Monthly Archives: July 2014

Colourful Taverns and Well-Stocked Bottle Shops in Ithaca

In the midst of the Finger Lakes, Ithaca is an ideal base from which to explore the veritable explosion of craft breweries, micro-maltsters, and hop farms of the Finger Lakes region. In the first article of this series, I recounted the story of Ithaca’s first craft brewery, Ithaca Beer Company. The second article of the series introduces readers to Ithaca’s newer craft breweries and brewpubs: Hopshire Farms and Brewery; Bandwagon Brew Pub; and Rogues’ Harbor Inn. This final piece points you in the direction of taprooms and bottle shops where you can get more beer and wine than you’d ever need before ending off on a few suggestions for tasting forays in the region.

Places to Get a Good Pint

The Chapter House IMG_0978(known to locals as the Chappy) is the granddaddy of Ithaca craft beer establishments, and the place where I drank my first pint in Ithaca. Even if some of the beers occasionally sit in the tap lines for a bit longer than is desirable, the Chapter House is well worth a visit. Located just down the hill from the hue and cry of Cornell’s Collegetown, this classically decrepit tavern with its pool tables, vintage photographs, popcorn popper, and well-worn wooden walls and tables attracts a broad mix of town and gown weighted in the direction of graduate students. During more quiet hours, you might be able to eavesdrop on reading groups discussing Hegel, contemporary critical theory, or the literary absolute. Weekend live music events are always well attended, the forty-nine taps draw heavily on offerings from central and western New York State, and pint prices are amenable to grad student budgets. IMG_0985Way down on the other side of town, relative newcomer, Da Westy, has quickly garnered a loyal following for its summer beer garden precincts and cornhole board in back and cozy atmosphere in winter. The bar sits at the very end of the beaten track of State Street eating and drinking establishments, and is tucked away to the rear of the building that houses it. Keep your eyes open for the metal gate with the Westy stencil.IMG_0816 The number of craft beer taps is on the small side––about ten or so––but the bar features a judicious selection of seasonal releases. (Prices for some of the limited edition beers tend to be on the high side for Ithaca. Expect to pay around ten bux for snifters of these beers.) On occasion, Da Westy welcomes local breweries for sampling events. Cash only, so plan ahead for that.

Right in the heart of Aurora Street’s restaurant row just off the Ithaca Commons, the Ithaca Ale House Grill and Taproom strikes the right balance between classic American pub food and a fairly broad selection of domestic and international craft beers on tap and by the bottle. Even if the burgers aren’t quite as good as the ones at Ithaca Beer Company, the range and sheer audacity of the choices make the Ale House a worthy lunch or dinner appointment. Bring an appetite (all portions are quite epic) and be forewarned: if you order the “Fat Kid” Burger, you won’t have much room for beer. IMG_0892

(As you’re looking out at what looks, at first glance, to be building renovation going on across Aurora Street, spare a thought for the victims of the tragedy that struck Ithaca in June of this year when a runaway car carrier smashed through the front door of Simeon’s at the head of the Ithaca Commons.)


Bottle Shops

The Finger Lakes Beverage Center, which has just about completed its expansion into an attached building, is among the best beer-centric bottle shops I’ve come across in the U.S. When I lived here, little did I know what kind of gem we had tucked away here on this forlorn stretch of State Street next door to the FedEx copy and shipping shop. FLBC carries an excellent selection of Belgians (including lambics and gueuzes),FLBC Logo along with a decent list of British pale ales, porters, and stouts. You’ll also find a few of your Scottish favourites, and a strong cross-section of German beers assures that those of us who appreciate lager won’t be disappointed. France is fairly well represented on the bière de garde end of things, and bottles from the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, Brazil, Japan, and various other countries dot the shelves. The domestic selection is prodigious, and includes a range of ciders and sodas. Prices are reasonable, and every beer in the store is available for purchase as a single bottle.

The Ithaca Coffee Company has a respectable and continually rotating stock of perennials and seasonals from the U.S. and further afield.Ithaca Coffee Co - Logo Their two locations are also licensed, so once you’ve grabbed your coffee, cheese, chocolate, and beer, you can sit down to a pint. If you’ve just arrived in Ithaca for the longer term, ask about their point program. The points accrue quickly if you buy beer regularly.

