Brouhaha in Rochester, NY



In Rochester, New York there were, in 1880, about 20 breweries of which three or four were dominant. Frederick Salem ranked them in his brewing history of the same year, see here.

The top-ranking firm, Bartholomay Brewing, was established in 1874. It sold about 150,000 bbl per year by 1884. The 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 1883, the industry was shaken. A correspondent, I believe a Jacob Spahn, wrote to the Democract & Chronicle suggesting that local beer was impure due to quassia and other additives substituting for hops.




The allegation of impurity was almost a mantra of 19th century brewing, echoing similar controversies for baking, dairying, water supply, and other staple needs for life. This reflected an early consumerist spirit.  The same thing occurred periodically in Victorian Britain.

New York had seen an earlier bout of the phenomenon, in Albany in the 1830s. There, hearings and a lawsuit resulted which the brewers lost although the inquiry for the most part showed that beer was made from malt and hops.

One suspects Temperance machinations were behind some of this, certainly for the 1884 case. But by this time, the industry was larger and more sophisticated. Bartholomay took the lead and engaged Professor S.A. Lattimore of Rochester University (now the 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 an old-established but small firm, J.G. Baetzel.

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

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

Bartholomay had a particular reputation for its lager. It made different ones including a stock lager, Bavarian, and Bohemian. I’d think the one in the news ad was the stock given its 6.7% abv (the study reports the data by weight, a lower value). That is unusually high, even for long-stored beer, which I return to below.




Genesee had introduced a lager in 1878 – it is still sold, I saw it the other day at LCBO. Its beer was 5.3% abv. The same as Budweiser in the same year as I’ve discussed. The Genny had the same FG as Bud, too, 1015, a fairly rich taste. (No one would call the modern Sam Adams Lager dry and it is 1012).

These three beers together with the very sweet Baetzel show there was a range of tastes in the market, one the craft world today would recognize.

Now, why would the no. 1 brewer in Rochester of the 1880s make an all-malt lager at 6.7% abv but with relatively low FG of 1011? This does not accord with any typical European lager type of the time.

I think it is due to Rochester’s and northern New York’s ale tradition, one that was strong until the end of the 1800s.




The prestigious ales of the 1800s were pale ale and amber beers, all relatively dry. Bartholomay’s lager seemed attuned to this class, notably less rich than most European lager then.

History matters, taste matters. I infer Bartholomay was crafting lager with the ale heritage in mind, to ensure appeal to that still strong market.

The Baetzel beer was probably a brown Munich, IMO too sweet for the 1880s market at a daunting 1022 FG. Nor can it be said Lattimore used an atypical sample: Baetzel’s ads in the period stressed its consistency. Anyway, the company would have ensured an amended ad if its numbers were not typical.




One may note the high maltose content in each beer. Presumably “maltose” here includes other fermentable saccharides now separately classified, say maltotriose and fructose. Still, the percentages are high vs. today’s 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 the reason even allowing for a certain folklore. 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 study except Baetzel’s.

The high alcohol levels of Bartholomay’s and Rochester Brewing’s beers, combined with their low final gravities, suggest to me an ale influence as noted.*

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.


*This text was lightly edited on February 13, 2021 for clarity and focus. The images are unchanged as are essential points in the earlier text.



1 thought on “Brouhaha in Rochester, NY”

  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.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: