Thursday, August 02, 2007

History Lesson: William S. Newman Brewing Company

A week away from my thirtieth birthday, I received an early birthday present from my dad - a package that included a card, some beer money, and three books. One of the books? The Simon and Schuster Pocket Guide To Beer, by Michael Jackson. Published in 1991, it's an interesting read - it's a guide to the different types of beer - which is invaluable in and of itself - as well as a tour of the beer world as it was 16 years ago. It's interesting how things have changed.

I was paging through the "United States" section, which was divided into sections. As of this writing, there were a scant 41 brewpubs, microbreweries, and major brewers from Washington, DC to Maine. Wow. How far we have come!

Of more interest, though was the entry under "Newman." It reads, "The first micro-brewery in the East, at Albany, New York, was ahead of its time and paid the price. Albany Amber Beer, a fruity lager/ale hybrid with some hop bitterness, is now produced under contract at F.X. Matt."

Interesting! The first microbrewery in the East was in Albany? I wanted to know more. So, it was off to Google!

Here's what I found out: the William S. Newman Brewing Company, named after master brewer Bill Newman, was founded in 1981. Newman apparently learned his craft in England and brought brewing to, well, downtown Albany, at 84 Chestnut Street - about a block away from Empire State Plaza. Aside from the aforementioned "Albany Amber," he brewed a Pale Ale.

It was the first microbrewery east of Colorado, apparently. Among those working there? Jim Koch, who would later go on to found the little-known Samuel Adams in Boston. Of Newman, Jim notes:

These little microbreweries were starting up and that really got my interest. I actually worked in Bill Newman's brewery in Albany. He was the first guy who started a microbrewery east of Boulder. I came away thinking, OK, the idea is right. I knew that it was possible to make world-class beer here in the United States.

Additionally, Newman Brewing apparently anticipated the trend of serving beer in growlers. In the early 1980s, according to this article, "Newman Brewing in Albany, NY used to sell soft plastic gallon containers of their beer. Apparently if you brought the empty back to the brewery, they'd replenish it with more beer." Growlers didn't make the scene until 1989.

Newman Brewing was pretty prominent. How so? It was profiled in this July 1983 article in Time Magazine, during which Newman claimed $130,000 in sales in 1982. Not too shabby at all. It was also profiled in Atlantic Monthly in November, 1987. (Grateful thanks to the kindred souls at A Good Beer Blog for preserving that through transcription.)

What happened to the William S. Newman Brewery? As articles like this recent one from the Albany Times-Union note, it went out of business. But when? I'm not sure.

As best as we can can figure, it departed the Albany scene around 1989-1990 or so, well before I moved up here. I'd be interested to know about the demise of the Newman Brewery, as well as what - if anything - Bill Newman is doing these days. (If you know more, use the comments section - thanks!)

At the end of the day, there's an interesting irony at hand - that Albany, which really isn't much of a beer town, actually played a pivotal role in the microbrewery movement. Fascinating stuff.


Bojangles said...

Loved the part in 1983 Time article about Boulder Brewing having $96,000 in sales in 1982, and Mendocino Brewing being set to open the following year in Ukiah, CA.

Willie Moe said...

Sweet gift, book seems fascinating.

Terry Ghee said...

I grew up across the river from Albany. We used to trek to Newman's, oh about once a week or so for beer. He sold the beer in a plastic cube, 1 gallon and 1.5 gallon, if memory serves (I don't think it was liters, but...). The cube was a smaller sized cube like what you could buy in camping stores to hold water. It had a spigot that you turned to let the beer out. The cube was in cardboard box with a light green Newman's label pasted to it. You could get Albany Amber and Pale Ale and sometimes other type. The quality control was hit and miss. Generally not bad but every once in a while you got a bad batch. Some batches were better than others. If did go sour fast if you didn't drink fast (sort of a bit in incentive). But even so it was better than the Gennessee or Utica Club. SO you would go to the brewery, walk in and track down the beer guy (guy with a big beard named Jim I think) and we would walk to the heart of the brewery and fill the cube. Quite an experience. I got a few Newman's glasses, etc. I do have to disagree about Alabany not being a beer town. Albany and Troy had a large number of breweries (according to my Pop), one run by the local Democrat party boss. I think one was named Knickerbocker. Not sure.

nyaaa said...

Newman's was great. My informal highschool graduation party in 1983 featured a half keg of Newman's Albany Amber. At a time when the standard for your $2 was Pabst or Genny, this crazy beer was a huge hit. I have been a microbrew fan and home brewer ever since.

sutch said...

I have fond memories of Newman's ales. I worked there for a few months cleaning the equipment and kegs. Employees were allowed to drink on the job! I still long for the fresh, hoppy flavor of Albany Amber Ale. Mmmmm.

Vincent said...

Newman's opened while I was an RPI student. It was earlier than 1981, as I graduated in '81 and was making pilgrimages to Albany in my Junior year, so was more likely 1980. You could bring almost any container, and they would fill it. Dinkelacker had mini-kegs back then, and some people would bring them to have them filled.

One of the problems with the plastic camping water carrier in the cardboard box was that the brew didn't stay carbonated past a day or so, so we had to finish it while it was fresh.

They had a number of brews, and at one point Mr. Newman ran into a weird issue with, of all government agencies, the FDA. Seems his winter dark ale was called "Winter Warmer", and some idiot at the FDA said that the name implied medicinal properties. He eventually changed the name, but I'm sure that the headache of dealing with them sapped some of his enthusiasm.

