It’s either a sign of a well organized life or one with not enough in it. The spring holiday to get the taxes done, straighten out the gardening, fix the step and have some naps. And opening week baseball. Maybe some first round playoff hockey, too. The one thing I am not doing is writing a book. This time last year I was in the middle of writing three books each of which has turned out to be, err, cult classics. Happy readers. Low sellers. Good reviews. Niche huggers. I should have known. Beer writers are either fat or thin. Both from the same cause – anxtity yips. Told a pal once his mistake was doing for a job what I do for a hobby. Beer may still pay for itself. It just doesn’t take me all that far anymore when it does. That’s fine. Been since 2010 that the prospect of a truly idle summer lay before me. I was reading about brainy books back then five years ago today. Probably gave me ideas. Planting some carrot and lettuce seeds will help with that. Tiny seeds in the cold early spring soil don’t give you ideas. Just salad.
I have to say. I didn’t expect it. Don’t get me wrong. I have known for a long time that I love neighbourhood bars in the US. I spent a great summer evening a decade ago with pals of a pal in Maine watching the All-Star game in a place down by the working wharves. The place was the shape of a cinder block and was made up entirely of cinder blocks. I drank Allagash White and then PBR before the money ran out. I love the idea of walking down the block to a place for a beer even though it does not exist in much of Canada outside of the cities where green things don’t grow. Doesn’t exist in much of any place where the planners have played a role. But there it was. And there I was, too.
The photo above is from the end of the bar at the Allen Street Pub in Albany, New York. That’s it. If I was a cheese eating school boy, I might insert some sort of pretendy disclaimer but let’s be honest – free beer is “money + alcohol” innit. Paul gave us the run of the taps though I hope the tipping went some way to match the beers poured for us. There is no avoiding the history of the western world. The bar is owned by Craig’s pal of decades. Paul. The place opened right after prohibition ended and sits among houses on a side street. A municipal planner’s nightmare. It’s filled with local memorabilia with a definite lean towards Albany’s history of military service. It’s also filled with folk from nearby having a beer. Normal. Beer in a normal place.
Here’s the thing. Over the few hours we were there I came to the understanding that this was one of the greatest times in a bar I have ever had. It was perfect. It was so perfect that while one in our group was keen to take me on at an argument about craft beer, I realized I was sitting in a dark tiny pub in a foreign land sucking on a rosemary laced saison as Led Zep’s “Kashmir” roasted out the speakers. While, yes, dark and tiny it could serve as a test site for the Bose speakers Paul had installed. The narrow bar had five distinct spaces: cans in the rear, the cooler with its kegs and bottles, back of the bar plus the old bar top and the new one. If you look at that photo above you will see the division. Before he took it over and expanded, the tavern was just that bit at the front – maybe 18 by 30 feet tops. When we got in the place, we grabbed the back bar with its four seats. The front two-thirds of the place was already well settled by guys drinking macros or a shot or both having a good Friday night. Mere feet away I was having a pint of Black IPA with a balancing splash of brown ale handed to me. And then something else. Again, let’s be honest: I was not conflicted. I had given in. Only an idiot wouldn’t.
What did it all mean? It was more like a village pub in some place where I have family in Scotland than most places I had been in North America. Think I had only seen a place this small on this side of the Atlantic maybe in Newfoundland. No dive and not even a joint. A place in the neighbourhood. Normal. Three beer engines, too. He plans to add more. Paul is even running a cask festival in a few weeks. I expect to be in Canada when that is on. Probably in my basement watching TV. A couple of bus rides away from the next nearest good place to hang out. Thanks a lot, fifty years of urban design.
I had not expected to make myself into a book fair carny but forty-five quiet minutes into the four hour book booth manning at last weekend’s NY State Brewers Association Festival I looked at Craig and said something to the effect of “we better think of something quick or we are going to hate each other around three hours from now.” It’s not that the fest wasn’t swell so much as it was a beer fest, not a book fest. So… I stood up and began to shout “GETCHA BEER BOOKS… GETCHA BEER BOOK HERE!!!” until I was quite hoarse. Sales picked up rapidly. And they continued to pick up as folk drank more beer. So, two tips for the beer book selling public for the price of this one post: (i) act like an idiot and (ii) act like an idiot in front of folks getting drunk. Which leads me to a few other thoughts:
=> “To grangerize: to illustrate with material taken from other published sources, such as by clipping them out for one’s own use.” Isn’t this what beer blogging really is?
