came across “The Harvesters” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from 1565. Not hard as it was on the front page. I have posted a few times about paintings by his son, the imaginatively named Pieter Bruegel the Younger, over the years but this one struck me as perhaps illustrating a few things worth thinking about.

Look at the scale of the people compared to the height of the grain. One of the characteristics of Battledore barley two hundred years later in Britain was that it had a short stalk. It could survive hail or wind better than other varieties but didn’t provide all that useful straw that we learned about in relation to beer in New York before the switch to barley from wheat. The stalk was in itself important to the community as a multi-purpose material for mattress stuffing to looser wheat mash spargings. In “The Harvesters” the stalks are tall and entire stooks* are taken from the field with care. The stooks are strong enough to serve as a bench for the workers having their meal.

Harvest time is big stuff. The image is a narrative of agricultural economy in the Renaissance. If you click on the image at the met site, you can zoom in quite closely. Look at how the topography is used to illustrate the economic activity. The field being harvested is on the top of a hill. Scythed and stooked, it is carried one by one to the bottom of the hill where it is loaded on a cart and carried away. There are three communities in the painting. The hilltop has a church to the upper left seen through the trees. Down below there is a manor of some sort where some are swimming while others are killing a tied up goose as a blood sport. In the far distance, there is a coastal town with ships in the harbour. Is one point of the painting’s structure that the grain gets exported?  Or is beer made from the grain getting shipped out?  I should cross reference the painting with Unger.

Where is this place? The blurb attached to the image by the Met says:

Bruegel’s series is a watershed in the history of western art. The religious pretext for landscape painting has been suppressed in favor of a new humanism, and the unidealized description of the local scene is based on natural observations.

But is this really a local scene or an imaginary one? Where is it? Bruegel lived in coastal Antwerp, Belgium a city of about 100,000 at the time and the richest in Europe. He was born in the river town of Breda, another community now in the Netherlands but then also in the Duchy of Brabant. Perhaps one of those two centres is in the background.  Could you find the field and stand where the artist stood?

But what about the beer? As one commentator notes, the scene is about producing and consuming. Or – if you are the goose – producing, torturing then consuming. The workers are eating bread and cheese as well as pears that one guy is shaking from the tree to the upper right. And they are drinking. A central character is a man carrying two large jugs up the path. Another man in the circle having a meal drinks directly from a jug. A fourth jug with what looks like a loaf of bread on top sits in the uncut wheat to the lower left.

We are told by Markowski that saison and biere de garde were brewed for centuries in the Low Countries and northern France to attract and retain workers. Farmhouse beers. The scene in “The Harvesters” is smack-dab in the middle of that culture, in the saison zone that included Brabant. Unger explains that particularly in the sixteenth century, tax records indicate a wide number of names for various grades of beer: “… dun and scheynbier and volksbier and scharbier and scherbier all turn up. No matter the name, it was always cheap.”** Was that what was in the jugs? We can’t reach back to ask those in the picture what they called their drink or even if it was in fact beer. But it could be and, frankly, likely was so… it is what it was. Day drinking 1565.

*I use the SW Ontario usage, spelling and pronunciation of the in-laws.
**at page 129.

Babylonian Cuneiform And Brewing Patterns

The other day, I read that The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had freed thousands of images from their intellectual property right shackles for free and unrestricted public use. This is good. And being a dutiful beer blogger, I immediately put in the word “beer” in the search engine to see what would pop up. And this is what popped up. A chunk of dried mud with scratchings. I love stuff like this. Three years ago, I stared at Mesopotamian brewing things at the Royal Ontario Museum, aka the ROM.  Somewhere I have photos I took thirty years ago of myself, when a selfie took a tripod, at the British Museum staring at Mesopotamian brewing things made of mud. Scratchings made a person over 150 generations ago. On just a piece of mud.

It’s actually more than that. It’s Urra=hubullu, tablet 23 from Mesopotamia in the late 1st millennium B.C.  “Twenty-three, eh?” thought I. Being a clever man I realized there must be twenty-two others. So off I went. Or, rather, I put a few words in Google… and found what I am sure you all expected I would findCuneiform Texts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Literary and scholastic texts of the first millennium B.C. by Ira Spar, Wilfred G. Lambert published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005 where I learned about what had been scratched into the dried mud thingie over three thousand years ago. Tablet 23 is a vocabulary of food and drink terms. The passage on this piece of cuneiform cites, at page 234, a 1950 article “On Beer and Brewing Techniques in Ancient Mesopotamia According to the XXIIIrd tablet of the series HAR.ra=hubullu” by Oppenhiem and Hartman which describes the content of tablet 23 in the context of brewing.

Fabulous. So fabulous as it is all seemingly quite authoritative. The Spar and Lambert text goes on to state what exactly was written down on three thousand odd years ago in that clay. There is great beer, dark beer, white beer, cloudy beer and beer for the tigi-songs whatever they were. My favourite might be the symbol for “clear/clean beer” indicating, of course, that folk were both skillful and appreciative of skill. That information is all in column 2. In column 3, the words are about process. Yeast is pulverized, barley bread is crushed and spread just right. It is soaked and dried then soaked and mashed. It is rinsed, pressed, crushed, broken and mixed. Malt is dried, watered, opened, spread and warmed. To my mind, this is more than a vocabulary. This is a guide not so very much different from Samuel Child’s 1768 guide discussed the other day.

This is interesting. How is it that I can read a Mesopotamian clay tablet and pretty much immediately understand what is going on? If it was about religion, governance or astronomy I wouldn’t have a clue. But beer and brewing are not strange. They are, in a very meaningful way, constant. You can see that if we go back to column 2 where you see words for 1:1 beer, 2:1 beer, 3:1 beer and even triple beer. The ratio is the relationship of grain input to beer output. If you scroll down to page 238 of the 2005 Spar and Lambert text you see there are footnotes and in the footnotes an explanation of Mesopotamian methodology. I am just going to cut and paste the footnote in relation to column 2, line 11 and what follows as I think it is one of the more extraordinary things I have ever read about beer in a couple of ways:

 

 

 

 

First, it is extraordinary as it basically sets out the scheme of brewing over 3,000 years ago in a manner which is readily understandable to anyone who has home brewed from an all-grain mash. Second, not only is it understandable… it is very familiar. It looks a lot like the parti-gyle process which makes a lot of sense as no one in their right mind wastes resources. So, the first sparging of the mash gives a 18% sugar solution wort, the second a 6% wort and the third a 1.5% wort. Roughly declining to a third each time. And sometimes the wort is recirculated to strengthen it even more to make what the footnote’s author describes as “very powerful” beer.

What is extraordinary to me is that this ratio looks a heck of a lot like the proper way to brew that I have read about from Piers the Ploughman in England’s 1370s to Matthew Vassar in New York’s 1830s. It reads like the 1825 advert for Thomas Molson’s brewery here in my hometown. Strong ale, single ale and small or ship’s beer with what looks like double double thrown in for good measure, that hazard from Shakespeare to Schenectady.

Which leads to another thought. Is that pattern a constant? Four grades of beer naturally created solely by the relationship between the sparge fluid and mash?  Following these rules you will have a 11%-ish beer, a 4%-ish one and a 1.25%-ish one. As well as whatever the heck double double was to create all that toil and trouble. A constant pattern. Could be. Could be.

The Promise Of Every Man His Own Brewer, 1768

I’ve been thinking about Samuel Child’s 1768 work Every Man His Own Brewer, Or, A Compendium of the English Brewery for a few days and particularly its fine narrative flow. Consider this brief passage in the preface:

I was once on an election, at a certain borough in Wiltshire, and, in the course of our canvass, drank sometimes to the amount of two quarts of beer in the forenoon, not only without sensible prejudice, but that it rather mended my health, and gave me brisk spirits. As I had not been used to drinking, especially in the morning, I admired at this, and found, on the most strict scrutiny, that nothing was used in this liquor but malt and hops, and that its happy vinos flavor was merely the result of good ingredients, well cured, a fine a fine chalk water, and not being too much boiled…

What a lovely way to introduce the basic idea of beer, a bit of knowledge that has been repeated in pretty much every book on brewing and good beer in the intervening 249 years but seldom stated so well. I have dug around in brewing texts from before 1800 hunting for facts about fern ale or that fib about smoke-ridden gak that so many beer experts erroneous suggest was the state of affairs back in the era that, you know, the expert never much studied. But I have not thought about the texts as writing or even read them from beginning to end. Maybe only for Coppinger because he was such an odd duck. 

I’ll do that, save the text to a reader of some sort. But right now look at the table up there. It’s from page 37. First, I love its title. The TABLE. As if Child would have added a few exclamation marks. As if he was just figuring out how to make a table out of HTML. Yet… there is another table also titled “The TABLE” just seven pages later. The thing I like next best is how it is immediately bragged up by the author:

These are hints sufficient to guide any one in the choice of his malts, as it respects the color of his beer, and the time it will be fit for use if judiciously brewed; and the experiment is to be made in the kiln as soon as the malt is perfected, and used as soon after as possible to preserve the genial spirit.

Brew with the malt as soon as kilned to attain the desired colour of the beer. Which means nine grades of beer brewed from any given malting should be considered attainable. Child then over pages and pages describes many sorts of beer: “London Beer under the name of Porter,” London Amber, Burton Ale, table beer, oat ale, Marlborough beers, Dorchester beers, Nottingham beers, Western White Ale.

The variety is quite extraordinary. As a whole, the book frames not so much the state of British brewing in the decade before the American Revolution, at a point before traditional brewing shifts to industrial with the shift to steam power starting with Whitbread in the 1780s as it now provides a guide how to go back and recreate them from the few basic elements he first considered on that election campaigning in Wiltshire. Including, towards the end, exotics including three pages on Brunswic Mum  and a shorter passage on Newfoundland spruce and molasses beer.

It would be a great project to annotate and experiment with the techniques described in the book. It is, after all, only through the use of a guide that one figures out if its any good or not.

