American Ales Circa 1900

History by the Glass by | Dec 2012 | Issue #71

Last month, we explored the story behind Vassar Ale. We’re staying in the United States again this month, taking a look at beers from another New York brewery, Amsdell of Albany.

Albany was the United States’ first brewing capital. Its position on the navigable Hudson River at the junction with the Erie Canal was a huge advantage in the days before railways. By the middle of the 19th century, the town was stuffed with breweries, keen to cash in on the renown of Albany Ales. One of the largest was Amsdell.

Luckily, two of their brewing logs have been preserved, one from 1900/1901 and another from 1904/1905. They reveal the continuing influence of British brewing. The term IPA was first recorded in the 1830s, well after American independence, yet Amsdell was brewing one in 1905. Look what else is in there: a Scotch Ale. Fifty years earlier, no one brewed Scotch Ale in Albany.

It’s not just a British influence that’s apparent. There are aspects of Amsdell’s practices that betray exposure to German brewing. The most obvious is the use of Balling for gravity measurements, though sometimes they are also given in the typically British system of pounds per barrel.

71FermentedCulture2Then there’s Kräusening. As you might guess from the name, it’s very much a German technique. After cooling, 50 to 70 barrels of the wort were taken to be used as Kräusen in an earlier brew that had almost finished fermenting. The idea was to restart fermentation to condition the beer. British practice was quite different: Casks were primed with a gallon of high-gravity sugar solution (around 1140º SG) per 36-gallon barrel at racking time.

There’s one area where Amsdell’s beers are very different: At mostly one hour or less, the boil times are extremely short. Beers were rarely boiled for less than 1.5 hours in Britain, and for later runnings, it was commonly two or even three hours.

Parti-gyling is, with a single exception, absent from Amsdell’s records. It was very common in Britain, with some breweries rarely brewing anything entire gyle. The explanation probably lies with the differing product ranges on either side of the Atlantic, rather than technical considerations. British brewers typically made several Pale Ales and Stouts of different strengths. Parti-gyling was an efficient way of producing these beers, especially ones brewed in small quantities. Amsdell, which mostly produced a single beer in each style, had no need to parti-gyle.

Some of Amsdell’s beers look similar to those being brewed in London. XX Ale is like an X Ale (standard Mild Ale), both in terms of gravity and hopping. Winter Stock resembles a KK Ale or draft Burton Ale, one of the standard beers in a London pub. Diamond is much like a KKK Ale (or strong Burton). However, Amsdell’s Stock Ales are lighter in color, as by 1900, London brewers were darkening their Burtons with brewing sugar. The Scotch Ale isn’t a million miles away from Younger’s No. 3, the classic mid-strength Edinburgh Ale.

The outliers are IPA and Porter. In London, no one had brewed Porter with a gravity in the 1070s since the 18th century. Amsdell’s Porter more resembles a London Single Stout. The IPA also has a higher gravity than would have been found in Britain, where 1060 to 1065 was typical. On the other hand, the level of attenuation and hopping rate of Amsdell’s IPA were lower than in Britain. These factors would have made the American beer fuller and sweeter than British examples.

The continued connection between American and British ales throughout the 19th century is unexpected but fascinating. It wouldn’t last much longer. World War I and Prohibition would soon drive a wedge between the two brewing cultures. 

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