Back Into the Future

Earlier in the week, I went for a refreshingly brisk walk in the cold winter’s rain. On the way back from downtown New Albany, I took the shortcut home via 10th Street, where it crosses Market next to the city’s war memorial traffic island. Mansion Row is only a block away to the south, and after 10th crosses Spring northward, the neighborhood is transitional.

Standing right there, between Market and Spring, is a nondescript yet dignified 19th-century red brick commercial building, two stories tall, with a sloping roof and a “fermentational” story to tell.

The building is the last tangible remnant of New Albany’s brewing past, having once housed the brewery owned by the Buchheit family. In its prime, there was a corner compound of sorts, with two companion structures and outbuildings. A tavern and dance hall were located just yards away. I’ll leave the inevitable brothel to your fevered imagination.

The heyday was 125 years ago, give or take a decade, and currently the place where the beer used to be brewed suffers the supreme indignity of being home to a fundamentalist church of the sort that would lobby for a return to Prohibition, and as a result, should be viciously suppressed.

I suppose it’s like the Ohio Valley weather: If you don’t appreciate today’s zoning usage, just wait a century, and surely it will change.

Although the study of history is important to me, I’ve never been much for breweriana, and it isn’t my habit to pore over microfilm at the public library in search of obscure factoids.

Nonetheless, it was quite interesting a couple years back when a friend in my neighborhood received permission from the owner of the adjacent house, itself erected later atop brewery building foundations, to explore the former Buchheit lagering cellars, still reaching into the earth beneath it. His descriptions were beer for thought, indeed.

Perhaps stemming from my recent career change, from brewpub operator to production brewery owner, it has become compelling for me to idly speculate about the daily routines and business strategies of such a brewery as Buchheit’s, in a town like New Albany, at some indeterminate time between the Civil War and the turn of the century.

We know that smaller breweries often operated as extensions of the owning family, which tended to reside on or near the site, with bunkhouse rooms for their workers and seats at a communal table. Ice would be cut and packed into the cellars in wintertime to keep them cooler during warm weather. Just about everyone involved was German, and the beer was brewed according to the Old World stylebook with modifications as necessitated by available ingredients and prevailing conditions. The beer was kegged in wooden barrels, and also sometimes bottled – either by the brewer, or by free-standing “contract” bottling firms.

Apart from added elbow grease and equine deliveries, the actual work performed at a New Albany brewery of old wouldn’t have been substantively different from the schedule of ours in 2012, but in terms of selling the finished product, it’s my guess that a brewery in New Albanian times of yore functioned more like a purveyor of foodstuffs, as with a bakery, rather than in the manner of today’s brewpub or production brewery.

I feel this way for no other reason than the likelihood of recently arrived Germans regarding their beer as a daily source of nourishment, in addition to its more obvious value as an intoxicant. It’s the way the Old World worked, and a morning soup using leftover stale beer as stock was still a rural custom in parts of Germany until the mid-1900’s. It took Prohibition, rising standards of living and the passing of time to breed knowledge of “beer as food” out of the American gene pool.

I find much to admire in this simplicity of approach, even though certain stressful constants span the decades: Good and bad business cycles, employees juggling personal lives and work hours, raw material costs and outages, and the time-honored annoyance of trying to convince a reluctant banker to help out when the cash flow is tight.

These days, we’re in the entertainment business just as much, and probably more, as we are involved with beer-making and cooking meals. Prior to the advent of saturation connectivity and hyper-consumerism, seemingly there could exist a sufficient local or even regional market for a product like beer, absent the imperative to juggle multiple on-line social media portals, to satisfy the jaded and shortened attention span of the typical visitor, and to decide whether one’s brew team should read Beer Advocate’s reviews or not, lest they learn of their beers being deemed scandalously over-rated.

To me, the absence of modern medicine, e-mail and civil rights guarantees usually suffices to discourage time travel to the Robber Baron age. However, I’ve been known to second-guess myself.

Roger A. Baylor
New Albanian Brewing Company

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