From Stratford to Syracuse: Burton Pale ale in 1930s America

In an earlier essay, I explained that Zett’s Brewery in Syracuse, NY, with roots in pre-Prohibition brewing, was revived in 1933-1934. Genesee Brewing of Rochester, NY, then mainly owned and controlled by Louis Wehle, was the principal backer of Zett’s.

During its initial run Zett’s focused on an ale, Zett’s Sparkling Ale, and later introduced a lager, Par-Ex.

Zett’s was reorganized in bankruptcy court in 1935 under the name Syracuse Brewery, Inc., still under Genesee ownership. Genesee injected $25,000 to cover operating costs for a couple of years.

From mid-1935 until 1938 Wehle threw the dice again behind ale in Syracuse, this time with a Burton Unions fermentation set, and conditioning casks, imported from Burton-on-Trent, England. The Unions were installed in Syracuse at the former Zett’s. For further background see our post, here.

Wehle intended his new ale to be a copy of Burton pale ale. He seemed to be using the old Zett’s as a hub, assuming there was only one Burton unit, as in 1938 Wehle marketed in various parts of upstate a similarly-billed Genesee Light Ale. Perhaps he had bought two Burton Union sets, one each for the Syracuse and Rochester breweries, as (see below) he was selling Burton Union beer early in 1935 in Rochester and elsewhere upstate, initially called Old Stratford Ale. This was before the beer was made available to the public in Syracuse.

However it worked between the two cities, this was no half-hearted effort by Wehle. A trained brewer himself, he engaged as consultant no less than Briton Francis Moritz, scion of a noted brewing science family. Wehle also brought in an English brewer, Arthur Vaughan, from Burton to supervise the brewing in Syracuse. Vaughan arrived with his fiancée whom he later married, which made a splash in the Syracuse social pages.

In his autobiography written c.1960 that I profiled here, Wehle explained that the Syracuse venture did not succeed. Still, he states he should have persisted as American taste was changing. In his words:

It’s an extraordinary statement, as 1960 would seem the apogee of the light lager style. Why did the 1960 Wehle, now a lion in winter, think a true Burton ale would work in America if it hadn’t before? Ballantine India Pale Ale was just hanging on in Newark, NJ, as he had to know. To use the vernacular, America didn’t want to know from genuine ale – seemingly.

One factor may have been the growth of the Dutch Heineken in America, a factor he had to notice. Perhaps he thought a quality English counterpart, brewed locally, would challenge this and other imports with cachet.

In the end he was a visionary, obviously ahead of his time in the 1930s and still believing in 1960 that a genuine British-style ale would fly in America. Of course it finally did, birthed by luminaries such as Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe, Ken Grossman, Joseph Owades, Frank Appleton in Canada, Bill Newman, Bert Grant, and Greg Koch.

The first image above is from Wehle’s book This was my Life, which I profiled as stated. I highly recommend it to beer researchers and historians despite the difficulty to find it. The picture was taken during a trip to England in 1958.

Wehle states in the book that he first visited Britain in 1932. He must have planned his new ale during 1934 as the first press ads and news stories we traced appear in early February 1935. The book states that he bought fermentation and storage equipment on the 1935 trip, yet something similar had to be in place in February 1935. Either he bought the kit before the trip, or he sailed overseas in 1934, or he had a separate Burton unit initially placed in Rochester at Genesee.

The book states that Moritz made several trips to America for Wehle, so I’d think he came in 1934 to help install the Burton Unions and have beer in place by the start of February 1935, possibly for the Rochester area first. Finally Arthur Vaughan arrived in Syracuse – this is documented – in May 1935 to operate the system there.

Why did a German-American brewer have such an intense interest in British pale ale when he was from a town steeped in a tradition of lager or fizzy ales not so different from lager?

In general, Wehle seems to have been an Anglophile, as the book is admiring of the countryside and other attractions of Britain, Ireland too.

Also, as I stated earlier, when Wehle trained as a brewmaster c.1910, Burton still enjoyed a world reputation in brewing. This may have inclined him to an outsize appreciation for a (basically) non-American beer type.

Further, Rochester’s Bartholomay Brewing and Genesee Brewing were owned by an English syndicate even before Wehle worked there between 1905 and 1918. He states in his book his family owned shares in the group.

See this Genesee outline of the syndicate’s formation.

Wehle had surely met English representatives of the owners who likely discussed their native pale ale with him. Perhaps they had brought samples for the Rochester staff to try.

Bass Pale Ale was always available in America but bottled Bass was one iteration of pale ale, matured and with secondary maturation flavours. It would not have tasted as Burton “running” pale ales. This surely is what Wehle sought to sell to consumers across upstate New York during Depression America.

The beer shown with him in the Cheshire Cheese would have been that type, even if London beer.

Initially Wehle’s beer was called Old Stratford Ale. Detailed news ads of 1935 explained that all-English malt and (Kent) hops were imported, and English yeast was used. In effect Wehle did what those today do who seek to re-create a historic beer taste. It’s what I did with Amsterdam Brewery in Toronto earlier this year when recreating an 1870 AK bitter recipe.

Old Stratford Ale did not take off, sadly. Wehle evidently re-named the beer for another try. Ads for a similarly-made Genesee Light Ale appear through 1938, as I showed earlier.

The Burton Unions must have been retired by the start of WW II, as Wehle states in the extract of the book above that he abandoned such brewing after a couple of years. It was more like four years.

Perhaps Vaughan and wife went home. Wehle gave up, finally, on brewing in Syracuse but went on to consolidate a regional powerhouse in Genesee Brewing. He relied on both lager and sparkling ales such as 12 Horse and Genesee Cream Ale for the bulwark of his business.

The book states that N. Wesley Markson, the head of sales in Syracuse and an executive in whom Wehle had great confidence, died at only 40. This was in 1937, we have separately confirmed.

The implication is the business was dealt a mortal blow. Markson is mentioned in the story above chronicling Vaughan’s arrival in America to brew for Syracuse Brewing, Inc.

“Genny” beer in Rochester remains successful to this day, now under aegis of Costa Rican ownership.

A businessman to the core, Wehle still had an evident affection for the old Burton India style. He wanted to make it the toast of New York State, that much is clear.

He was a proto-Fritz Maytag, proto-Jack McAuliffe, proto- Frank Appleton. We salute him.

Note re images: The images above, except for the first whose provenance is noted, were drawn from mid-1930s searches in the Fulton Historical Newspaper archive. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.