Back in 2000, Stuart and Dianne McKnight from Castleton-on-Hudson, south of Albany, decided to spend a long weekend visiting the Finger Lakes. When they arrived it was getting dark, and every accommodation they stopped at was filled. In Watkins Glen they came upon the rustic Seneca Lodge, adjacent to the state park. Seeing the lodge’s quaint cabins scattered about the woods, Stuart recalls thinking: “Oh my God, what have we gotten ourselves into?”
Nevertheless, the receptionist there said she had one cabin left and, “We took it,” Stuart said, “and had the best time of our lives. We went to the lodge’s bar and ended staying there for most of the night.”
Since that first visit, Stuart, a retired police officer, and Dianne, an executive with an Albany investment firm, have made the trip to the Finger Lakes an annual event. In recent years, they’ve been joined by Dianne’s brother Michael Doughtie and his wife Michelle, also of Castleton-on-Hudson. The couples keep coming back for the beautiful scenery, the good food – and the craft beer. In a region known for its fine fermentation of grapes, grain brewing is growing.
More beer here
In the past year, the number of breweries and brewpubs in the 14-county Finger Lakes Region has doubled – from just over 20 to more than 40, according to Theresa Hollister, cofounder of FingerLakesBeerTrail.com.“In the last week alone, I’ve gotten notices of four new breweries coming on board,” she said.
Much of the growth can be attributed to recent farm brewery legislation in New York that removed obstacles and facilitated the startup and operation of brewpubs, Hollister noted. It includes a provision that the new pubs must use an escalating proportion of New York-grown beer-making ingredients such as hops and barley malt. Asked if there were sufficient providers of the newly required local ingredients, Hollister said: “Not yet – no. That’s why we need more hops growers and more barley malters. A handful of malt houses are in the planning stage in the Finger Lakes Region now.”
David Katleski, president of the New York State Brewers Association and owner of Empire Brewing Company in Syracuse, reported that his company plans to build a new 18,000-square-foot brewery and tasting room in Cazenovia.“We will open with about a 20,000-barrel annual capacity, and have the capability of expanding to 60,000 barrels.”
Business at his location in Syracuse’s Armory Square is up 30 percent over last year, he noted. For the last three years he has also been brewing at a friend’s facility in Brooklyn, which has given him the opportunity to distribute in that location. At the Cazenovia site, he will have bottling and canning systems that will also greatly expand sales potential. “It’s a new venture for us,” he said.
When Empire was founded in 1994, it was the sixth brewery in New York State. This August, the number stood at 135. “That type of growth is staggering,” said Katleski. “We’ve added 100 breweries in just 10 years. I know of another 40 breweries that are in the planning stages right now.”
Katleski attributes the growth, in part, to the changing consumer palate and increasing interest in buying local. “Those are the two things that are really driving this industry right now, and, frankly, of the 135 brewers that are in New York State, I don’t know of one that isn’t at capacity.”
Hope for hops
Growth could not happen without the new farm brewery license, because, as Katleski noted, it “expands a brewer’s ability to do things that no other license in New York State allows. Essentially, you can have tasting rooms, you can sell pints of beer, you can have a restaurant component and you can sell other people’s New York-distilled spirits, or farm cider or even wine.
“There are certain levels of New York State products you have to use in the beer itself, and the reason those regulations are in there is to encourage both hop processing and malted barley production in the state,” Katleski explained. “Those are really a target. If, for some reason, the farm industry cannot keep up with our demand, we’re not going to be penalized. There are certain outs we have that will allow us to use as much New York product as is out there.”
He offered this example: “Empire makes a beer called Empire State Pale Ale, one of our best sellers. It is made only with New York State hops. We have not been able to produce that particular beer for five months because there are no New York State hops available. It’s the first time we’ve run out. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that last year it was a really dry growing season and the hops yields were about 60 percent of what they normally are, plus there’s increased demand in New York.”
In the mid-19th century, almost 90 percent of the hops used for brewing beer in the United States were grown in New York. The crop was a major component of the state’s agriculture. However, by the start of the 20th century, pests and disease had greatly reduced the hops acreage here, then Prohibition finished it off. Today, hops-growing is concentrated in the state of Washington’s Yakima Valley.
Steve Miller is a New York State hops specialist based in Madison County. He assists farmers who are interested in growing hops, and coordinates the Northeast Hops Alliance and publishes its newsletter. “I think people who are farm brewers will be able to find what they need in locally grown hops,” Miller related. “I think they’ll have a little more difficulty finding enough malt, but that’s going to change, too. I’m getting e-mails as I’m sitting here talking – people inquiring about prospects for growing hops or barley. That’s surprising in that it’s very expensive to put in a hops crop – with labor, it’s about $15,000 an acre.”
