At the Confluence of the Trent and Genesee Rivers

The Trent Joins the Genesee River – of Beer

In 1938 Genesee Brewery in Rochester, NY placed a series of ads (two shown here via NYS Historic newspapers) in upstate New York for a new Genesee ale.

The ads stated the beer was light in colour, fermented in America’s only Burton Union fermenter, and dry-hopped in English oak vessels. The ads implied that the cleansed beer was stored for months in large casks that were rolled, or agitated in some way, to complete maturation, a process once widespread in English breweries.

[See in the Comments below an explanation of Burton Union fermentation].

Genesee touted the results as “different” but “famous”, and sure to delight area beer drinkers.

Beer historians know that ales and porter were brewed in the U.S. before Prohibition by traditional methods. It is less common to see hyper-British processes used after Repeal in 1933, much less advertised to bright young things being weaned on soft drinks, fizzy lager, and Hollywood pap.

It is even more unusual in the case of Rochester, NY, a city with a substantial German element where lager was well-established since the 1800s.

Genesee Brewery had been bought by the energetic and canny Louis Wehle (1889-1964) upon Prohibition’s close in 1933. Wehle, then in his 40s, was a trained brewer and indeed of German ancestry. His father and other family had worked before Prohibition in Bartholomay Brewery in the city, as I discussed here.

Before 1919 Wehle himself worked at Bartholomay and Genesee breweries (since 1889 consolidated in ownership), as well as the Lang brewery in Buffalo, NY. See this compact, informative career outline.

Wehle became wealthy through running a home-delivery bakery during Prohibition. Sale of the bakery enabled him to take over Genesee in 1933, combining it with parts of Bartholomay.

(Wehle descendants ran the brewery until 1999 when it was sold to management. Later, a Manhattan investment firm created North American Breweries to buy the business, which also owned Pyramid and Magic Hat, early craft breweries.

NAB continues today, owned by Florida Ice and Farm, a Costa Rica beverage and food firm. The net: “Genny” carries on bigger and better than ever in Rochester).

Why would Wehle, coming from a German-American brewing context, be interested in Burton pale ale and its processes? One can only speculate. Maybe as a professional brewer he just admired that type of beer.

It is difficult at this juncture to appreciate how significant Burton-on-Trent was in world brewing c.1900, when Wehle came to maturity and acquired his knowledge. This 2012 article by Malcolm James in Brewery History gives some indication. James wrote:

During the ‘zenith’ years of 1880 through 1895, Burton was the undisputed brewing capital of the Victorian age, with 32 brewing companies operating a total of 36 breweries and several independent maltsters. Bass and Allsopp continued to dominate the industry and Bass’ annual output of almost 1,000,000 barrels justifiably made it the largest brewing concern in the world. The average production of a Burton brewery (i.e. 100,000 barrels per annum) was more than double that of the London brewers, yielding a cumulative annual production valued in excess of £8.6 million (equivalent to £4.5 billion using Retail Price Index analysis to 2009).

As important and controlling as German brewing ideology was in America in 1900, Burton prestige was always in the background, and reaching its peak as James explains.

Possibly Wehle retained an admiration for Burton pale ale and its methods, and was intent to make this kind of beer toast of America. Indeed he brought to America from Burton, not just a full Union set, but a brewer with it, Arthur E. Vaughan.

Vaughan sailed to America with his English fiancée and was married with a celebration hosted by Wehle that made the society pages.

There is evidence Wehle’s newly-acquired Burton Unions was installed at Syracuse Brewery, the former Zett’s Brewery in Syracuse, NY which Wehle also controlled, in 1936. That brewery foundered in 1937 – a second failure, the first was in 1934.

Either Wehle moved the Burton kit to Genesee to work some magic there, or possibly a double set was purchased from Burton and both Genesee and Syracuse Breweries used the processes under direction of Vaughan.

I’ll document the Syracuse connection soon, as well as Wehle’s reliance on Francis Moritz, a British brewing scientist, for advice on making English pale ale in Franklin Roosevelt’s America.

Since Genesee grew from strength to strength from the 1930s until today, Wehle’s persistence with authentic ale methods can only be commended. At the same time, I doubt the Burton Unions were still in use after WW II. Genesee’s post-WW II ads I’ve been able to review don’t mention them.

Since the early 1970s when I first drank Genesee ales, they are rather light and lager-like, even beers impressively named such as 12 Horse Ale. (Of course today the Genesee Brewhouse, a pilot brewery built a few years ago, makes some interesting beers that have a fuller flavour).

But Genesee’s ales were clearly quite different in 1938, or at least this specific brand, Genesee Light Ale was. In effect it was an IPA, akin to Ballantine India Pale Ale and other IPAs that continued into the 1950s in America.

By 1977 when the American brewing renaissance was born, only Ballantine’s was left standing. But it lasted long enough to influence the new ales and, finally, the IPA of today.

N.B. America had a lot of white oak in the late 1930s, as today. Yet Louis Wehle insisted on importing British oak vessels to dry hop and mature his beer after cleansing in the Union set. The reason is known to beer historians: at the time it was felt pale ale could not be successfully made using American oak in any part of the processing. Its tannins imparted particular flavours, vanilla- and coconut-like, that were felt to spoil the taste of British and Irish ale.

All beer fans know those tastes from the barrel-aged beers of today. Times change.

Note re images: the original advertisements may be viewed in this group of newspapers from the NYS Historic newspaper archive as stated in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historic purposes. All feedback welcomed.


4 thoughts on “At the Confluence of the Trent and Genesee Rivers”

  1. Reading the Oxford Companion entry on the Unions, I think I see why I never liked the Firestone Walker beers. Its Unions are American wood-built and confer (intended) flavour to the beer. This marked them off in my tasting experience from Burton pale ale as tasted over the years in England.


  2. Ale had always had a larger sale in upper New York State than most parts of America, even into the 1930s, so that was probably a factor for Wehle too. Canadian ale had been smuggled into the region during Prohibition, which reinforced the historic preferences. Still, Wehle’s insistence from 1936-1938 on strict Burton methods seems unusual. I think he simply admired that kind of beer, absent further evidence that might suggest other reasons for his close interest in the heritage of pale ale.


  3. Gary, can you describe the Burton Union fermentation kit and what made it different from what we knew as American fermentation equipment of that period? Our equipment of that time would have involved open-top cypress fermenters, I’m guessing. Thanks for another interesting subject!

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