Northside Wine and Spirits is not a beer shop, but it deserves special mention for its array of wines, whiskeys, rums, tequilas, gins, brandies, and other spirits. Northside’s sherry selection is better than what you’d find at most places, and it stocks the widest selection of Finger Lakes wines in the region.Northside - Banner (northside-com) Cases of mix-and-match wine (including sherry, port, and vermouth) net you a discount of twenty percent. Seek out Jason or Dave and ask them to guide you through their fine selection of French, American, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese wines. Between the two of them, you’ll receive a colourful palette of suggestions for obscure Italian varietals, Cru Beaujolais (more robust Beaujolais from villages/areas such as Juliénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon, and Chiroubles), Loire Valley wines, unique Portuguese red blends, German Rieslings, and plenty in between.

In the Vicinity

Wine established itself earlier in the bucolic Finger Lakes region, but in recent years the craft beer industry has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the many world-class wineries in the area, some of which have branched out into brewing. Pick up a copy of the Finger Lakes Beer Trail map, or visit their informative website to help you plan your tasting itinerary. And if you like wine––Riesling, in particular––be sure to visit some of the following wineries: Sheldrake Point and Heart and Hands on Cayuga Lake; Hermann J. Wiemer, Red Tail Ridge, and Anthony Road on Seneca Lake; and Dr. Konstantin Frank on Keuka Lake.

Some of the breweries within forty-five minutes of Ithaca include:

  • Birdland Brewing Company (Horseheads)
  • Cortland Beer Company (Cortland)
  • FarmHouse Brewery (Owego)
  • Upstate Brewing Company (Elmira)

Further afield, but still feasible over the course of a leisurely day that might include lunch somewhere before heading back to Ithaca are some of the following breweries:

Abandon Brewing Company (Penn Yan), which I profiled in my article, “The Barn and the Brewery.”

  • Climbing Bines Hop Farm and Brewery (Penn Yan mailing address, but on Seneca Lake)
  • Galaxy Brewing Company (Binghamton)
  • Rooster Fish (Watkins Glen)
  • Wagner Valley Brewing Company (Lodi)

IMG_7884Keep your ears to the ground for profiles of all of the breweries listed above in the coming months, along with a few more New York State breweries and brewpubs outside of the Finger Lakes region.


With the exception of logos and banners from a given company’s website, all photographs by F.D. Hofer.

© 2014 Franz D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Ithaca is Craft Beer

If Ithaca is Gorges, it is also rapidly becoming a craft beer destination. In the first article of this series, I recounted the story of Ithaca’s first craft brewery and tasted a few of their beers. Here I introduce readers to the new breweries that have attracted the attention of both Ithacans and people passing through the Finger Lakes.

Breweries and Brewpubs (Part Two)

Bandwagon Brew Pub (2009)

Bandwagon Banner (bandwagonbeer-com)



The past decade-and-a-half has witnessed a parade of restaurants and even a barber shop make valiant but ill-fated attempts to gain a foothold in the subterranean space at 114 North Cayuga Street. Would a brew pub have enough staying power where so many other businesses had failed to capture the attention of passersby? Right out of the starting gate, the owners of Bandwagon seemed to have grasped that ambience would be as important as the food and beverages they’d be serving.IMG_0829 They converted their downtown location into a contemporary dining establishment a cut above the average brewpub, creating a bustling but still intimate seating arrangement with warm, subdued light falling on roughly-hewn stone walls and rustic wooden floors.

Now, as for Bandwagon’s liquid offerings, I’ll qualify what is about to come by stating that I have a soft spot for the place. As inconsistent as Bandwagon’s beers can be, they can also be of high quality when all goes well. Their brewing setup––almost a museum piece, really––is viewable through a window in the cozy lounge area set off to the side from the restaurant. Couple that with an insistence on brewing ten-gallon batches––ten gallons, not ten barrels––to supply a thirsty crowd of regulars and out-of-towners, and you get a not insignificant number of beers pushed through the system well before they’ve matured. But despite all that, I keep going back. Maybe it’s the nostalgia of sitting down there with Papazian’s classic to plot my first few homebrews. Or maybe it’s all those orders of Belgian-style frites and mayonnaise shared with friends.

