Beer Advertising: Show and Tell

In 1907-1908 Oneida Brewing Co. in Utica, NY published a series of ads so innovative one rarely or never sees the like today.

Oneida Brewing had roots in George Ralph’s brewery established in Utica in 1832. The business, re-named Oneida Brewing Co. in the 1880s, endured until Prohibition. A brewery under the same name was restored after Repeal and lasted until 1942.

Brewers, whatever the scale of operation, rarely describe their processes to the public in detail. Some speak of the hops they use, how traditional/old-fashioned their beer is, or, in an earlier period, how modern, but usually in generalities.

In part, this is to guard trade and proprietary information. It is also assumed, perhaps correctly, that the public “doesn’t want to know”. This can produce almost meaningless formulae (“go for the gusto” and the like).

Before World War I, Oneida Brewing countered the received wisdom in a remarkable four-part series published in upstate New York newspapers. It described the various brewing processes, many in great detail. The series was entitled, “Old Tyme and Modern Methods of Brewing Oneida Ale”.

The series actually comprised five parts but the fifth is simply a comparative pictorial, a rustic tavern contrasted with a contemporary, “palatial” hotel bar in Manhattan.

The series comprised, first, mashing and boiling; second, cooling; third, fermentation; and fourth, racking/storage/aging/filtration.

(The links herein are from the newspaper archive of Thomas Tryniski’s excellent Fulton History website, see here).

Many details of interest are revealed, examples include source of hops used (Oneida County, NY and Washington State); the fact that newly fermented beer was cooled with “swimmers”, or containers of ice floating on the beer; aging regimens; filtration through paper sheets (still used by some breweries today); cold-aging; long boiling (three hours); and much else.

Oneida Ale was probably all-malt as there is no reference to malt adjuncts or cooking of raw grains. Only ale is mentioned, and by our researches lager was not brewed by the company until about 1914.

Ads for an Oneida India Pale Ale appear until about 1901 but not in the series mentioned. We suspect this form of ale was considered, by 1907, old-fashioned. Oneida Ale in 1907-1908 was filtered of yeast, bright, and (in part) cold-aged with mechanical refrigeration. It was thus the new-style “sparkling”, or lagered ale, to use our modern terminology.

In contrast, in 1910 the Arnold Brewery in Ogdensburg, NY was still advertising that its ale was not filtered, artificially carbonated, or processed with refrigeration. Oneida sought to show that its beer was superior by dint of modern methods and technology; Arnold argued the contrary, in a way that resonates more with the modern craft ethos.

Which ale was better? I can’t say without having tasted them, but would like to think each had its merits.

A theme recurrent in the Oneida ads is purity, in particular that the beer was less exposed to ambient air than by “old tyme” methods, with the implication that infection and contamination were minimized and product consistency, boosted.

In contrast, Arnold argued that its ale was more natural and the way the éminence grise of English ale, Bass Ale and similar brands, were made. In truth, even in the U.K. brewers were moving away from Arnold-style bottle-conditioning in favour of the dinner or sparkling ale method – the same thing Oneida vaunted – but if Arnold knew that, it didn’t say.

This new type of ale was becoming popular as an alternative to various forms of old-fashioned stock, still, “musty”, and old ale. From 1903 Molson Export Ale similarly showcased the new type of sparkling ale in Canada.

Oneida’s ads have an earnest quality yet a purposeful tone that escapes being called naive. The company clearly believed in advertising and wanted to reach customers and prospects in a novel way. It also advertised in more conventional ways in the upstate press, with illustrations of its products and a brief description.

Its more ambitious ads, as the series discussed, were a harbinger of the clinical, modernist ads, often showing white-coated technicians, that were a staple of mid-20th century advertising. This was common currency across the board in consumer advertising, not just in brewing.

The pattern started to break with the innovative Volkswagen and airlines ads of the early 1960s.

Nonetheless before WW I, in upstate and Central New York  ale and porter, modernised or not, still had a sale, a lingering heritage of early British and Dutch settlers. Some of the brewers were Arnold, Ballantine, Evans, Greenway, Hinchcliffe, West End Brewing in Utica itself (now Matt’s Brewing), and what is now Genesee Brewing in Rochester.

And even after 1933 ale and porter came back although by then almost always well-carbonated, chilled, and deposit-free.

In Teddy Roosevelt’s America Oneida Brewing hit on a technique modern brewers might reflect on. Educate the consumer. Meaningfully.

Note re image: the images above were obtained from the news sources identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images sed for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.