=> Thirty-four dollars and ninety-nine cents!?!? I am sure some young aspiring consulting craft beer mixed revenue dreamer has a grab bag of cliches by which such things are justified but… thirty-four dollars and ninety-nine cents!?!? Seen at the Cicero, NY Wegman’s grocery store.
=> Chad was more sensible. He had some beer, too. I just shouted a lot.
=> I consider the fear of sweetness and the denigration of crystal malt to be hallmarksof this era which shall be mocked in the new future after the paradigm collapses. But I can say that about a lot of things.
=> I have no idea about how many pubs or taverns represents a crawl but some people have very fixed ideas. Having done one, as one must, by taxi in Toronto in the last year I would accept a walking four-stop crawl in two small neighbouring villages myself.
=> Words that beer bloggers might have recently chosen not to use: intended, unravelling, instantly.
=> My answer? Use the machines – whether you own them or not? You’re a “brewery” while the others can use “brewing” or “beer company” or something else.
There. Monday notes. It’s thawing out there. We are a long way from warm but the dripping roof has created the driveway trickle which leads to the gurgling roadside drain.
We are asked to write about up and coming beer destinations for this month’s edition of The Session but I wonder if I’m living the rougher and readier reality. Beer travel? From what I see it often includes some sort of relapse into undergrad lifestyle. I am having bit of a creeping feeling that this two star hotel on the old four-lane route out of Albany, New York might be serving that up for me this weekend. But the room ain’t bad and soon pals will arrive. The solvent againt will prove to be the bond.
See, as I mentioned, I am attending the New York Brewers Association fest and conference at some other fancy pants hotel without $38 CND rooms. And to be fair I got this deal in Hotwire weeks ago. But it illustrates one of two ways beer and travel interact for me. I go to beer events or I find beer wherever I go. I have never traveled to find only beer. But that was covered in Session #93 four months ago. Not to mention sorta during Session 29.
Beer destinations? You may want to have a good look in the mirror if you dwell too much on the idea. You will find good beer on life’s highway if you are good at noticing stuff. You will also find other good stuff if you keep you eyes open for that as well. And if you don’t want your grand children to think you were an alcoholic back in the day get some photos of that stuff, too, when you travel. Travel gives you perspective. Or at least it should. Jeff knows. Go hicking in Franconia and you’ll find some good beer along the way. And, if not beer, wine or rum or even a nice cup of tea. It’s a big world out there. Don’t let the grandkids down.
This weekend will find me at Albany attending the New York State Brewers Association second annual Craft New York Brewers Festival. The most exciting thing is that it is being held at a place called The Desmond Hotel. It is exciting because I love 1960’s first wave ska and, according to my notes, every band had to have a guy called Desmond in it. At least the great ones did. I am going to head south for the first time since September to man a chair at a table to see if I can help Craig spread the good news about our history of Albany ale as folk spin around the dance floor to these sorts of song stylings.
The Craft New York Brewers Festival will bring together 40 New York Breweries (and brewers) from every region of the state featuring up to 90+ hard to find and award winning beers. To make this very special event more exclusive, we will feature food sampling and pairing from local Albany restaurants and food vendors to go along with each brewery attending at no extra cost! This is a great opportunity to meet the NYS brewers that make the beer, and the owners of the local food scene in the Capital District that are such an important part of the community.