He added, “I don’t think there will ever be the acreage there was 100 years ago, but there’s definitely a critical mass of growers who are interested. A lot of people who put in 100 or 200 plants a few years ago are now adding an acre or two.”
Todd Wyckoff, who operates a four-acre hops farm in Sheldrake, is one of the growers thinking about expanding acreage. With his hops in their third year of production, he had a bumper crop to harvest this year. It had to be done in a timely fashion to preserve the hops’ essential oils and to prevent decay.
But he needed help. Last year, it came from family and neighbors who helped remove the hops cones off the bines. This season, such neighborly assistance would not have been sufficient, so Wyckoff built himself a mechanical harvester at a cost of about $30,000. In comparison, a reconditioned harvester from Germany would have cost him $50,000, he noted.
At last report, Wyckoff had run five hops bines through the harvester, and the machine had successfully removed 99 percent of the cones. Last year, Wyckoff sold his crop to three breweries. This year he has lined up five customers for the larger crop. The grower said he has about 20 acres available for expansion. “I couldn’t add acreage until I had the means to harvest the crop,” he noted. “Now I can do it.”
At the same time, Wyckoff revealed he was considering yet another possibility: “I don’t know whether I want to go the route of expansion or put a brewery in. A brewery would complement the wineries that are close by here, so it’s an option we’re looking at.”
On the other end of Empire Brewing Company’s thousands-of-barrels brewery spectrum are the smaller, mom-and-pop operations. Nate and Josie Holden, who both have had experience in the wine industry, broke ground recently on a new 3,500-square-foot brewery on Routes 5 and 20 in East Bloomfield. Their Nedloh Brewery will include a production facility on the ground floor and a tasting room, retail outlet and hops museum on the floor above. They also have plans for a hops yard on four acres of adjoining property, and will take advantage of the state’s new farm brewery provisions by using local ingredients in their beers.
“We’re going to offer a stout, pale ale, IPA, a seasonal beer and a ‘wacky’ flavor,” Josie said. “We definitely want to have something different.”
Nate added: “It’s a two-week process start to finish. You can consistently have new recipes coming out every two weeks.”
What the McNights recommend
Routinely, when Stuart and Dianne McKnight make their annual pilgrimage to the Finger Lakes, their first stop is Wagner Valley Brewery overlooking Seneca Lake in Lodi. “We go out on the deck to have lunch and a beer,” Stuart related. “The scenery is great; you just can’t beat it.”
Dianne’s favorite beer there is the pale ale. “Way back when Stuart and I first met, we drank beers like Coor’s Light,” she noted. “Today, I pretty much stick to the pale ales or an India pale ale. If I want a lighter beer, I’ll drink a pilsener or maybe a lager.”
After the Wagner brewery, the McKnights and Doughties travel just a few miles down the road to another brewpub called Two Goats. Located in Hector – again with an awesome view of Seneca Lake – this small pub is a favorite of local residents, as well as of visitors who appreciate its convivial atmosphere.
Earlier this year, the McKnights attended the annual “Tap New York” gathering of beer aficionados at Hunter Mountain in the Catskills. “I wore my Two Goats T-shirt, and you wouldn’t believe how many people came up to me because they knew the place,” Dianne related. “I love the atmosphere at Two Goats. We can’t wait to get there.”
Also on their list of brewpubs to visit this fall is the new Ithaca Beer Company brewery off Route 13 south of Ithaca. Its “Flower Power” India pale ale, available in bottles at markets near their home, “is one of the best IPAs we’ve ever had,” said Stuart.
Flower Power, with its strongly hopped flavor and aroma, is the company’s best seller, said Dan Mitchell, who owns Ithaca Beer Company with his wife Mari. In fact, it accounts for 50 percent of Ithaca Beers’ production volume. “We use seven varieties of hops in Flower Power,” Mitchell noted. “It’s the combination of all of them that makes that beer special.”
Mitchell opened his first brewery and tasting room in 1998 along Route 13, just south of Buttermilk Falls. He moved into the new 15,000-square-foot facility last October, and has expanded his production capacity by almost 60 percent. This year, he expects to produce 20,000 barrels of beer and, with additional fermenters, he forecasts a production rate of 30,000 barrels next year. Today, the brewery employs 60, up from 15 at the old location.
Visitors can view the production room through a floor-to-ceiling glass wall. About a dozen beers are offered in the tasting room at any one time. Some are seasonal; others are year-round or part of a limited run. Cascazilla – a nod to Ithaca’s Cascadilla Gorge, and the large amount of hops used in the beer – is a year-round favorite IPA, Mitchell noted. The same is true for his Apricot Wheat Ale, which features wheat and barley malts along with apricot flavor. A restaurant that offers a variety of luncheon items, including the brewery’s organically-grown vegetables, adjoins the bar.
