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

 

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

Out of the gate the new Zett’s focused on an ale, Zett’s Sparkling Ale, and later a lager, Par-Ex.

Zett’s ran into business difficulties – the Depression was intensifying – and was reorganized in bankruptcy court in 1935 under a new name, Syracuse Brewery, Inc. Genesee was still owner and  injected $25,000 to cover operating costs for the next two years.

From mid-1935 until 1938 Wehle threw the dice again behind ale in Syracuse. This time, he imported a Burton Unions fermentation set and conditioning casks from Burton-on-Trent, Great Britain. These were installed at Syracuse Brewery, Inc. For more on this aspect, see our post, here.

 

 

Wehle intended the new ale to be a strict copy of Burton pale ale. He seemed to be using the Syracuse brewery as a hub to serve other parts of the state. In 1938 Wehle marketed in various upstate towns a similarly-made Genesee Light Ale. Perhaps he bought two Burton Union sets, one each for the Syracuse and Rochester breweries, as (see below) he was selling Burton Union beer in Rochester, called Old Stratford Ale, even before a similar brew went on the market in Syracuse.

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

In his autobiography of c.1960 I discussed here, Wehle stated the Syracuse venture did not succeed. But he added he should have persisted, as American beer tastes were changing. In his words:

 

 

It’s an extraordinary statement, as 1960 would seem to be the apogee of the American light lager style. Why did Wehle of 1960, a lion in winter, think a true Burton ale would work if it hadn’t years before? The old-fashioned but connoisseur’s beer Ballantine India Pale Ale was just hanging on in Newark, NJ, as he had to know.

One factor may have been the growth of Dutch-based Heineken in the U.S., something Wehle had to notice. Maybe he thought a quality English beer type brewed locally would challenge the famed Dutch beer for cachet.

In the end, Wehle was a visionary, ahead of his time in the 1930s and still believing in 1960 that a genuine British-style ale would fly in America.

In a sense it finally did, in the form of pale ale and IPAs launched by craft brewing pioneers such as Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe, Ken Grossman, Joseph Owades, Bill Newman, and Bert Grant.

 

 

The first image above is from the Wehle book mentioned, This was my Life. I recommend it to beer researchers and historians despite the difficulty to find it. The picture was taken during a tour in England in 1958.

Wehle writes that he first visited Britain in 1932. He must have planned his new ale in 1934 as news ads and related news stories start to appear in February 1935. He states that he bought fermentation and storage equipment on the 1935 trip, yet he was brewing the new ale in early February 1935. There must be another explanation for why the ale was already being made, at least in Rochester.

He also writes that Moritz made several trips to America for him, so I’d think Moritz came in 1934 to install the Burton Unions, and have beer in place in Rochester by start of February 1935. Finally Arthur Vaughan arrived in Syracuse, this is documented, in May 1935 to operate the system there.

Why did a German-American brewer have an intense interest in British pale ale given lager had overtaken ales in upstate New York by the 1930s, and given too Wehle’s German-oriented background?

Wehle seems to have been an Anglophile, for one thing. The book is complimentary of landscapes and other aspects of life in Britain and Ireland.

Also, when Wehle trained as a brewmaster before WW I Burton-on-Trent still enjoyed a world reputation in brewing. This may have inclined Wehle to a special appreciation for what by the 1930s was old-fashioned in America – ale.

Yet another potential factor: Bartholomay Brewing and Genesee Brewing in Rochester had been owned by an English syndicate before WW I, when Wehle worked in both. He states in the book his family owned shares in the syndicate.

See this Genesee outline of the syndicate’s formation.

 

Wehle probably met English representatives who  discussed their native ales with him, and he acquired a taste and interest.

As noted, Initially Wehle’s beer was called Old Stratford Ale. Detailed news ads of 1935 explained that all-English malt and hops from Kent, England were used for the beer. English yeast was, also.

He clearly admired a tradition he wanted to implant in America, and went to great trouble to do so.

 

Old Stratford Ale did not succeed. Wehle re-named it for another try, Genesee Light Ale, but by 1942 the beer was another damp squib, at least in its true Burton form.

Likely Arthur Vaughan and his wife went home. Wehle gave up, finally, on brewing these ales in Syracuse and Rochester but went on to create a regional powerhouse in Genesee Brewing. Lager as well as sparkling and cream ales (lighter than the Burton-type) formed the main brands.

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

But we have seen that Wehle, a businessman to the core, never lost his old affection for Burton pale ale. Even nearing his death he harboured hopes to re-launch it. In this sense, he was a visionary and a photo-craft brewer.

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.