For reasons noted above, the following beer evaluations are temporally contingent. The High Step Weizenbock is a justifiably celebrated brew.Bandwagon Flight (bwgn-com) I’ve sampled it turbid and blueberry-like, but when the beer’s done well, it’s a richly malty, warming, and convincing interpretation of the style. Roll the dice and give it a try if you’re in town when the beer’s in season. The Pirate Eye IPA is a decent stylistic iteration: rich, creamy, and with an aperitif-like level of bitterness on the palate. Delicate tangerine and mango backed by honeyed brown sugar and mild caramel define the aromas. On a recent visit, the Robust Brown Ale was a standout. Clear and mahogany-brown with garnet highlights, the beer negotiates a compelling balance of malt and hop character. Look for rich maple, toffee, caramelized citrus peel, and earthy coniferous forest notes with just a hint of mocha. The beer is full-bodied and creamy, with a bitter nuttiness getting the better of a caramel-maple syrup sweetness by the finish.

As for the food menu, the aforementioned frites are a consistent favourite, along with the excellent (and jalapeño-spicy!) veggie burger. Salads are prepared with fresh local greens, and the dressing is made in-house. Bandwagon is always abuzz no matter the time or the day, so let’s hope that the proprietors will one day redirect some of the proceeds from the lively house into a brewing system that will yield greater consistency.* (See the addendum below.)

Rogues’ Harbor Inn (2011)

IMG_0099Not more than ten minutes out of town, a historic landmark inn dating from 1830 sits atop the ridge on the southeast shore of Cayuga Lake. What is now Rogues’ Harbor was reputedly a stop along the Underground Railroad. But it attained its notoriety as a den of iniquity in its heyday, when many a colourful ruffian passed through the inn’s doors. Today the clientele consists of a more subdued crowd of Lansing locals and wine trail travelers, along with a small handful of people who know that Rogues’ Harbor has been brewing its own beer since 2011. Beer aside, Rogues’ Harbor merits a trip by virtue of its combination of bric-a-brac taproom décor and the faded stateliness of the dining rooms alone.IMG_0103 Hats off to the proprietors for not succumbing to the temptation to “update” their period piece. And a stein hoisted to them for installing a small brewing system in one of the inn’s outbuildings.

Chris Williams’ and Alex Schwartz’s small-batch brews complement the locally-sourced menu that consists of dishes like Curried Butternut and Chickpea Cake, Steak Fries with Ale-Infused Cheddar Sauce and Bacon, and Basil-Walnut Linguini. Of the four perennials on tap, the delicate and creamy golden-hued East Shore Pale Ale is your best bet. The ale showcases light brown sugar malt sweetness, an earthy-woodsy accent, and a trace of floral-muscat hops.IMG_0104 The rotating Brewer’s Choice tap, which gives the brewers the chance to roll out experimental beers that diverge from the safer year-round offerings, is also worth inquiring about. A recent visit to the inn’s restaurant yielded a pleasantly refreshing and mildly soured beer that bore a passing resemblance to a Berliner Weisse: lemon, fresh almonds, and a hint of lactic acidity in the aromas gave way to crisp green apple acidity and stone fruit richness buttressed by a fresh cereal malt character. If you want to forego food and head straight for the beer, Rogues’ Harbor recently opened a tap room adjacent to the inn. Hours are 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm, Saturday and Sunday.

Hopshire Farms and Brewery (2013)

The most recent arrival on the Ithaca craft beer scene lies not far beyond the Ithaca city limits on the road to Dryden and Cortland. Hopshire distinguishes itself from other farm breweries with its aspirations to revive the architecture of the pre-Prohibition hop kilns that once dotted central New York.Hopshire Pint Unsurprisingly for someone who wrote the draft of what eventually became the farm brewery law, owner and head brewer, Randy Lacey, sees to it that the emphasis falls on local ingredients like honey, cherries, maple syrup, and, of course, hops and malt. Hopshire’s Beehave, a honey blonde ale, and Blossom, a delicately scented cherry wheat ale, are both crafted from one-hundred percent New York State ingredients. My article, “Cultural Archeology, Hopshire Style: The Revival of Hop Cultivation in New York,” paints a more detailed picture of a brewery that has quickly endeared itself to the local craft beer-drinking population.



