Sunday, 7 October 2012

Matthew Vassar

Something odd has happened. I'm not quite sure how, but I've been drawn over the Atlantic into the world of North American brewing. Despite my best efforts, I've been diverted from the European path of my beer research. I couldn't help myself. It's just too fascinating. And such a great mirror to hold up to 19th-century British brewing.

I'm now officially adding Vassar Ale and Albany Ale to my list of obsessions. To kick it off, I'm reproducing part of a biography of Matthew Vassar, founder of both a brewery and a college.


President of Vassar College.

Matthew Vassar was born on the 29th of April, 1792, in a small settlement near the city of Norwich, in Norfolk county, England. His father, James Vassar, was a farmer, and, with a bachelor brother (Thomas), was specially engaged in the culture of wool until their emigration to this country in 1796. James brought his wife and four children, the eldest two being daughters, and Matthew the youngest son. They were all non-conformists, of the Baptist persuasion. Ascending the Hudson from New York, they settled on a farm of one hundred and fifty acres, about three miles east of Poughkeepsie, then an inconsiderable village of a few hundred souls.

In their new home the Englishmen missed their accustomed national beverage, and longed for a draught of home-brewed ale. To supply the lack, some fine seed rath was procured from England; and in 1798 "the first field of barley ever seen in Dutchess county ripened on the Vassar farm, in the valley of the Wappengi. The fame of Vassar's ale soon spread among the neighbors. The thrifty family made it for sale; and it was not long before little Matthew and his mother might occasionally be seen on theroad to Poughkeepsie, in the farm wagon, with a barrel of home-brewed ale, fresh eggs, and the yellowest of butter, for all which an ever-ready market was found."*

Three years later, James Vassar, having established himself successfully as a brewer in Poughkeepsie, proposed to take his two sons as assistants in the business. The elder entered willingly into the arrangement; but Matthew was irreconcilably averse to it; and when he learned that the only alternative was apprenticeship to a tanner, he resolved to take his fortunes into his own hand. He was just fourteen years of age when, with the consent and aid of his mother, he left his home, with a change of shirts and a pair of stockings tied up in his handkerchief, and seventy-five cents in his pocket; and, having crossed the river at the New Hamburg ferry, eight miles below Poughkeepsie, made his way on foot towards Newburgh. A farmer, in whose wagon he got permission to ride, proved a friend indeed. He took the lad to lodge at his house that night, and in the morning found a place for him in a country store. There Matthew Vassar, the boy, began to exhibit those traits of intelligence, integrity, diligence and thrift, which characterized him as a man through life; and in the habits formed while managing with thoughtful fidelity the interests of an employer, in the petty details of a small country store, he laid the foundations of a business capacity which in time proved equal to the direction of an extensive concern, on his own account, and to the wise care of a large estate. At the end of four years he returned home with one hundred and fifty dollars, saved from his earnings, and entered his father's establishment as bookkeeper and collector.

* Vassar College and its Founder, by Benson J. Lossing, p. 19.

The next year, a destructive fire left the elder Vassar poor, and Matthew without a situation. To complete the affliction, two days later the older son, then twenty-two years of age, and the chief dependence of the family, was accidentally killed while at work endeavoring to save something from the ruins of the conflagration. But young Matthew proved equal to this sudden increase of his responsibilities. At once obtaining the use of a dye-house connected with his brother-in-law's cloth factory, and setting up a few small kettles and tubs, he began brewing on his own account, making ale at the rate of three barrels at a time, and delivering it to his customers with his own hands. It soon acquired a local popularity. In 1812, he opened the first "oyster saloon" of Poughkeepsie, in the basement of the new court-house; and the oysters helped the sale of the beer. Matthew, who was at this time twenty years of age, divided his days between brewing at the dye-house and distributing his ale and "grains" to purchasers in various parts of the village, and then spent his evenings till midnight in personal attendance at the saloon.

In 1814, a citizen of considerable wealth and some experience in brewing, who had watched with interest the youth's singlehanded struggle with fortune, offered him the capital requisite for a more advantageous business. A partnership was formed, and an extensive brewery erected. In that establishment Mr. Vassar continued operations for more than twenty years, with several changes of partners, experiencing the usual vicissitudes of fortune, but on the whole pursuing a career of steady and gradually-increasing prosperity. He early learned the secret of success in manufacturing, viz: that by making a better article than any of his competitors, he could command the market, and that, in order to do this without an outlay which would eat up his profits in advance, he must bring to the business more information and intelligence than others, and exercise closer watchfulness and a wiser economy. These views, early adopted, guided the conduct of his business life, and, taken in connection with his strict integrity, account for its success.