So, what do I do with the opportunity? I am not all that keen on fests as drinking sessions but I do look forward to having some decent conversations with folk in the trade. Its tied to the Association’s winter meetings. What to do? I might ask for a glass of gin. I might try an informal survey on what beer to pair with Anjou pears. Always wondered about that. Perhaps I might inquire as to what business strategies they have to better support better arm’s length beer business writing. Might expect the answer to be “what the hell is that?!?” though, mightn’t I. Frankly, the real question I want answered this weekend is whether anyone has been subject to section 3.11 of the NYSBA’s bylaws: Membership in the NYSBA, may be revoked by a majority vote of the Board of Directors for non-payment of dues, conviction of a felony or crime of moral turpitude, or willful violation of any other provision of the By-Laws of the NYSBA.. Crimes of moral turpitude? What the heck is that? Wonder if any of the members know. Might walk around asking members if they know anything about that. Perhaps it has some thing to do with unholy collaboration projects. That sort of thing. Evil.
Say hello if you are around the Des. After 8 pm, I understand, known as El Des.
I have started a winter project. I am transferring the data in the 1808 Day Book kept by James Vassar‘s brewery at Poughkeepsie NY into a spreadsheet to allow me to grind the data to see if I can learn anything. Careful readers will remember that two and a half years ago (Good Lord!) I posted about the brewing log from his son Matthew Vassar‘s days heading his own brewery in the mid-1830s. That book described ale batch after ale batch, details the particulars of each session. It traces seventeen or so stages from heating the water to selling the barrels. The log that starts in March 1808 log is different. Being earlier and prior to the advent of things like agricultural societies, it is slightly pre-scientific. It is a business general ledger showing purchases and sales, identifying customers and suppliers as well as the prices of supplies bought and ale barrels sold. I hadn’t expected to see things worth reporting on after just copying the first month’s worth of entries but here’s what I see so far:
• The record may confirm that he was still brewing with the local wheat as the Dutch in the Hudson Valley had been since for almost 200 years. For the first four weeks he notes purchases of “grain” by the bushel from a number of sources. Then in the second week of April he buys “seed barley.” Why note the sort of grain only that one time otherwise? In January 1809, there is an entry for the purchase of rye. What indeed is “grain”?
• He seems to know most of the people he is dealing with. Only two receive special notation. One supplier of grain is noted as “Dutch Farmer” while another, William Jackways, is stated to be from “Rhine Beek.” Most of the others are both repeatedly referenced in the book as well as listed without citation, some without even a first name like Mr. Cunningham and Dr. Thomas. Rhinebeck NY is across the Hudson and maybe tent to twelve miles north of Poughkeepsie. Why did the man from Rhinebeck come that far? Who knows but he bought 13 barrels of ale for 39 pounds. By more than ten times, the biggest sale of the first few weeks.
• As I noted on Facebook, cross referencing the brewery logs to other web based documents like cemetery records helps identify the some of the guys who are buying beer from Vassar in 1808. It seems that a rather good class of chap likes Vassar’s ale. One Thomas Oakley, likely this one, buys a half gallon of ale on 19 March for just one shilling, 3 pence. That’s a growler in today’s measures. He’s the eighth account entry on that day busy with grain deliveries. It’s also the year before he marries, he is a twenty-five year old lawyer early in his career and long before he is in Congress. It was a Saturday. Good for you, Tom.
• On that same March 19th, Vassar buys 14 pounds of hops from Thomas Harden. The price is 1/6.1.1 which I am not quite clear about. Maybe one pound six shillings and change? We can leave it at that. No, in June he buys 93 pounds of hops from someone else and the rate is given there as 1/7 or one shilling and six pence per… whatever… and then the price paid of seven shillings and seven pence. it seems to be that hop prices are bargained for while grains are bought for a straight shilling per bushel. Hops by weight but grain by volume. Note that.