Of the four breweries I’ve profiled in these last two posts, only Ithaca Beer Company and, to a limited extent, Bandwagon, package any of their beers.

* * *

*Addendum (July 26, 2014)

After I posted this article, Michael from Bandwagon Brew Pub got in contact with me with news about some important developments with his brewpub. Bandwagon has recently begun brewing on a sixty-gallon system (approximately two barrels), which has been a boon for consistency. Michael acknowledged the issues I addressed above, and noted that Bandwagon is currently constructing a new facility on the edge of town. The new facility will feature a larger brewing system, increased storage and lagering capacity, and a large tasting room. With the larger facility, they’ll be able to produce consistent renditions of their classics such as Pirate IPA and High Step Weizenbock, as well as continue to make their small-batch experimental brews. (Incidentally, Michael informed me that they have a limited-edition batch of Raspberry Jalapeno on tap through this week for those with an appetite for a little spice.) Michael is also branching out to answer the demand for locally produced malt. You can contact East Coast Malts in advance to visit the facility, which is located along Route 13 near Dryden. I wish Michael the best of luck in both of these exciting-sounding endeavours!

* * *

Up next: where to find a good pint of Finger Lakes beer, and where to find more international and domestic beers (and wines) than you can shake a stick at.


Bandwagon banner:

Bandwagon interior: F.D. Hofer (Note: The case displaying vintage fermentation equipment is not the display window in the lounge that I reference above.)

Bandwagon flight:

Rogues’ Harbor Inn menu cover: F.D. Hofer

Rogues’ Harbor tap room: F.D. Hofer

Rogues’ Harbor flight (with wine slushy (!) in the background): F.D. Hofer

Hopshire pint: Hopshire Farms and Brewery Facebook page

Six-Mile Creek, Ithaca: F.D. Hofer

© 2014  Franz D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Gorges and Good Beer in Ithaca, NY: Volume One

Only four hours from New York City, but centrally isolated. Ten square miles surrounded by reality. Partly sunny. And gorges aplenty.

There’s no denying that Ithaca is Gorges.IMG_7308 Spend less than half an hour in this town cradled by rolling hills at the foot of Lake Cayuga’s waters, and chances are that you’ll have passed by a torrent of water issuing forth from one of Ithaca’s many creeks cutting through the stunning shale formations. If not, you’ll have caught a glimpse of the ubiquitous bumper stickers, T-shirts, baseball caps, mugs, and even stuffed animals proclaiming the fact.

But Ithaca’s myriad claims to fame do not stop at cascading waterfalls and steep hills. Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita during a teaching sojourn in Ithaca. If literature’s not your cup of tea, the city is also the reputed birthplace of the ice cream sundae, first served in 1892. A half century or so after this great culinary invention arrived on the scene came yet another: the chicken nugget, invented by a Cornell food scientist in the 1950s.

* * *

Incorporated in 1821, Ithaca’s history as a settlement dates back to the immediate aftermath of the Sullivan Expedition of 1779. As part of the broader Revolutionary War campaign against the Loyalists,IMG_7301 this slash-and-burn military expedition drove the indigenous peoples allied to the Iroquois Confederacy out of the region. These acts prepared the way for Congress to award soldiers parcels of land in the Ithaca area in lieu of monetary payment. Ithaca was nothing if not fortuitously situated, and over the course of the nineteenth-century, Ithaca eventually grew into an integral component of the Erie Canal System. Its location at the southern tip of Cayuga Lake made it an ideal staging ground for coal from Pennsylvania via the Ithaca and Owego Railroad, which began rolling freight between the Susquehanna River and Cayuga Lake in 1834.

