Friday, September 19, 2014

The long overdue Albany Ale history book is here

upperhudsonvalleybeercoverI grew up in Schenectady and I clearly remember being taught the history of New York State and the Capital District many times throughout middle and high schools. I wouldn’t consider myself a history scholar or even an enthusiast by any means, but being the beer nerd that I am, you’d think I’d have been familiar with the fact Albany was at one time the brewing capital of the country (maybe even of the world). How did I go all these years without knowing this?

I suppose that’s the question beer bloggers Craig Gravina (of Delmar) and Alan McLeod (of Ontario, Canada) asked themselves when they started “The Albany Ale Project” back in 2010. They began chronicling Albany’s brewing history on their respective blogs and eventually consolidated it into a website and a Facebook group where anyone can contribute to the documentation. It had always been a rather laissez faire approach, but with their new book Upper Hudson Valley Beer, they have finally organized the history of Albany Ale from the 17th to the 21st centuries.

Though, “Albany Ale” is an ambiguous term. It usually refers to a style of strong, malty beer that was made by several Albany-based breweries throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s also been broadened to encompass the history of brewing in the Capital District. That can be a little confusing, so it’s understandable why the title of the book references beer of the upper Hudson Valley and not the city of Albany proper.*

But who is this book for – beer enthusiasts or history buffs? I’d say it’s a little of both. Whenever you have a passion for a niche product, hobby, lifestyle, artform, etc., you tend to have an interest in the history of it (or at least you probably should). This particular slice of history is geographically-specific, so it’s understandable that I would buy and read this book. If “Albany Ale” hadn’t happened in Albany, but, say, Norfolk, Virginia; I’m not so sure I would be as enamored with the history. I’d be curious to know if beer geeks from the rest of the country are as interested in the history of Albany Ale as those from the local vicinity.

Upper Hudson Valley Beer reads like a history book, or even a collegiate-level textbook (or maybe a supplementary text, since it’s only 160 pages). The information is presented in a rather cut-and-dry format, sticking to the facts and not getting much into speculation or commentary. There are only seven chapters, and the first three deal mostly with pre-Revolutionary War times. It’s impressive that Gravina and McLeod were able to document so much of that history (and specifically at that).

Though Gravina and McLeod do touch on the brewing process, the use of ingredients and the general logistical infrastructure of the time, Upper Hudson Valley Beer is presented as an historical text that happens to be related to brewing and not simply “brewing history for beer nerds.” This is understandable, since you can’t document the history of brewing without history at large. I learned a lot about Albany in this book that I was either never taught in school or had just forgotten over the years. Did you know “Albany” is actually a name the British gave to the pre-existing settlement of Beverwijck? Did you know many of the streets in downtown Albany have been there since the 17th Century? Did you know you can still see remnants of old breweries from years past today?

It’s not until the late 19th Century when “Albany Ale” becomes a worldwide export, that the history becomes really fascinating. It’s also around this time that the Temperance Movement began to gain traction, so there’s an interesting dynamic between the staunch Prohibitionists and thriving brewing scene happening in parallel. Speaking of which, did you know Albany was a major hotspot for bootleggers during Prohibition? Gravina and McLeod don’t delve too deeply into Prohibition in Albany (that could – a might just – be an entirely separate book), though they do briefly tell the story of gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, who had a connection to Albany. When is Martin Scorsese going to make a movie about that?

Special mention is made to Bill Newman, who started what was essentially the first microbrewery on the East Coast (or the country at large, depending on who you ask) here in Albany in 1980s. The book also covers the resurgence of microbrewing throughout the Capital District in the late 1990s and early 2000s, all the way up to the opening of the Shmaltz Brewery in Clifton Park in 2013.

At only 160 pages, Upper Hudson Valley Beer is a great History 101-style overview of brewing in this region. I think local beer enthusiasts will benefit greatly by learning how much impact our area had on the history of brewing in the United States. Historical aficionados will also likely enjoy it since it’s a piece of history that has long been overlooked.

NOTE: You can buy this book online at either History Press or Amazon (where it’s also available in Kindle format). It’s also available at most local bookstores. There are many upcoming signing appearances by the authors happening around the Capital District. You can see the schedule here.

*I still take issue with the title, since it doesn’t imply that this is a history book (from the cover it could be mistaken for a guide to the current beer scene in Albany). Also, does anyone around here refer to this area as the “Upper Hudson Valley”? Craig told me he and Alan wanted to go with something more specific, but the publisher wanted a generic title.