Vassar Ale

History by the Glass by | Nov 2012 | Issue #70

Part of a Vassar brewing record from 1833

A slight change of scene this month, as we cross the Atlantic to look at a beer from the early days of the US: Vassar Ale from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a line of beers that was once renowned from New York to Boston.

If you’re thinking, “I’ve heard the heard the name ‘Vassar’ before,” you probably have. The Matthew Vassar who brewed Vassar Ale later founded the college in Poughkeepsie that bears his name. That connection is almost certainly why Vassar’s papers have been preserved, including a brewing book from the 1830s.

The brewing book is a rare opportunity to see what brewing was like in the Northeastern US before the arrival of lager, and a chance for me to compare and contrast American brewing with what was going on in Britain at the same time.

On the face of it, Vassar’s range of beers was pretty limited: Single Ale and Double Ale. Though, on closer observation, it was more complex than that. Double Ale came in three main types: Double Ale, Amber Double Ale and Pale Double Ale, which in turn had several subtypes, based on where and when the beer was to be sold. Some was brewed to be sold locally and quickly, some to be shipped to distant markets or stored before use.

One thing immediately leaps out: Vassar was highly specialized. The vast majority of the beer they brewed—11,700 barrels out of a total of 12,266 in the 1833-1834 brewing season—was the powerful Double Ale. A beer with a gravity of around 1100º and an average ABV of 8 percent. A British brewery of the same period would have brewed a much smaller proportion of strong beer. For example, in 1837 only 20 percent of Whitbread’s ale output was a beer with a gravity of around 1100, a XXX.

Another difference with British brewers was the seasonality of Vassar—they didn’t brew between the end of April and the middle of August, which meant that they spent much of the spring brewing well-hopped ales that were meant to be consumed throughout the summer. In autumn, they mostly brewed “present-use” ales—beer meant for immediate consumption—the American equivalent of British Mild Ale.

70FermentedCulture2The biggest variation between the different types of ales was the hopping rate. The least heavily hopped versions had 1.5 to 1.75 pounds per US barrel. That’s very little for a beer of this strength—about what a British country brewer would use for their most lightly hopped Mild Ales of 1070. These versions were either autumn brewed, or spring present-use.

The “shipping” or South version was hopped at 2 to 2.5 pounds per US barrel, still a very modest amount, well below what a London Mild Ale would have received. The increased level of hopping was purely practical rather than for flavoring purposes. A beer that was shipped any distance needed more hops just to keep it in a decent condition.

The most heavily hopped version was for bottling, with 3.3 to 3.9 pounds per US barrel. These beers were brewed in January for consumption in the summer, and the higher level of hopping was needed to preserve them.

While the hopping might have varied, the basic brewing technique remained the same. There were two infusion mashes, the first with a strike temperature of 168º to 170ºF, and the second with a strike temperature of 178º to 180º F. The worts from each mash were boiled separately, usually 1.5 hours for the first wort and 2.5 hours for the second.

Fermentation started relatively cool, but rose considerably. Pitching temperature averaged 60ºF and rose to an average of 74ºF. However, in some cases, it rose considerably more than that, hitting as high as 84ºF. Which begs the question: How were they controlling the fermentation temperature?

I wish I had the space to go into more detail, because there’s so much more fascinating information held in these priceless records. They provide insight on brewing in the early days of the US that I never dreamed of finding. 

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