Ithaca is no longer a transportation nodal point, but its one-time geographical importance gave rise to the post-secondary institutions––Cornell and Ithaca College––that make Ithaca the vibrant college town it is today. And adventurous latter day mariners can still set sail across Cayuga Lake from Ithaca and reach the Atlantic to the east, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway to the north, or even the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico via the Erie Canal.

… Or stay high and dry and drink a beer instead.

Breweries and Brewpubs (Part I)

Ithaca Beer Company

Ithaca got its first craft beer brewery back in 1998 when a Cornell alum with a yen to brew set up shop in an unassuming location on the edge of town. A few years back, the Ithaca Beer Company––which made a reputation for itself brewing plenty of Apricot Wheat, the locally resonant Cascazilla Red IPA, and a perennial National IPA Championship “Final Four” finisher, Flower Power IPA––pulled up stakes and moved to a more spectacular location a stone’s throw from the original facility.IMG_0147 With the surrounding hills framing hop bines and gardens, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more picturesque spot in Ithaca to settle down to a pint or flight. Ingredients for their pizzas, salads, and house-made ketchup are so local you could go out and pick them yourself. Meat for their excellent burgers––among the very best in the region––and pulled pork dishes also comes from nearby farms.

Their beers? The Apricot Wheat flows as freely as the local waterfalls, but if you find that you’re not a fan, remember this: without all that Apricot Wheat, no Excelsior series. Ithaca Beer Co. is unique among breweries in that they package a completely separate line of experimental releases in 750-mL bottles bearing the Excelsior label. One of my perennial favourites is the AlpHalpHa, a “double honey bitter” that is the pinnacle of simplicity: organic Pils malt, New York State Cascade hops, and local alfalfa honey. Don’t be fooled by the straw-honey colour. Like a Tripel, this beer is much more potent than its countenance would suggest. Subtle spicy-floral and clover-grassy aromas mingle with honeyed graham cracker, and the weighty yet silky palate finishes surprisingly crisply.

The Excelsior series is comprised of beers ranging from limited edition blueberry sours to the more widely available White Gold,IMG_0823 a “Belgo-American” ale brewed with Nelson Sauvin and Lublin hops. Also part of the series are the brewery’s sturdy anniversary releases that typically feature a seemingly impossible hodge-podge of malts, hops, and yeasts from Belgium, France, Germany, the U.S., the U.K., and (hey, why not?) New Zealand. From year to year, these concoctions usually manage to come together and form a palatable whole proverbially greater than the sum of its disparate parts. (At a future date I’ll post tasting notes for Fifteen and Sixteen.)

Ithaca Beer Company’s regular and seasonal lineup is comprehensive, and a few gems (Flower Power, for example) sparkle among the solid workaday beers that don’t venture too far beyond the stylistic midpoints of a given category. The rye-clove-peppery and tangerine-floral-citrusy Ground Break Saison, along with the char-roast-coffee and earthy licorice yet blackberry-fruity Oatmeal Stout are among my top picks from the year-round and seasonal offerings. Recent additions to Ithaca Beer Co.’s lineup,IMG_0145 such as the seasonal Cayuga Cruiser Berliner Weisse and the Green Trail Easy-Drinking IPA, are less than stellar, so here’s to hoping that Ithaca Beer Co. doesn’t lose its way in the wake of its otherwise impressive build-out.

Sources, Notes, and Odd Lots

For a quick introduction to the early history of Ithaca, see Daniel R. Snodderly, Ithaca and Its Past (Ithaca: DeWitt Historical Society of Tompkins County, 1982). You can also visit The History Center, located just up Martin-Luther-King Boulevard from the Ithaca Commons pedestrian zone.

Fast Facts and Trivia:

If you find yourself spending any length of time in Ithaca, check out the South Hill Recreation Way, which follows the abandoned bed of the Ithaca and Owego Railroad (later renamed the Cayuga and Susquehanna Railroad Co. in 1849) through the woods for much of its length. The trailhead at Burns Road is an ideal starting point for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in winter.

All images: F.D. Hofer

© 2014  Franz D. Hofer. All Rights Reserved.