When the new brewery opened last year, it immediately drew a crowd of craft-beer enthusiasts. Aaron and Bethann Smith of East Syracuse were among the early visitors. The couple enjoyed sitting at the counter, looking out onto the brewery’s outdoor patio and bocci court. Recently-planted hops bines were beginning to climb wooden supports along the paths.
The Smiths were drinking flights of the brewery’s offerings – Bethann said she preferred the dark oatmeal stout while Flower Power was always a favorite with Aaron. “It’s really fresh here – just perfect,” he said.
Bethann made a point of praising the new brewery’s location. “It’s so open and nice out here in the country,” she remarked. “Having this in Ithaca is just beautiful.”
1 Rohrbach Brewing Company (Brewpub)
3859 Buffalo Road, Rochester
2 Genesee Brew House
(Genesee Brewing Company)
25 Cataract Street, Rochester
3 Roc Brewing Co.
56 South Union Street, Rochester
4 Rohrbach Brewing Company (Production)
97 Railroad Street, Rochester
5 Fairport Brewing Company
99 South Main Street, Fairport
6 CB Brewing Company
300 Village Square Boulevard, Honeoye Falls
7 Naked Dove Brewing Company
4048 State Route 5 and 20, Canandaigua
8 Brew & Brats at Arbor Hill
6461 Route 64, Naples
9 LyonSmith Brewing Co.
138 Water Street, Penn Yan
10 Abandon Brewing Company
2994 Merritt Hill Road, Penn Yan
11 Keuka Brewing Company
8572 Briglin Road, Hammondsport
12 The Brewery of
8319 Pleasant Valley Road, Hammondsport
13 Finger Lakes Beer Company
8462 State Route 54, Hammondsport
14 The Site Cyber Bar & Grill (Brewing Soon)
65 Bridge Street, Corning
15 Market Street
63 West Market Street, Corning
16 Birdland Brewing Company
1015 Kendall Street, Horseheads
17 Upstate Brewing Company
3028 Lake Road, Elmira
18 Horseheads Brewing, Inc.
250 Old Ithaca Road, Horseheads
19 Climbing Bines Craft Ale Co.
511 Hansen Point, Penn Yan
20 Miles Craft Ales @ Miles Wine Cellars
168 Randall Road, Himrod
21 Starkey’s Lookout /
G.C. Starkey Beer Company
5428 State Route 14, Dundee
22 Rock Stream Brewery
162 Fir Tree Point Road, Rock Stream
23 Nickel’s Pit BBQ /
Rooster Fish Brewing
205-207 North Frankin Street,
24 Crooked Rooster Brewpub /
Rooster Fish Brewing
223-301 North Franklin Street,
25 Seneca Lodge Craft Brewing (Seasonal)
3600 State Route 419, Watkins Glen
26 Heavily Brewing Company (Opening Soon)
2471 Hayes Hill Road, Montour Falls
27 Two Goats Brewing
5027 State Route 414, Hector
28 Wagner Valley
9322 State Route 414, Lodi
29 War Horse Brewing Company
623 Lerch Road, Geneva
30 Crafty Ales and Lagers
2 Exchange Street, Phelps
31 3 Herons Brewing Co.
9632 Route 96, Trumansburg
32 Ithaca Beer Company
122 Ithaca Beer Drive, Ithaca
33 Bandwagon Brew Pub
114 North Cayuga Street, Ithaca
34 Scale House Brew Pub
23 Cinema Drive, Ithaca
35 Rogues’ Harbor
2079 East Shore Drive, Lansing
36 Hopshire Farms and Brewery
1771 Dryden Road, Freeville
37 Bacchus Brewing Company
15 Ellis Drive, Dryden
38 Cortland Beer Company
16 Court Street, Cortland
39 Gordon Biersch
304 Hiawatha Blvd. West (inside Destiny USA), Syracuse
40 Middle Ages
120 Wilkinson Street, Syracuse
41 Empire Brewing Company
120 Walton Street (Armory Square), Syracuse
42 Syracuse Suds Factory
320 South Clinton Street
(Armory Square), Syracuse
43 FarmHouse Brewery
2 Whig Street, Newark Valley
44 The North Brewery
110 Washington Avenue, Endicott
45 Binghamton Brewing Co. (Opening Soon)
15 Avenue B, Johnson City
46 Water Street Brewing Co.
168 Water Street, Binghamton
47 Galaxy Brewing Company (Opening Soon)
41 Court Street, Binghamton
Contact establishments for tasting hours and opening status.
by Bill Wingell