Capturing the Spirit of the Finger Lakes in a Bottle

In the spring, a man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love, or so the saying goes. In the fall, as the air turns colder, my thoughts turn inward, toward my stomach and the glow that a fine beverage provides on a blustery day when enough warmth doesn’t come from the sun.

We are blessed in the Finger Lakes to live in a region where we take the fruits of the earth and combine them with arts refined over thousands of years to render a drink that has the power to quench the spirit and elevate the soul. Because of our proximity, I decided it was time to take a journey to an establishment that makes these fine beverages.

In autumn, winery tours bring many tourists to the Finger Lakes in search of picturesque scenery, the colors of fall, and the tastes of the season. But I was not headed for any of the fine vineyards that dot the landscape around the lakes. Instead, I took the road less traveled and that made all the difference…I pointed myself toward the Ithaca Beer Company.

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.
– Benjamin Franklin

If you share the opinion that beer is a lower form of life on the beverage evolutionary scale than the Finger Lakes’ better-known libation, you are not alone. Mistaken, but not alone.

The perception in understandable. For years at the hand of Madison Avenue, beer has been portrayed as the drink of the common man. You were loyal to your brand, which produced a single, mundane variety, whether you were in your undershirt watching NASCAR or a tuxedo watching opera…ok, maybe not opera but you get the idea. Wine, on the other hand, was the choice of sophisticates. There were varieties for all occasions, choices that brought out the character of different entrees and the flavor of each season of the year. Beer had evolved into the poor stepchild in the beverage family. But the reputation is undeserved. Beer in all its glory is a noble beverage with a long and storied history.

The grape has been elevated to a lofty position and rightfully so. But rather than being lovingly produced from one fruit of the vine, beer is the product of several products of the earth. While the grape is the fruit that can render magical beverages, the hop is the flower with a similar power. In the right hands, the finest hops and barley can be combined to produce a drink of limitless complexity and variety.

All other nations are drinking Ray Charles beer and we are drinking Barry Manilow.
– Dave Barry

Think of it this way; beer is like bread. Mass-produced American beer is like Wonder bread.  And Wonder bread is wonderful…when you are five. But the world is populated with myriad varieties of deliciously satisfying breads: ryes and wheats and pumpernickels. The same is now true for beer.

Only a short time ago, you could look out over the beer horizon in this country and see nothing but an endless see of Wonder bread, mass-produced beer with a lot of marketing and little taste. The prevailing wisdom was that the American taste demanded light-colored and light-tasting beers. “No aftertaste,” they would proudly proclaim in the advertising. Is there anything that you ingest, besides water, where the lack of taste is an admirable trait? Just imagine…“Excuse me waiter, I insist on sending this meal back because it has entirely too much taste.”

But in the 1980s a movement was afoot, driven by people that craved beer that had taste. Yikes, they even wanted a memory of that taste after they swallowed! And small breweries began to spring up around the country to answer the demand for beer in the traditions of our forefathers and to reawaken the American taste bud.

He was a wise man who invented beer.
– Plato

It is into this climate that two young, but wise, men came from different directions to form the Ithaca Beer Company and craft their family of distinctive beers—beers, as their label proudly proclaims, that embody “The Spirit of the Finger Lakes.”

Dan Mitchell was tending bar after attending Cornell University with one thought in his mind—that he was meant to own his own business. He only had to look around to see the opportunity that was at arms length every night as he poured beer for the patrons. The idea began as a brewpub, but after fermenting for a while, it eventually evolved into an agreement with the Chicago Brewing Company to brew and bottle the first versions of Ithaca Beer. They began to enjoy some success, starting to occupy shelf space in nearby Tops and P&C stores. But something was missing, according to Mitchell. “Great in concept, but the downside was that it was brewed in Chicago. We took some heat for that.” And just as they became a presence on supermarket shelves, the Chicago Brewing Company went out of business.

But as Ben Franklin has already taught us, God loves beer and perhaps He was looking down when the timing began to fall into place. “At the last minute, I found the equipment and had to buy it. It was the right time and the right stuff,” says Mitchell. And through it all, Ithaca remained the right place.  “Ithaca, in the Finger Lakes region, is the highest per capita consumer of specialty beers. They equate drinkers of specialty beers with a 25 to 45 age range and upper middle class income. It’s also more alternative. You take those three combinations, and you’re explaining what Ithaca is all about.

“I knew that if we had a facility here we could brew good beer.” Mitchell charged forward and in November of 1998, launched the genuine Ithaca beer, brewed lovingly in the town that gave it its name.

Give me a woman who loves beer and I will conquer the world.
– Kaiser Wilhelm

“In the beginning, I was doing all the brewing, sales, everything,” says Mitchell.  “I basically had my wife throwing in the malt bags while I was doing the mashing in and that clearly wasn’t going to work.” Obviously, to conquer the world, it was going to take more than a good woman. It was going to take a man who knew he liked beer more than eggs.