• One man who both buys and sells beer is only listed as Mr. Cunningham. Likely he is Garwood Cunningham, landlord of the Poughkeepsie Hotel. It was the successor of the Van Kleeck House – note that name – which was the first tavern in Poughkeepsie, and was kept as such for nearly a century. It was built in 1797. Garwood himself was quite a lad:
CUNNINGHAM, GARWOOD H., son of Garwood and Mary, became a man of considerable importance in Woodbury, as a military officer, and Major of the 13th Regiment of Infantry. Representative to the General Assembly from Woodbury, three sessions; twice in 1799, and once in 1801 ; also a selectman, &c, and sheriff’s deputy many years in Litchfield County. He m. Sarah Hawkins, of Derby, Conn., a sister of Joseph Hawkins. He removed early in the 18th century, to Poughkeepsie, New York, where he remained several years as keeper of the principal hotel there. In the war of 1812, he was connected with the American army, near Canada, where he was taken sick and died;
Looks like he was an officer in both wars. He also may have had a son called Garwood. He sells Vassar grain in seven separate ten bushel batches in that first month and buys six full barrels of ale throughout that first month. Not only does he have the hotel but he keeps a farm.
That is it for now. Expect more as the winter weather ebbs and flows. Or flows and ebbs. I have a sense that both the economics of running a brewing business in 1808 are right there to be spun out and perhaps also a significant part of the life of a small community in the early days of the new nation. One fellow recorded, Rufus Potter, ran for election as a village trustee in 1811. Another, Oliver Holden, was President of the Board of Village Trustees in 1825 when one Matthew Vassar, son of James, also sat on that body. Fabulous.
Back home. Been in the USA since Thursday and, unlike a lot of you who have to cross an ocean or get out a map, I was able to hit three grocery stores on the way home. See, I live 37 minutes from the international Thousand Islands Bridge, the most beautiful border crossing on the planet. So I bought laundry soap. But unlike most trips into the nearby Empire State, the family was not in tow. I don’t take off in another direction all that often. Which means I had a lot of time in the car to think about stuff. Or at least stuff other than where Mr. Bunny had gotten himself to. It’s always under the swim bag, by the way.
I had all the time in the world to think about what attending the SUNY Cobleskill event Grain to Glass meant. It certainly was the opposite of that stunned big craft celebrity brewer neediness. The room was full of people interested in becoming better brewers, better hop growers, better business people. It was also held on alumni weekend at the school, largely an agricultural college. There were chain saw demonstrations as illustrated past the corn stalk. There was free pulled pork from the hospitality school students, classrooms of diesel engine repair classes to check out and a whole bunch of other stuff. Beer was a topic among topics. It was a trade. It was placed in its proper place. A hipster free zone where no one gave a rat’s ass about the next PR twisty line coming out of the national Brewers Association board. Excellent.
Then, there was thinking about where I fit in to that proper place. People were really interested at that event and the others Craig and I attended about their region, their history and their beer. Beer was part of their culture. They were not there to learn about their niche hobby. There was no beer community. There was beer in the community. So, they wanted to know about traditional hops as opposed to new hybrid flavoured hops. Folk there – like at the other events – want to know about US ale brewing history, how there was two centuries of beery life before lager. It’s good to imagine how brewers in training might want to emulate those who came before them instead of some big craft guy who they see on YouTube or a TV ad. Are you picking up a theme?
One of the real treats of the trip was talking with a guy who has run a bar called The Lionheart for a quarter of a century who has found the way to sell three dollar pints of US craft beer while making a good living. A lot of it has to do with running a good bar with great staff but a lot of it also has to do with ignoring the next big thing that never turns out to be the next big thing. Taking care. Supporting local. Looking for value. Remembering the customer pays the bills not the suppliers. Including different sorts of clientele. Serving a mix of clients was also the obvious decision Browns of Troy which was running a charity event in another section of the brewery while we were holding forth in another space talking about the city’s brewing heritage. In a third section, the bar crowd were kicking back Brown’s great oatmeal stout or an IPA made on site as Jeter played his last game for the Yankees on the big screen. And as the Giants beat the Washington Whatchamacallits on another.
What’s it all mean? Why do I bother spending holiday time and more money on discount hotels than I will ever make on the book to visit again and again. I was telling someone how weird it is studying and writing about the history of a city I have no personal connection with. Yet when I am there – whether it is Troy or Cobleskill or Syracuse or up in the North Country – it feels like a place that is entirely normal. Not to mention beautiful. Yesterday afternoon I cut out of the SUNY event to take three hours to doddle my way over to Syracuse on a warm Saturday afternoon care of route 28 then along route 20 to route 92. Changing leaves. Pre-interstate main roads though small towns, along river valleys over rolling hills farmed for generations. Took me through watersheds that meet the ocean at Baltimore, New York and east of Montreal. Bought a hot dog at a Stewart’s.
