For my walking tour I decided to focus on the breweries that were located in the city in the era before prohibition. Prior to the Eighteenth Amendment the area held a number of breweries that went beyond small scale operations and had influence across the Northeastern US. As the Albany area was settled long before today’s beer capitol in the Midwest specifically Milwaukee our area had a head start in the local manufacturing of goods including beer. Also prior to refrigeration perishable products like beer could only be made so far from the intended market and Albany with its river access and close proximity to the then expanding industrial areas of New York, Rochester, and Buffalo was ideally suited to supply both itself and the surrounding region with beer. The reason behind my decision to halt at prohibition was that after the ban on alcohol aka the Volstead Act breweries in Albany and across the country found themselves without a product to sell. Only the larger breweries such as Anheuser Busch were able to survive until prohibitions repeal in 1933 which centralized America’s brewing industry and also lead to only a few styles of beer being available nationally. For Albany brewers even with beer once again being legal Albany’s previous geographic advantages were rendered moot with refrigeration technology allowing Midwestern brewers to ship their product nation wide and local operations were not able to compete. Finally even before prohibition the rise of the Midwest breweries showed a shift in both the beer industry and the American population that hurt the prospects of both the companies in Albany and the styles of beer being produced in the area. The Midwestern operations favored beers based around the German lager or pilsner style as opposed to the previously favored English ale. Lager is a lighter style of beer meant to be refreshing for the drinker, pilsner originating in Pilsen in what is today the Czech Republic with the most popular American variety being Miller is also a lighter beer designed for refreshing drinkability, and ale being a heavier and more filling product with origins in the United Kingdom explaining its popularity with the early settlers in the English colonies. Demographically lager surpassing ale in US markets showed the tastes of newly arrived immigrant populations entering the mainstream popularity in the nineteenth century.
The topic of beer in Albany first caught my interest when I saw a subsection in the Flicker page detailing breweries and distilleries. This subsection is somewhat mislabeled as the photographs within are almost exclusively breweries. What inspired me to address this topic is that beyond the surprise I personally had when I began researching the topic in regards to the extent of beer making in Albany it is also a topical subject with the rise of the micro brewing trend over the past decade. In addition to the interest in smaller breweries making more unique varieties of beer there has also been a renewed interest in both the methods and styles of beer that existed in the past going all the way back to the beers of the ancient world. This trend allows the historian to connect with the general public by offering information on a topic that the average person would find interesting and while beer is easy to see as a non academic subject the history of beer making does go all the way back to the dawn of civilization. As beer has been and continues to be a staple of many of the world’s diets it is a topic possessing both a large amount of material and importance to many of the world’s cultures. Beyond the effects of alcohol beer gave people the ability to use excess grain without it spoiling which was essential in the days before refrigeration.
Before entering into the details of the tour itself it is important to lay out an abbreviated summary of what differentiated the beers made in Albany from other localities and the summary of beer making in Albany and the capital region. Albany like other colonial era settlements in the New World began producing beer shortly after the area was settled by Europeans and by the Revolutionary War era had like other regions had developed a unique style. Albany Ale is XX strength ale that has its origins in the late eighteenth century. This reflected the popularity of ales in the colonies and latter the United States through the mid nineteenth century with today’s favored lager or pilsner style being brought over by German immigrants later on additionally prior to the Anheuser Busch company creating the refrigerated railcar the production of lager on a lager scale was problematic with the Albany Ale Project noting “Lager had been in the U.S since the 1840s, but since it needs to be cold-fermented and then chilled for a number of months”1.
Sources I have found on the topic of so far have been the “Albany Ale Project” a webpage that was started by beer bloggers Alan McLeod and Craig Gravina to detail both the specific ale style as well as brewing in the Albany area. The site has a partnership with two local breweries C.H. Evans Brewing Company at Albany Pump Station and The Home Brew Emporium and has worked with these businesses to create a recreation of Albany Ale Amsdell’s 1901 Albany XX Ale which I will probably try over the next several weeks for purely research purposes. Another resource is the article The History of Beer: Albany, New York, Once the Largest Brewing Hub in America written by Hudson Valley Magazine which gives a quick summary of brewing in the area through the years. Moving on to the website Old Breweries which gives a list breweries in a given area which importantly includes breweries that are no longer operational, the site gives a brief summary of the businesses history, years it was in operation, and less critically perceived value of merchandise from the company.
A potential problem with developing the waling tour is that the breweries as previously mentioned went out of business by the seventies and consequently the buildings that housed the breweries are also gone. To overcome this issue alternate sites will need to be found, there are two possible ways to accomplish this the fist being to see if the original sites contained notable architectural styles and then to find sites in Albany that retain said style. The second work around would be to use existing breweries in Albany particularly if they work with historical styles of beer notably the “Albany Ale” that has appeared in the articles I have found such as the Pump Station in downtown Albany. Another issue is that the demographic for this tour would for legal reasons need to be the twenty one and over crowd which would exclude the primary school as well as a large part of the undergraduate university audience which limits its ability to be employed for scholarly purposes.
In conclusion while there will a small number of roadblocks the topic of beer making in the capital region is a topic that can be used for the walking tour project. While the city has long lost its place as a beer making center the select few microbreweries in the city have helped keep the tradition alive if not well and the history behind the beer industry in Albany ensures that the project has the potential to connect a modern audience with the cities past. So to close once the research has been complete the history of Albany’s beer business should be an informative look at both local businesses as well as how a staple American product evolved with a changing population and legal status.
1. Albany Ale Project, http://www.albanyaleproject.com/history/wane.html