A Summum To Rochester’s Beer Industry



In 1907, the American beer business had about reached its pre-Prohibition zenith. By 1914, production would attain 66,000,000 bbl. Then the war came (initially in Europe) and finally measures to conserve grains and limit alcohol in beer. Married to ever-swelling Temperance militancy, this ended by strangling the industry. In October, 1919 a war measure included with the Volstead Act stopped all production even ahead of January, 1920, the anniversary of the 18th Amendment which was the formal start of National Prohibition.

Of course, even by 1907 prohibition had been enacted on a state level in many sections of the country, a harbinger of what was to come.

With cessation of liquor manufacturing, the allied trades would take the consequences too, the bottlers, bottle- and label-makers, equipment manufacturers, farmers and grain dealers who lost an important market, saloon operators, it all stopped. The huge and costly re-set affected tens of thousands of lives and livelihoods.

Reading the Temperance literature of the day, one realizes the zeitgeist was complete – even the brewers had partly bought into their own demise by arguing for a revamped version of the saloon as I’ve discussed earlier. In this hopeful but ultimately bootless view, “pubs” would sell only beer and perhaps light wine. The mahogany bar would be banished with its attendant hard liquor and cocktails, to be replaced by seated facilities which replicated Europe’s practiced old hand at good living. (That idealized view of alcohol in Europe was never true or completely so, I’ll return to this later).

In that year, 1907, a Rochester, NY publisher issued a paean to Rochester’s brewing heritage. It was something almost defiant in the larger picture, and one senses it was a beau geste, a last sally before the apprehended end to a liquored America which came all too true in just 12 years. With the writing on the wall, the industry was going to leave a memorial of itself.

The book, History of the Brewery and Liquor Industry of Rochester, NY, announced its objects as follows:

The wine, beer and liquor interests of Rochester are by no means small. A history of this business, with a detailed account of the remarkable development and growth of the production and sale of a commodity for which the demand is ever increasing, is something which has long been lacking. It is the aim of this book to supply that lack.

Of the men who have watched and cared for the industry the general public and those who should be interested in the development of Rochester’s industries has been kept in ignorance. Only through hearsay does the average man know of those who have settled in this city and built up large businesses which form an important factor in the growth of the city.

The lives of these men, their ambitions and plans, and the success which has attended their efforts, are here outlined, and something is told of the means which have been employed by them to bring about a successful culmination of their work ….

Herein will be found descriptions of the methods of brewing, taking the materials in their raw form and tracing them to the time they reach the consumer. The latter’s interests are well looked after by the makers of liquors in Rochester, as is testified to by the methods in vogue at local breweries.

Descriptions of the local plants, which give employment to thousands of men, and of the modern ways of conducting such large industries, have received particular attention. By the aid of chemistry and bacteriology the manufacture of beer has been reduced to a science, involving a high degree of technical skill. Every possible precaution is taken to preserve the cleanliness of the product. An outline of these methods will be found.

Starting in a modest way when Rochester was a mere village, the brewing industry grew with the city until a few years ago, when a sudden impetus was given the business, which has since increased by leaps and bounds, until now it ranks as one of the most important in the city.

This growth has continued in spite of adverse legislation, which has been enacted in spite of the protests of the interests involved. Just what has been done in the interest of the manufacturers of and dealers in liquors and wines is outlined here. Every important line of business now has its representatives who look after adverse legislation, and promote favorable acts. Even the farmers have their “lobby” at Albany. The brewers have been lax in this regard, and especially in local affairs the men affected have paid too little attention to affairs whiah affect them vitally. It would seem from a review of the legislation enacted during the last quarter of a century as though the liquor business is a standing target for state legislators. License fees have steadily advanced and onerous restrictions urged. Many industries would have gone down under such onslaught, but the men whose money is invested in the brewery and liquor business have in their make up a determination to succeed —an admirable asset that has enabled them to overcome or remove every obstacle.

