Albany, New York: America’s Forgotten Beer City

History by the Glass by | Nov 2017 | Issue #130

When you think about great American brewing cities, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Denver, and Portland, Ore., might jump to mind, but Albany, N.Y.? In fact, American beer might not be what it is today had it not been for Albany.

As the state capital, Albany is usually associated with politics, but the Upper Hudson River Valley was once one of North America’s most productive brewing centers. During the 19th century, “Albany Ale” was brewed and exported all along the Hudson between Poughkeepsie and Troy, with Albany as the epicenter.

The earliest Dutch fur traders brought their love of beer to North America in the 1600s, and it was the most popular beverage of the New Netherland colony. Brewing started in New York City, or New Amsterdam as it was known, but by the mid-17th century, the village of Beverwijck (which became Albany under British rule), and the surrounding patroonship of Rennselearswijck, had between eight and 20 breweries at any given time. One prominent early Dutch family, the Gansevoorts, operated their Albany brewery for nearly 150 years, before closing in 1805.

As New York City grew in the late 1700s, so too did the microbial dangers lurking within its waters. With the city’s water fouled, Hudson Valley brewers filled the void and began supplying beer downriver.

By the 1790s, the robust wheat and oat beer made by the Dutch gave way to the strong barley ales of newly arrived Scots and Brits. Brewers like James Boyd, Robert Dunlop, and Abraham Nash opened breweries in Albany and neighboring Troy, while the Vassars saw early success in Poughkeepsie. The first mention of Albany Ale appeared in March 1805, when the New York Morning Chronicle began featuring advertisements for Edward Le Breton’s “Fine Albany Ale.” And so began a phenomenon.

As Albany Ale’s popularity grew, the size of Albany’s breweries grew with it. In 1824, Fidler & Taylor brewed 250 barrels per day. The growing industry also attracted young brewers looking for opportunity in America. Peter Ballantine immigrated to Albany from Scotland in the early 1820s and apprenticed with Robert Dunlop, learning the trade that later helped him establish P. Ballantine & Sons in Newark, N.J.

So, what exactly was Albany Ale? Initially it simply meant the best beer shipped from Albany and the Upper Hudson Valley. Brewer’s testifying to the New York State Senate in 1835 promised only “the palest malt and the palest bales of hops.” Over time, Albany Ale became a recognized type, if not style of beer. Strength was its hallmark, and it was sometimes advertised as Albany “Cream” Ale (19th century Cream Ale was not the cold-conditioned, lager-like ale of today, however).

In the 1840s, Albany Ale was analyzed and compared to Porter, small beer, and London and Edinburgh Ale. One report claimed that, “Albany Ale in barrels, contains 7.38 per cent proof alcohol [by weight]…while that in bottles has 10.67 per cent alcohol [by weight].” Converted to alcohol by volume, that means it fell between 9.2 and 13.3 percent.

By mid-century, ale brewing was booming. In 1849, Albany alone boasted 20 breweries. According to The Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review that year, Albany Ale was “found not only in every city in the Union, but likewise in the West India islands, in South America, and in California.” Located at the confluence of the Erie Canal and the Hudson River, Albany could import raw ingredients from the west, and ship beer down the Hudson River to New York City, sending Albany Ale anywhere in the world. By 1858, John Taylor & Sons was likely exporting its Albany Ale as far away as the Hawaiian Islands. Taylor began brewing in the 1820s, and 30 years later his brewery dwarfed all others in the country, brewing well over 100,000 barrels.

Albany Ale enjoyed continued success during the second half of the 19th century. Thriving Albany breweries opened depots and offices in New York City, Boston, and Montreal, but by the 1890s, its popularity waned. With the rise of the railroads, westward expansion, and the loss of their monopoly on distribution, many of these ale breweries became shells of their former selves. Production focused on local markets and exportation slowed. The last Albany brewery to make something advertised as Albany Ale was George I. Amsdell Brewing & Malting Company. By 1905 the brewery’s output was around 30,000 barrels, far below its height near 100,000 in the 1870s.

After Prohibition, Albany Ale was little more than a memory. The area’s breweries focused on American styles typical to the mid-20th century: lager and modern Cream Ale. But an all-ale brewery would return to Albany. In 1980, Bill Newman opened the William S. Newman Brewing Company, arguably the first microbrewery east of the Rocky Mountains. Among Newman’s offerings was his Albany Amber Ale, a name that was perhaps more than just a nod to the city’s ale brewing past. Sadly, Newman’s ceased operations in 1993, even as the area’s brewing industry was beginning to show signs of life again.