The Curiosity Cabinet: Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée

Some beers dare you try them.

If you’ve spent more than a few minutes of your time perusing the offerings at any bottle shop worth its salt or reading the buzz surrounding “avant-garde” beers and breweries, you’ll likely have come across a curious cabinet stocked with beverages containing whimsical and surprising ingredients. Some beers in this display case, such as the ones in Dogfish Head’s ancient ale series, reconnect us with our beer-drinking ancestors, calling on the authority of archeology and anthropology in the process. Other beers make reference to the pop-cultural delights of our quotidian existence. A beer that tastes like donuts with banana and peanut butter thrown in for good measure? Rogue’s got you covered. Or how about a beer that clocks in at over six hundred calories? Just add bacon and maple syrup, like the intrepid Brew Dogs of Scotland did when their road show stopped off recently in North Carolina.

These are only three of the more famous––or, some might argue, infamous––examples that represent but the tip of the iceberg in terms of the creative ferment that has washed across the North American craft beer scene. Some of these beers aim at nothing short of creation ex nihilo, while others are content with a plausible mimesis of some aspect of the world. As is the case with many an experimental movement in art, music, or literature, the fruits of an unbounded creative drive can be truly stunning. Other times the results are decidedly less scintillating.


Southern Tier - CremeBruleeSouthern Tier’s Blackwater Series features a rotating cast of Imperial Stouts and Imperial Porters that are, for the most part, of the mimetic variety. Standards such as Choklat (which waxes poetic about the Mayan Popul Wuj and the connection between cocoa elixirs and the gods) and Mokah make regular appearances, while Plum Noir (an Imperial Porter with Italian plums) graces the portfolio from time to time.

Crème Brûlée, a series stalwart, entices with its promise of succulent dessert at the same time that it throws down the gauntlet: taste me and judge for yourself whether this beer is not just like crème brûlée. I succumbed to the challenge a few weeks back, and brought a bottle to a postprandial get-together. I gave the first glass to a friend who’s not a beer drinker, but who is an aficionado of all things sweet. Uncanny! he exclaimed upon smelling and tasting the beer. The rest of us gathered around the table concurred: the beer tasted as advertised. For that, the brewers are to be commended.

Yet none of us was able to embrace the Southern Tier Crème Brûlée wholeheartedly, much as we agreed that crème brûlée is among our favourite desserts.Freud - Uncanny (unbelongme-com) Later, I thought that perhaps herein lay the essence of our collective aversion to Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée: the beer was uncanny in the same way that lifelike dolls and automata are uncanny, and in the same way that waxworks are uncanny. The experience of drinking the beer was almost like that of smelling and tasting a crème brûlée. Almost. In our glasses was a crème brûlée Doppelgänger existing in a liminal twilight between food and beverage––an uncanny entity that had seemingly crossed over from the realm of food, but in so doing, had also severed its connection with beer.

Approached from another direction, Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée is analogous to a photographic representation of crème brûlée, albeit an image of crème brûlée rendered in a bluntly realist mode that does not admit of many possible interpretations. Once I was over the initial shock of the uncanny nature of this beer, it evoked naught more than polite interest: highly stylized, the beer is nothing if not a testament to brewing skill, to be sure. Using vanilla beans and lactose in conjunction with various specialty malts to arrive at aromas and flavours of custard underneath charred and caramelized brown sugar is no mean feat.Creme Brulee (Wiki Commons) But there’s no art here, just technical virtuosity. No mystery, much less magic. The only contingency, the only surprise––this beer tastes like crème brûlée!––dissolves rapidly in the apprehension of this mimetic gesture.

Much as I like most of what Southern Tier has to offer, their Crème Brûlée is literal to the point of extremity––or, what amounts to the same thing, extreme to the point of literality. One of my friend’s fathers was in town that evening and shared a glass with us. His witticism summed things up brilliantly: “Next time, I think I’d prefer my crème brûlée on the side.”


Crème Brûlée:

Freud, “The Uncanny,” 1919.

Crème brûlée on the side: Wiki Commons

© 2014  Franz D. Hofer. All Rights Reserved.