In 1832, he took into partnership his two nephews, Matthew Vassar, jr., and John Guy Vassar, sons of his deceased brother. In 1836, a still more extensive establishment was erected on the banks of the Hudson, where the manufacture is still carried on under the original name of "M. Vassar & Co.," which has now had an honorable standing of more than half a century. The personal connection of Mr. Vassar with the firm did not entirely cease until 1866."
"Proceedings of the Fifth Anniversary of the University Convocation of the State of New York, Held 4th, 5th and 6th, 1868", 1869, pages 109 - 111.
Those dates in the 1830's in the last paragraph are interesting. The Vassar brewing book that has survived covers the period 1833 to 1837. Though I've only got up to 1835. The later years, after the construction of the new brewery would be useful to look at. Especially to se how much production went up. In the original brewery Vassar was knocking out 500 barrels of Single Ale and 11,000 barrels of Double Ale. As you can se from the illustration, the new brewery was substantial.

I'd also love to know if they changed brewing techniques with the move. In particular, if they moved to year-round brewing. In the records I've seen they didn't brew between the end of April and the middle of August. Had they installed modern equipment like attemperators, they should have been able to brew year round.

Getting back to Matthew Vassar, it's funny how, despite being a very reluctant brewer, he made a great success of it. By the way, he was born in East Dereham, in the parish of Tuddenham in Norfolk. The text above is a little vague about the location.

There's another reason I'm doing my Vassar Ale obsessive bit. I assembled so much material for my talk on Vassar Ale at Beau's Oktoberfest it seems a shame not to use it. Next I'll be getting onto the topic of the beer itself. You don't want to know how much detail it will be in. Somewhere between ludicrous and totally crazy.

Like Morecombe and Wise, I'm going to leave you with a song:

And so you see, to old V.C.
Our love shall never fail.
Full well we know that all we owe
To Matthew Vassar's ale.


Matt said...

Quite ironic that a WASPish women's liberal arts college was set up on the profits of selling wallop to the workers.

Ron Pattinson said...

Matt, having seen the strength of his beer, I doubt much of it was being drunk by workers. My guess is that the middle classes were his market.

Oblivious said...

Ron how strong where his.beers

Gary Gillman said...

Some years ago, I took a trip up to Poughkeepsie from New York. It wasn't connected, as so many of my side trips are, to beer. I can't recall the reason, I think a novel I read at the time was set there, perhaps a Frank O'Hara book, but anyway I wanted to see it.

At least then, it seemed hollowed out like so many towns that had once been vibrant in North America. When the first Vassar came, that was really a golden age, when you could come to verdant rural areas and set up substantial enterprises. They didn't need to move to the great metropolises to make their fortune. And many such fortunes were built on agriculture as the base.

A Canadian analogy would be the Gooderham and Worts families, also from England, who came to nearby Toronto and set up a milling business which morphed into a huge distillery (today Canadian Club). Another example is the family which came yet again from England to an estate near to Montreal and set up farming and ultimately the Black Horse brewery, the Dawes family. That suburb, Lachine, Quebec (side note: the first explorers thought they were in China) is today a small backwater, the Dawes business long closed, indeed this happened in the 1930's when it moved to downtown Montreal. Now it doesn't exist at all.

Perhaps John Molson, from Lincolnshire, was the gran-daddy of this kind of migration to North America.

It is melancholy to ponder all this but an upbeat note is that one can read back on what these breweries made and sometimes recreate the beers. This allows an almost literal taste of this kind of business and economic history.


Alan said...

"in 1798... the first field of barley ever seen in Dutchess county ripened on the Vassar farm..."

This is really interesting. If true, it substantiates a number of things. The severity of the effects of the Hessian Fly as well as the fact that earlier beer was wheat based. But it is more likely just not true.

Martyn Cornell said...

The point of a dye factory, of course, is that it would already have been fitted with boilers and a supply of water. (And vats too, though they might not have been so readily adaptable to brewing.)

Ron Pattinson said...

Oblivious, I'm getting to that. Tomorrow's post will look at Vassar's beer in more detail.

Edward said...

Are we going to get a Vassar Ale Let's Brew? Please?

Ron Pattinson said...

Edward, possibly . . . . .

Steve1954 said...

Thanks so much for the great article about Vassar Ale. Both of my kids were born in Vassar Bros Hospital - 1st one 30 years ago. Now my son has gotten me into this brewing hobby. He's all grain, I'm still (and expect to remain)an extract brewer. He lives in Maryland and is willing to give the 1834 a shot, but if you had some extract recipe recommendations, that would be wonderful. Now a western New Yorker, but still have relatives in Duchess County - would love to share with them. Thanks so much.