The site where he opened his brewery had previously been a brewery, and there were a number of local brews in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area back before there were regional and national brews.

Joe said...

My father and I used to go to the brewery once or twice a week, I'm 58 years old now. You did have to drink it soon after getting the ale or it went flat. It was a very good product. But he couldn't get enough capital to finance a bottling operation.


Saratoga Lager launched by two married couples
Modern Brewery Age , April 20, 1992

A team effort between two married couples has resulted in the metropolitan New York area launch of Saratoga Lager, a Dortmunderstyle beer produced under contract at the Catamount Brewing Co.

The new brand has been in development for three years and is the product of a joint venture formed by advertising executives Chuck and Lyn Schroeder, and brewers William and Marie Newman. Prior to the venture, the Schroeders worked on national beer campaigns, while the Newmans opened one of the Northeast's first microbreweries in 1981.

"Our goal was to produce an elegant and authentic beer that is affordable in both good times and bad--a beer that [former New York City Mayor] Jimmy Walker would be proud of," stated Chuck Schroeder when announcing the introduction of Saratoga Lager to the New York market.

"Restaurants are now offering diners a sophisticated selection of beers and ales along with a wine list," Schroeder continued. "We take this process one step further by creating a true Dortmunder style--the first of its kind in the Northeast."

From the beer's upstate New York launch on October 15, 1991 through the end of the year Schroeder reported. about 4,500 cases of the beer were sold. Metropolitan distribution of the beer began three days before Christmas, he said, and is now beginning to achieve some market penetration.

"We are very optimistic because we have some of the best and biggest distributors handling, the product," Schroeder pointed out. "I know of no other specialty beer that has received such favorable attention from distributors and prestigious restaurants and bars so soon after its introduction."

According to Bill Newman, Saratoga Lager is brewed in accordance with the German Purity Law, "is pale golden in color and medium dry on the palate, medium to full-bodied with a slightly sweet finish.

The name "Saratoga" was chosen to "reflect the graciousness of the famous upstate New York spa and the healthfulness and freshness of its renowned waters.

The beer is currently available at New York's "21" Club, The Rainbow Room, The Mark, The Water Club and Fraunces Tavern Restaurant, among others. Because the Newman's orginal draft ale brewery contained no bottling facilities, the Albany, NY-based facility was shut down in 1987, and all operations were consolidated under one roof. The Newman's continue to brew their Newman's Albany Amber on a contract basis.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Business Journals, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

Gilbert said...

There was a strong connection between Newman and the morris dance and folk dance/song community. Morris dance is an English tradition. In the UK there was and is a great cross-over between morris dancers and the Real Ale movement.

Bill Newman was a morris dancer, a member of Albany's Pokingbrook Morris

Morris "migrated" to the US starting in the 1970s. Teams sprung up in New York and Massachusetts around then, including in Albany and Binghamton, NY.

These dancers knew or came to know of the UK Real Ale movement, and especially if they'd been on dancing tours in England, they wanted something similar in the US.

Newmans ale was hugely popular at morris dance events in the 80s. At the time it was the best you could get, as close to British bitter as you could find in the entire country - and it was made by "one of our own."

Bill from Berne said...

As a life long resident of Albany and a sometime acquaintance of Bill Newman's, I will try and fill in some details about Newman's and Albany's beer history.

First of all I am not aware of any brewing done on Chestnut St. I believe that is where Bill an Marie lived at the time and was probably the business address. The brewing was done in North Albany on Lerned St. in a garage that was rumored to have once been owned by the Schaeffer brewing co.

The first beer brewed was the pale ale. I don't remember the year but '81 sounds close. It was brewed to be served at celler of slightly below room temterature. This was not popular with those conditioned to drink their beer cold. That winter or the next he came out with the Winter Ale. While I remember the details somewhat differently the story about the government objecting to the label is essentially correct. Ibelieve it was after that that Albany Amber was born. It was a Dotmunder, brewed to be served chilled and thus more popular with American drinkers. While there may have been others those are the only 3 that I remember being brewed at the Learned St. facility. A golden ale with Saratoga in its name was later produced in bottles, but I do not believe it was ever brewed in Albany.

Starting before 1987 Albany Amber was brewed and bottled under contract by a series of regional breweries including Matts of Utica NY, Schmidt's of Philadelphia and Catamont of Vermont. While at Schmidts the Hiedleman corporation bought Schmidts and refused to honor the contract with Newmans and a lenght court battle ensued. In order to finance another contract the Learned street facility was sold. Eventually a settlement was arrived at but the company never recovered.

I know that Newman's was out of business a few years before 1994, when someone presented me with a bottle of Albany Amber they had had for some time. The beer had not preserved well, but it was still an honor to have tasted what must have been one of the last examples of this excellent product.

I believed Bill Newman is still in the Albany area. at one time he did consulting work for local brew pubs. My wife and I occasionally see him at folk music events in the Albany area. Until a few years ago, he sold beer,though not his own at the Old Songs festival in Altamont NY.

As for Albany's beer history, it was indeed the home of many breweries including Beverwick, Doblers and Hedricks. The latter was owned by the long time Albany County Democratic Party chaorman, Daniel O'Conor. Sshaeffers, a Massechusetts based company, owned the last brewery in Albany, which closed sometime in the '70s.

sutch said...

This Times Union article states that the brewery was located at 32 Learned St (August 15, 1987, page D3):