Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Neighborhood brewing once thrived in New Albany.

(Cross posted at NA Confidential)

In the era that followed the Civil War, when New Albany was half a century old and still growing, multi-national brewing conglomerates were unknown. When it was time for a beer, the city’s residents walked around the corner and down the street to one of New Albany’s neighborhood breweries, which thrived by brewing and serving quality beer to the local market – sometimes in barrels, sometimes in bottles, often in buckets or jugs.

These jugs, called “growlers,” were carried home from the brewery tap to accompany the workingman’s evening meal and to fuel his nightly conversations with friends and neighbors on the front porch, or to quench thirsts engendered by sandlot baseball games.

It was good beer, or so stated a writer for the New Albany Ledger Standard, who in 1877 observed:

For many years New Albany has been famous for the excellence of her beer … and the demand is so great that until recently our brewers could not supply orders.

Earlier newspaper records show that Hew Ainslie, an immigrant from Scotland, established a commercial brewery in New Albany in 1840. We can surmise that Ainslie -- a published poet and fervent Scottish nationalist -- brewed ales and porter in the style familiar to him from his upbringing in the British Isles. In the 1850’s, Germans began to settle in great numbers in New Albany, bringing with them an appreciation for the newly emerging lager beers of their homelands.

Brewery owners Paul Reising, Peter Bucheit and Veit Nirmeier are forgotten today, but at one time their names were synonymous with business acumen and civic rectitude, and their breweries held respectable places in the pantheon of local manufacturing excellence.

New Albany’s brewing heritage was fully intact at century’s end, and the city’s residents still regarded the availability of freshly brewed local beer as a social and cultural norm. Two independent breweries, producing lager styles and the indigenous Louisville-area ale called Kommon, thrived in New Albany in 1900. Another had closed only two years before.

A handful of smaller brewing operations were recognized, including “saloon” breweries (known as “brewpubs” today). Another moderate-sized brewery operated in Jeffersonville, while across the river in Louisville, there were as many as 20 breweries in operation at various times during the years prior to World War I.

Things began to change in the early years of the 20th century, when a number of social and economic developments conspired to weaken the bond between Americans and their local brands of beer. Brewers in larger urban areas began to apply the techniques of industrial mass production to the process of brewing. Markets were expanded by the use of refrigerated rail cars, and smaller local rivals fell victim to unfavorable economies of scale as well as the unscrupulous methods familiar to those who have studied the “Robber Baron” period of American history.

New Albany’s German brewing tradition was dealt a blow when America entered the Great War. Subsequently, the cultural atrocity of Prohibition effectively killed smaller-scale local brewing in much of the United States. The way was paved for the rise of the monopolistic, multi-national beer factories that have diluted not only their beer, but also the experience of drinking fresh beer locally in the truest sense that our forbearers intuitively understood.

Repeal of Prohibition proved to be too little, too late for the majority of these family-run businesses. The only New Albany brewery to operate after the repeal of Prohibition was the Southern Indiana Ice & Beverage Company, popularly known as Ackerman’s. Brands like Vienna Select, Old Rip and Imperial Double Stout were brewed where the Holiday Inn Express now stands, but unfortunately the business was short-lived. It closed in 1935, and the city’s brewing tradition entered a period of dormancy.

67 years later, in 2002, the New Albanian Brewing Company set out to recapture the small-scale, artisanal spirit of brewing in New Albany during its late 19th-century zenith, while at the same time incorporating the global stylistic perspective afforded by the American craft beer revolution of the 1990’s.

Thanks to Conrad Selle and Peter Guetig, authors of “Louisville Breweries,” for their invaluable research.

1 comment:

Mat Gerdenich said...

Interesting history lesson. Ironically enough the Cavalier Distributing group stayed at the Holiday Inn Express during our last Gravity Head visit. When we woke up feeling the full effects of a peak Saturday night Gravity head experience we had no clue as to the beer / historical significance of the site.