Grape vines have long been cultivated in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, and the resulting wines – in particular, the Rieslings reminiscent of the Rhine and Mosel – have spelled growing acclaim for the region. Keuka Lake, one of the eleven glacial lakes that makes up the Finger Lakes AVA (American Viticultural Area), has played a central role in the region’s development, with the town of Hammondsport laying claim to the first commercial viticultural venture in 1862. In the post-prohibition years, personalities such as Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukranian immigrant and founder of the eponymous Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, convinced skeptics that the Vitis vinifera grape varieties of Europe could grow in the region’s cold climate. His untiring work with the vineyard and with Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYAES) in Geneva, NY, helped Keuka Lake and the rest of the region become the pre-eminent food and beverage location it is today.
And now the Finger Lakes wineries dotting the shores of Keuka Lake have a new neighbour, one that works with different bounties of the surrounding fields. Not far from the sleepy town of Penn Yann, and up a gravel road with a sweeping overlook of Keuka’s eastern arm, sits Abandon Brewing Company. Abandon began serving up its Belgian-infused farmhouse atmosphere a month ago – just in time for legions of appreciative craft beer drinkers to enjoy their pints on the deck with a touch of autumn in the air.
The Abandon story begins seven years ago when owner, Garry Sperrick, purchased the pastoral land on which Abandon is sited. With nearly eighty vineyards in the immediate vicinity, Sperrick thought something a little different was in order. Why not a farmhouse brewery? Nestled in a carefully restored nineteenth-century barn amidst seven acres of vineyards, apple orchards, walnut groves, and hop bines, Abandon joins fourteen other breweries licensed under New York State’s recently enacted farmhouse brewery bill. The legislation requires that twenty percent of the hops and twenty percent of other ingredients making their way into the brew kettle or fermenter be produced in New York State.
Enter Jeff Hillebrandt, a young brewer with a long résumé that includes time in Germany and at Ommegang – and a brewer with a knack for creating innovative but harmonious beers with the ingredients that grow up around Abandon. I had the pleasure of meeting Hillebrandt at a tasting event earlier this year, and had the opportunity to visit Abandon while the barn was in the late stages of renovation. What I saw and tasted impressed me.
Belying the bucolic scenery of its surroundings, Abandon is driven by a state-of-the-art geothermal system integral to the operation of the brewhouse and tasting room. The system heats both the barn and the water used for brewing and cleaning, serves to chill the water used for the heat exchangers post-boil, and keeps the fermentation vessels cool.
Hillebrandt favours traditional Belgian styles and yeast strains, but doesn’t shy away from experimentation. Unique hybrids are often the result, such as a Farmhouse IPA packed with American hops but fermented with a blend of saison and Brettanomyces yeasts. The rest of the year-rounders run along similar tracks, and include a peppery-spicy Belgian Rye, a malt-driven Abbey Dubbel with a fruity character, and a lower ABV Session Saison perfect for keeping the summer heat at bay. Plans are also in place to turn several of Abandon’s current harvest editions into year-round affairs.
Seasonal offerings showcase the crops that grow on and around Abandon Acres. Walnuts and black currants grace recently-released and soon-to-be-tapped beers, and the Smoking Pumpkin Ale conjures up images of Thanksgivings of yore, lightly spiced and laced with local pumpkin slow-roasted over an apple-wood fire.
Hop aficionados won’t be left wanting either. As much as Hillebrandt is an eloquent advocate for Belgian styles, he’s also fond of bold American flavours. Abandon’s Wet-Hopped Double IPA delivers hints of blueberry from the popular new Mosaic hop variety in combination with other hops grown locally. For added variety, Abandon makes a Hoppe Cider from Cortland apples and Fuggles hops from their farm.
Months before the brewery even opened its doors, Abandon was drawing attention from the regional and national media. Anticipation for Abandon’s opening ran so high that Sperrick and Hillebrandt began contemplating expanded production. The current three-barrel system has kept the tap room guests happy thus far, but with plans for bottling and wider distribution on the horizon, the two opted for a ten-barrel system that arrived last week from Prince Edward Island. (The land of Anne of Green Gables, Malpeques, and the ill-fated Charlottetown Accord makes brewing systems?!) With the larger system in place, Hillebrandt will reserve the smaller system as an outlet for his creative impulses.
Even though the weather has turned winter, Abandon will still be pouring pints in their taproom and beer hall located at 2994 Merritt Hill Road, Penn Yann, NY, from Friday to Sunday between noon and 5pm. Keep an eye out, too, for regional events featuring Abandon’s beers.