Reading what I just wrote, if I am Stan I might think about how beer comes from this place and with the farmstead brewing and hop yards and cideries there is a lot to be said for that. But it is also a great place that you can learn about through its beer, its bars and its breweries. Beer isn’t a community. It is a window through which you can get to know about a community. That is why I am actually optimistic. You may not catch that from time to time but I do disagree with the idea posted by Boak and Bailey last week that beer is not as rich a seam as food, or music, or film. Beer is as rich but you have to know what beer isn’t to appreciate the point. Beer is not passive and it is not haute or elite. It is pervasive and innocuous. When we say beer is like bread we have to remember it is really like bread. An everyday thing. But we live and have lived in the everyday for hundreds and thousands of years in communities built around the brewery as much as the church and the town hall. That’s what people do as they do other stuff with their lives. Like these guys who you can see in the background of the picture above. People of the beer, I’d say.
This is a pretty interesting bit of news in the New York Post:
The scientists discovered the glass “California Pop Beer” bottle on Bowery Street near Canal Street, where a popular beer hall, Atlantic Garden, bustled in the 1850s, scientists said. “It’s a light summer drink, slightly minty and refreshing” said Alyssa Loorya, 44, president of Chrysalis Archaeology, which headed the project. The beer is infused with ginger root, sarsaparilla and wintergreen oil, and other herbs, giving it a one-of-a-kind kick, Loorya said.
If the beer bottle collector nerds are to be trusted, California Pop Beer was produced as Haley & Co. Celebrated California Pop Beer out of Newark, New Jersey… but apparently sometimes in New York as well. The archaeologists reproduced the beer based on research that led to finding a patent for the stuff. I suspect that. I suspect something about it all. I am suspicious. Seems a bit weird that you would get a patent for a beer when every other brewery in the world relies on and has relied on trade secrecy as opposed to a patent telling the whole world about what goes into the bottle. Fortunately, someone in the Google Borg decided we should all have access to patents so we can have a look at what went into this stuff at least in 1872. Hmm…. not really beer. A yeast and an extract of wintergreen, sassafras and spruce are prepared and then, if I read correctly, they are combined with “ten gallons of water one hour, after which seventy pounds of granulated sugar”. Or maybe 105 gallons. Yum? Does it matter?
What is most interesting to me is that this is an example of a second half of the 1800s popular beverage. It relies upon the word “beer” but really is more like a an alcopop or cooler. It comes from a time when, like today, purity is less important than flavour. It also plays upon California in the branding right about when Quinn & and Nolan in Albany, New York were advertising their California Pale XX and XXX Ales. Maybe California was just neato right about then. I like the idea that spruce is part of the taste profile. An old regional favorite flavor that you can learn more about if you BUY THIS BOOK. Oh. That was a bit gratuitous, wasn’t it.
Never mind that. The point remains. The past is a foreign land and so were their drinks.
An interesting tidbit from The New York Times of 6 February 1858 in an article entitled “An Important Question Decided“:
It has long been a disputed point whether lager bier can be properly classed among toxatious drinks, but yesterday, Judge Strong of Long Island, decided, in the case of Jacob Staats, who was indicted for selling intoxicating liquors on Sunday, that lager bier is not an intoxicating drink. If the question had been whether lager is a stupefying drink, or not, the decision would probably have been in the affirmative. The decision is a very important one, and it will have a decided effect upon the habits of a very large class of our population, to whom lager bier has become almost a necessary of life. There will be great rejoicing over the decision of Judge Strong by our German population, and the “saloons” where their favorite beverage is sold will be crowded to-morrow with thirsty devotees.