 

 

Issac Bobin’s Letter, 6 September 1720

As I was going through the blog posts shifting them over to the new platform for the past few months I realized that I’ve had tight waves of writing enthusiastically separated by other phases of, you know, treading water.  If I had a topic to run with, a new database to explore I got at it. But I also skipped over some things. Failed to suck the marrow. I had in my head that I had a stand alone post on Mr. Bobin’s letter above from 1720 but in fact had only written this in one of my posts about the Rutgers brewing dynasty in New York City from the 1640s to the early 1800s:

In a letter dated 6 September 1720 from Isaac Bobin to George Clarke we read:

…As to Albany stale Beer I cant get any in Town, so was obliged to go to Rutgers where I found none Older than Eight Days I was backward in sending such but Riche telling me you wanted Beer for your workmen and did not know what to do without have run the hazard to send two Barrels at £1 16/ the Barrels at 3/ and 6/. Rutgers says it is extraordinary good Beer and yet racking it off into other Barrels would flatten it and make it Drink Dead…

Isaac Bobin was the Private Secretary of Hon. George Clarke, Secretary of the Province of New York. So clearly Rutgers was as good as second to Albany stale for high society… or at least their workers. And in any case – we do not know if it was from Anthony’s brewery or Harman’s.

The Smithsonian has a better copy of the book of Bobin’s letters. What I didn’t get into were the details of the letter itself. Riche. Albany stale Beer. Drink Dead. Just what a whiner Bobin was. Riche? He seems to be the shipper, moving goods from the New York area to wherever the Hon. George Clarke was located. In another letter dated 15 September 1723, Clarke’s taste in fine good – including beer – is evident:

THERE goes now by Riche (upon whom I could not prevail to go sooner) a Barrel of Beef £1. 17f 6d; a Qr Cask of Wine @ £6; twelve pound of hard Soap @ 6£; twelve pd of Chocolat £1. if; two Barrls of Beer; a pd of Bohea Tea @ £ i.; Six qr of writing Paper. Will carryed with him from Mr. Lanes four Bottles of Brandy with a Letter from Mr. Lane.

In another letter dated 17 November 1719, beer and cider are being forwarded. Bobin’s job includes ensuring Clarke and his household has their drinks and treats. It all is very similar to the shipments for the colonial wealthy and well-placed we’ve seen half a century later from New York City to the empire’s Mohawk Valley frontier where Sir William Johnson received from the 1750s to 1770s: his beer from Mr. Lispenard, his imported Taunton ale and Newark cider .

I find the reference to stale in the 1720 letter interesting as it suggests a more sophisticated beer trade that merely making basic beer quickly and getting it out the door. Albany stale beer. Stale distinguishes as much as Albany does. Plus, Bobin compares to the “Albany stale” to the young Rutgers beer and seems to get in a muddle. What will the workers accept? Or is it perhaps that he is concerned what Clarke thinks the workers will accept. I worry about words like stale like I worry about the livers of the young beer communico-constulo class. We need to do better. Stale seems be a useful word in common usage for (exactly) yoinks but Martyn certainly places it, in the context of beer, as in use around the 1720s so Bobin’s usage is fairly current in England even if at the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s thrown around generously in The London and Country Brewer in 1737 and used by Gervase Markham in the 1660s.

Aside from stale-ness, the dead-ness of the beer obviously is about its condition but why raking off is considered is unclear. Was it just at the wrong point in Rutger’s brewing process or was he operating his business by holding it in larger vessels and selling retail to his surrounding market, like the growler trade today? Again, not just any beer will do. In Samuel Child’s 1768 work Every Man His Own Brewer, Or, A Compendium of the English Brewery we see this passage referencing deadening at page 38:

It has been said before, what quantity of hops are requisite to each quarter of malt, and how the same are to be prepared; but here it must be considered that that if the beer is to be sent into a warmer climate in the cask, one third more hopping is absolutely necessary, or the increased heat will awaken the acid spirit of the malt, give it a prevalency over the corrective power of the hop, and ferment it into vinegar: to avoid this superior expence of hopping, the London and Bristol beers are usually drawn off and deadened, and then bottled for exportation; this really answers the purpose one way; but whether counterbalanced by charge of bottling and freight, &c. those who deal in this way can best determine. 

Just bask in that passage for a moment. It’s (i) a contemporary that British beer was prepared for transport to warmer climates and (ii) among a few other techniques, the intentional deadening a beer followed by bottling was a technique used for export. Burton was, after all, brewed for export. As was Taunton for Jamaica’s plantations. The British simply shipped beer everywhere. IPA was not unique. Was there a beer brewed for Hong Kong that we’ve also forgotten about? Dunno. What we do know is that Bobin is saying is that Rutgers warns against a deadened beer for local use. Would he have been deadening beer for export? In 1720s New York City?  We know that porter was shipped out of town later. We know that late in the century shipments of bottled porter were coming in.

Excellent stuff. I need to think about this more. But, like the seven doors of the Romantic poets, suffice it to say that a good record in itself can open up a wonderful opportunity to chase an idea. In an era of such early and falsely confident conclusion drawing, a useful reminder.