Brouhaha in Rochester, NY Sheds Light on Beer Strength and Sweetness

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In Rochester, NY in 1880 there were about 20 breweries. Of these, three or four had the lion’s share of production. Frederick Salem ranked them in his brewing history of the same year, here.

The top-ranker, Bartholomay Brewing, was established in 1874. It sold about 150,000 bbl per year by 1884. Its next two competitors were Rochester Brewing Company and still-very much-with us, Genessee Brewing. See some sales data here for that year.

In 1884 or possibly in late ’83, the industry was shaken. A correspondent, I believe a Jacob Spahn, wrote to the Democract & Chronicle suggesting local beer was impure and quassia and other additives were sometimes used instead of hops.

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The allegation of impurity was a mantra of 19th century brewing, echoing parallel controversies for bread, milk, water, and other products. It was an early exhibition of consumerism. New York had seen an earlier bout of this, in Albany in the 1830s. There, it lead to hearings and a lawsuit which the brewers lost although the inquiry suggested for the most part beer was made from malt and hops.

One suspects Temperance machinations were behind some of this, certainly the 1884 case. But by that year, the industry was larger and more sophisticated. Bartholomay took the lead and engaged Professor S.A. Lattimore of Rochester University (now called University of Rochester) to analyze its products. Before we look at his work, here is little bit about the Professor, from the website of the University. Its Lattimore Hall is named after him:

The Chemistry Department was housed in Lattimore Hall from 1930-1972, named after Samuel A. Lattimore, Chair of the Department of Chemistry from 1867-1908. Lattimore was known as a chemist of exceptional ability, an excellent teacher with a charming personality and also known for his broad range of cultural interests as well as his strong influence upon the community life of Rochester. He was a charter member of the American Chemical Society.

Bartholomay advertised his work to assure the public its beer was pure. In some ads, Bartholomay’s assay appeared alone. In others, it was bracketed with analyses from three other breweries, Rochester Brewing Company, Genesee Brewing, and the old-established but small player, J.G. Baetzel.

The table above is from such an ad which appeared in the Geneva Daily Gazette on May 23, 1884, see here.

Each brewer probably contributed proportionately to the ad cost, but most of the ads were for Bartholomay alone. They appeared from May through September in north country newspapers.

Bartholomay had a particular reputation for its lagers. It made different ones including a stock lager, Bavarian, and Bohemian. I’d guess the one in the news ad was the stock given its 6.7% abv (the figures in the ads are all expressed to be by weight). That is unusually high, even for long-stored beer; I return to this below.

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Genesee had introduced a lager in 1878 – it’s still sold, I saw it the other day at LCBO. Its beer was 5.3%. Same as Budweiser in the same year. The Genny had the same FG as Bud too, 1015, a fairly rich taste. After all, no one would call Sam Adams of craft fame dry and it is 1012. Still, given the Genesee was probably 1/3rd grain adjunct, its taste may have approached that of (all-malt) Sam Adams.

Bartholomay’s beer, with a similar FG to Sam Adams, was all-malt but higher alcohol, so probably “bigger” than Sam Adams.

Rochester Brewing’s beer, at 5.3% and 1011 FG, might approach Sam Adams most closely and was possibly drier if it used adjunct.

These three beers together with the very sweet Baetzel show there was a range of tastes in this market then, one the craft world today would recognize. But those beers were certainly different from today’s mass market norm. Modern Budweiser, the non-light, is said to be 1008, for example. The BJCP’s style references give 1004-1010 as the range for mass market lager.

Now think about it. Why would the no. 1 brewer in Rochester in the 1880s make an all-malt lager at 6.7% abv but with relatively low FG of 1011? I think it’s because of Rochester’s ale tradition, one common to the north country until the end of the 1800s, indeed it continues to this day albeit in altered form. Ales were always stronger than lager then. It was a point of difference used by lager brewers feeling the hot breath of Temperance campaigners, especially in the midwest and New York City.

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(There was a certain commercial dissimulation there if not self-delusion which reached its peak in the 1911 Second International Brewers Congress as I discussed earlier).

The prestigious ales of the later 1800s were India, pale, and amber beers, all relatively dry. Bartholomay’s lager seemed attuned to all this, 100% malt as Americans and Canadians maintained for ale for a long time, and not as sweet as much lager then.

History matters, taste matters. Bartholomay was responsive to its market, with evident success.

The Baetzel beer, probably a brown Munich, was IMO too sweet for the market at a daunting 1022 FG. Nor can it be said Lattimore used an atypical sample: Baetzel’s ads in the period stressed consistency. Anyway the company would have ensured an amended ad if its numbers were not typical.

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Bartholomay’s beer is with us still in the form of Maibock, the strong blond lager of Germany and the craft world.

We should note the high maltose content in each beer. Presumably “maltose” here includes other fermentable saccharides now separately classified to include say maltotriose and fructose. Still, the percentages are high vs. our mass market norm, see this discussion on typical current sugar levels in finished beer. Even if you total all the saccharides in the table in the link, the maltose levels of the 1884 are much higher. I don’t know whether the sweetness impact is linear but net net, the old beers had to be much sweeter.

In that period, technical writers made much of the nutritious and sustaining qualities of lager, that it was a food, etc. One can see why even allowing for a certain folklore in this view. But public taste was changing. The onset of the Bohemian style showed that, think Pilsner Urquell or Budweiser Budvar, although few would consider them dry today. This type probably had an impact on the final gravities of the beers in the ad except for Baetzel’s.

In a nutshell, the relatively low FGs of three of the four lagers Professor Lattimore analyzed can (IMO) be explained by both changing tastes and the region’s top-fermentation history.

Note re images: The second image was sourced from the site Antique Beer Trays, here. The third and fourth were sourced from the City of Rochester’s site, here, and appear courtesy its Communications Bureau. The last image is Lattimore Hall, of the University of Rochester, NY, sourced here. All trade marks or other intellectual property therein are property of their lawful owners or authorized licensees. Said images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

1 thought on “Brouhaha in Rochester, NY Sheds Light on Beer Strength and Sweetness

  1. One more thing, the lactic acid levels are obviously high by modern standards again. The range here is .12-.20. The upper end may have lent a faint tartness to the beers and if so the “balance” may have been more palatable, i.e., the beer not as sweet, as first appearances would suggest. Very hard to know unless 4 beers were recreated to duplicate these specs and using typical hop bills of the time (generally at least 1 lb per barrel U.S.).

    Anyone want to try?

    By the way 26 years later, American brewing at least in the larger centres had gotten the lactic levels way down, see the 1908 table here.

    Gary

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