There some interesting things in there. Is “saloons” in quotation mark to challenge the use of the term? Were they then too lowly? There are certainly plenty of stories in the newspapers of the period of dark deeds done in the lager saloon. And on the scale of words for drunk wouldn’t “stupefying” represent a higher state of affairs than “intoxicating”? A reminder to be wary of familiar words arising in other eras. The ruling ended up not deciding the matter. More court cases would follow as the role of the new lighter German style beer was assessed. Not just drinking on the Sabbath but drinking after midnight. Theater owners complained about entertainments in beer gardens, not required to pay the same license fees. Evidence is given of astounding feats of consumption over and over, of drinking 30 quarts in two hours… without “intoxicating” effect.
The stories are laced with an undertone of cultural conflict and, as part of that, an understanding of what beer is. To those writing the laws and drinking older styles, beer is stronger and something that could not be downed in such volumes. Beers like the over 8% Albany ales needed legal regulation even before the full rise of the political power of the temperance movement. In the 1850s, “lager bier” is a new social technology that doesn’t fit and may threaten. By the 1870s, however, Germans are presented as the model immigrants, supporting savings banks and charities even if they still have their lager bier saloons. If there had been a culture war, they may well have won.
I was watching a video online when it was interrupted by a commercial for Budweiser. The name of the spot was “Do You Know Where Your Beer Is Brewed?” Soft guitar music played while clips of idyllic landscapes and sunrises peaking over breweries slid across the screen. Nothing out of the ordinary there. The gentle voice of the narrator says, “With 12 breweries spread all across the United States, your next Budweiser is closer than you think.” Budweiser hangs its hat on the fact that it can produce the same beer at 12 facilities and it will always taste exactly the same no matter where you drink it. No small feat, to be sure. But then the voice adds, “You might even say we’re America’s largest local brewer.” My eyes narrowed and my brow furrowed. ‘What in the heck is this?” I exclaimed. “That is our word!”
Our word? There’s a lot of weird words in there. Not the least of which is “our” – whose the hecks is that referring to? Don’t get me wrong. I like the work of the author Jeff Baker just fine. He’s the manager of the Farmhouse Bar and Grill in Vermont. Nice place. Real nice. Just not my local. Because “local” can mean that, too. The distance of the drinker from the drink.
But that’s not his point. It sorta illustrates mine but that’s not really the goal of where I am going. He is asking about local ingredients. If you want that world, go back 200 years and have a look at the Vassar day book with local beer being made of local grain and hops being sold back in small batches to the farmers and tavern keepers of the central Hudson Valley just getting back to some sort of normal after the devastation cause by the Revolution. This is the mid-1830s book but in the 1808-11 book the economies of beer are clearly still defined by the cart horse. That is actual local brewing. Are we willing to go there? Doubt it. You don’t really want local. You want some local. Now and then. But you want the global economy beer made with the best ingredients brewed on the newest, bestest equipment. Right?
Craft beer and macro are not all that far apart in this respect. Brewed on computerized stainless steel to a scale and upon a recipe that meets the needs and budgets of their respective clients. The only actual local thing that is reliably present at the brewery is the staff. Hard to be a brewer who lives over 45 miles from the brewery. There’s a hint by the way. If the person discussing the beer in your glass doesn’t live about that close, not a brewer. Sales guy, likely… owner, sure… but that’s all. Both use good foreign malt and distant, shipped in hops. Both tweek their water and yeast to match those found elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong. I like “local” just fine. It just means, for me, the bok choi and beets I have growing out there in the yard. Not beer.
When anyone in beer – whether Bud or craft – claims a word like “local” or “small” or “real” there is marketing going on – even if only to a small circle. Even if only to the speaker. It’s all unnecessary. When I think of Bud, I think of the brewery at Baldwinsville, New York to my south where local people earn a decent wage. If I have a decent hoppy IPA, I think of the three nations and seven generations needed to make the beer exist. Beer is global and has been since at least the 1400s when the Hanseatic League was beginning to ship Baltic brewed hoppy beer to the Low Countries. Except for odd examples like postwar agricultural collapses like Vassar faced in 1808. Except for that, it’s been beer or large parts of it hauled out from the hold as often as not since the Dark Ages. Good non-local beer.