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Albany's Sudsy Past: A History of Beer in the Capital City

Here's an insider secret: Albany has played a pivotal role in the beer industry in this country. From the 1700s to today, beer has been and continues to be a massive force in the Capital Region, with no sign of stopping. In fact, it could be argued that Albany significantly influenced American beer and where it is today.

a glass of cold beer with another glass in the background

The Albany Ale Phenomenon

Brewing in New York State began in New York City (New Amsterdam at the time) around the 1600s, when the Dutch arrived. In fact, beer was the most popular beverage of the New Netherland colony. Breweries expanded upstate, with Albany (Beverwijck at the time) and surrounding areas developing up to 20 breweries, including a brewery operated by the well-known Gansevoort family.

Around the late 1700s, microbial contaminations in the waters of New York City increased, thus resulting in polluted beer. Because of this, Albany and the Hudson Valley Region stepped up beer production in order to supply the beloved drink downstate.

A particular style of beer produced by the many Albany area breweries became dubbed "Albany Ale." Albany Ale was a strong beer that was both sweet and hoppy, and it became something of a phenomenon, acting as a catalyst for even more breweries to pop up in the area.

Over time, it became not just a type of beer, but a style of beer, with strength being its core element - it fell somewhere between 9.2 and 13.3 percent alcohol by volume.

Railroads & Prohibition

With Albany perfectly located near the Erie Canal and Hudson River, brewers were able to easily ship beer downstate and even across the country. Business was booming. Major brewers like John Taylor and Matthew Vassar experienced incredible success - Taylor actually had the largest brewery in the country as of 1852. The only breweries larger than his at the time, on the whole planet, were in London.

However, with the expansion of railroads, transportation options shifted and those prime waterways that came right into Albany were no longer as vital. Albany Ale's popularity began to decline and the local beer industry suffered. Some larger breweries acquired smaller ones and were able to hold strong into the early 20th century, but then Prohibition arrived in 1920.

Of the 11 breweries operating in Albany prior to Prohibition, only three reopened after Prohibition ceased in 1933, and by the 1970s, they had been outsourced by bigger Midwestern breweries.

The Albany Beer Industry Triumphs Again

tables and chairs in a restaurant with an upper floor visible with beer production machinesThe inside of the Albany Pump Station, photo credit: Alan Nudi

Popular taste in beer has changed over time, with craft beer really coming onto the scene in recent years. Craft beer is produced in small amounts, which is quite different from the large macrobreweries that used to dominate the Albany area, and it is also a far cry from the 1800s boozy Albany Ale. Craft beer contains an average of 5.9% alcohol, compared to the 13.2% level of Albany Ale. However, some have not forgotten about Albany's once signature beer.

Local beer blogger Craig Gravina and his partner Alan McLeod have been working to recreate the historic Albany Ale, and you can read about their journey on albanyaleproject.com.

Although tastes in beer changed, Albany was able to adapt to the times, creating the breweries and beer the region demanded. The mid-1900s focused on lagers and modern cream ale that were popular during that time, and the area has only continued to grow in this once again thriving industry. As of June 2018, there are now 46 breweries in the Capital Region, and over 400 throughout New York State.

This boom in beer can be partially attributed to the farm brewery law that went into effect in 2013, which allows craft breweries that use ingredients grown in New York to conduct onsite tastings, open restaurants, engage in self-distribution, and open up to a total of five no-fee, off-site branch stores anywhere in the state.

Today's Albany breweries include the Albany Pump Station, Druthers Brewing, Fort Orange Brewing, and Perfect World Brewing, and these are just the ones in the city of Albany alone. More breweries can be found throughout the region, including Brown's Brewing and Rare Form Brewing in Troy, The Real McCoy Beer Company in Delmar, and much more. You can see a full list of breweries throughout the Capital Region and the state of New York here.

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Sources:

  • Beeradvocate: Albany, New York: America's Forgotten Beer City
  • Hudson Valley Magazine: The History of Beer: Albany, New York, Once the Largest Brewing Hub in America
  • NYS: Governor Cuomo Announces Record Number of Breweries in New York State

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