Jeff Conuel, head brewer, came to the Ithaca Beer Company through a passion for beer. A Masters degree in chemical engineering and a love of home brewing led him to a position in another beer company. But immersed in the business as he was, he was a long way from his dream. As fourth in line to the position of head brewer, he spent much of his time washing kegs and other tasks beneath his skill. With an eye toward moving up, he contacted Mitchell and found to his surprise that there was a head brewer position available.

With Nabisco in a job just out of college, Conuel spent long days looking at big tanks of fake eggs. What he wanted was to spend his days looking at big tanks of beer. He had gotten his wish. He was staring at big tanks of Ithaca beer…his beer.

It was the piece that Dan Mitchell had been looking for. “After about a month, I moved Jeff into taking over all the production, thinking that if I know that I’ve got beer—the quality of beer that I’m looking for—and I don’t have to worry about that end of it, then we can actually create a company and do what we’re trying to do.”

And that was to brew some truly outstanding beer.

A GOOD beer is one that sells! You may think it sucks but if the market embraces it, so be it. Now a great beer or world class beer is another matter….
– Jim Busch of Anheuser Busch

Great beer can spring from the most modest of surroundings.  The building that houses Ithaca Beer would be easy to overlook if it weren’t for the Fresh Brew sign in the window.  To a true beer lover, the sign beckons like the sirens to Ulysses. You would have to lash me to the steering wheel to keep me from the temptation.

The surroundings might be humble, but the beer that it yields is far from it. The Ithaca family of beers consists of a series of four year-round bottled beers and two seasonal ales. To give a little beverage perspective, ales are much like red wine—aromatic, full-bodied, and flavorful—while lagers are a bit like white wine.

My first encounter with the products of the Ithaca Beer Company came on a summer evening on the shore of Canandaigua Lake. In the mood for a beer with enough fortitude to hold its own against a spicy dinner, I curiously ordered an Ithaca Pale Ale. What I found was a beer with a wonderful hoppy bitterness and a pleasant dryness that leaves your mouth craving another swallow. Their exquisite India Pale Ale (named Flower Power because people often confused I.P.A. to mean Ithaca Pale Ale) takes the hop aroma to a fabulous level. India Pale Ales came about when extra hops were added to English ales to preserve the beer on the long journey to the troops stationed in India. Flower Power is quite simply an outstanding ale using the full power of the hop in one of the finest IPAs you’ll ever have the pleasure to drink.

Ithaca Beer’s most popular beer, accounting for almost half of all sales, is its Nut Brown Ale. While the Pale Ale derives its personality from the hops, Nut Brown gains its distinctive character from a mix of malts that hints of a taste akin to chocolate or coffee. Anniversary Stout promises to be a heartier cousin to the Nut Brown with even more robustness and body. Alas, because of its season, it wasn’t available for sampling. But it is yet another reason to look forward to fall in our Finger Lakes region.

I’m generally a bit suspicious of amber ales. To too many companies, amber ale is merely an opportunity to color their uninteresting beer a pretty color in an effort to appeal to that demographic who thinks they want a specialty beer. Ithaca’s Amber Ale will have none of that. It starts with a mild bitterness that fades into a slightly sweet finish. It balances the flavor of hop and malt and takes full advantage of both. And damn if it isn’t a pretty color, too.

As suspicious as I am of ambers, I was more wary of a beer called Apricot Wheat. When last I looked at the recipe for beer, I was certain they mentioned neither wheat nor apricots. But again, I was happily surprised.  Not as sweet as the name suggests with only a hint of fruit at the finish, it is a cheerful, effervescent beer. It rounds out the Ithaca family of ales with a choice perfectly suited to the summer months.

I would kill everyone in this room for a drop of sweet beer.
– Homer Simpson

Once you realize the full potential and virtue of beer, you will go to great lengths to always have some at the ready.  Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to go through a Homer-like odyssey to do so. Through their dedication to quality, Ithaca Beer is winning converts and continues to expand its presence throughout the Finger Lakes region. And for the moment, that is the extent of Mitchell’s ambition. “We could go into the Hudson Valley, we could talk to people in Ohio and Pennsylvania. But the farther out you go, the less attention you can give to your beer. And no one cares as much about the beer as we do.

“In the Finger Lakes region, we can create a very good business.” It is a testament to the growing popularity of Ithaca Beer and good quality beer in general.

Good people drink good beer.
– Old Celtic saying

It is a bit of old Celtic wisdom. If its true, then you’ll leave the Ithaca Beer Company a much better person than when you arrived.

by Duane Bombard, photographs by Linda Bombard
Duane Bombard claims that beer is one of his favorite subjects, as you well can see. Duane and Linda live near Gorham, NY.

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