The volume was expensively designed and produced. Many months ago, I referred to a similar, lush “corporate” book produced after WW I by the merged Canadian beer business in Quebec. It must have been the style of the day in the business world, and other examples linger into the 1950s, modernized with day-glo photography.

The prose was smooth and the focus was historical, technical, and foremost biographical. The history of the industry was traced from 1819 when ale was first made in the city, through the period when schenk beer, or winter lager, became popular, and finally to the time lager proper, or aged summer beer, took the major part of production. Close emphasis is given the people and families who founded and continued the main concerns.

By 1907, nine breweries were left in Rochester via a process of consolidation and closure. Genesee Brewing, a small player in 1880 which had grown impressively, was one of the nine. Others were Standard Brewing, and the venerable Bartholomay Brewing, defender of the industry in ’84 when scurrilous accusations had been made of use of adulterants.

The head shots of probably 100 figures of the industry, yes in Rochester alone, are included. The large number is accounted for by the fact many were from the retail and wholesaling part of the business. Their details were carefully noted and a preponderance seemed of German background.

There are numerous nuggets in the piece, for example, the schenk was described as partaking of both ale and lager in nature. It was also said to be dark, bitter, and “heavy”, I think heavy meant here in body, not alcohol. By stating schenk was neither fish nor fowl, I think the author meant it used a bottom yeast but wasn’t aged. Ale of course can be aged, but especially in a frontier city, the first producers wouldn’t have done that, it would have been sold fairly new and still hazy; ditto schenk. (Think any cloudy, darkish lager you get today from a craft brewer).

The account credits the Anglo-Saxon-sounding Bartholomay* with introducing lager proper in the 1850s. The description of the contemporary brewing process in the book suggests lager was still aged for three or four months then.

Insight was given on the ale market in that the typical customer of Standard Brewing would order an “ale” and be quite happy to receive India Pale Ale, present use ale, or stock ale from Standard, whatever the retailer carried at the time. These types of beer can be quite different (even from the same brewery), but ale devotees didn’t distinguish further than to order a Standard Ale.

In one sense, this approaches how some people view the craft market today. Many craft producers rely on their name to sell the beer, not a particular type or brand which can change monthly anyway. The more you read about business and markets in the old days, the more you realize that most things don’t change.

The book is a curio to its time, its era, both in general and specifically as applies to beer. (A couple of ads reference Rochester’s distillers but hard liquor wasn’t addressed in the narrative, no doubt a defensive measure intended to appease Temperance advocates but probably little appreciated in those quarters. A short essay dealt with a winemaker, but in general wine was left out of the book too).

No, the anti-drink crowd were in no mood to accept concessions from brewers. As one Temperance tract put it, if beer was the safe and reasonable beverage advocated by the newly-reformed brewers, why had whiskey taken root and flourished side-by-side? It likened brewers to  a man-eating shark approaching a floundering seaman while singing Rescue The Sailor.

Anti-drink agitation ranged from the lurid to highly sophisticated legislative and political manoeuvring. Certainly the lobbies of our day have nothing on the old-time firebrands. I’ll borrow by analogy something Elizabeth David wrote about Alexis Soyer, the great French chef who helped introduce fine culinary methods in England in the 1800s but also campaigned for better public food and to help the poor. She wrote, his skills at arranging public fund-raising events made Bob Geldof look like the village vicar.

That’s how I look at the anti-liquor lobbies of pre-Prohibition vs. our various social lobbies today. Of course the difference was, Sir Bob and his predecessor Alexis Soyer did work of undisputed value and advanced social justice. The same cannot quite be said for the Temperance campaigners. Their heart was in the right place too, yes, but they didn’t appreciate the bigger picture and considerable travail resulted from their efforts including the evils of organized crime and the loss of the liquor revenue.


*In fact, founder Henry Bartholomay was German-born (Frankfurt), see here.