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)
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. 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. 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)
Not 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. 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. 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. 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.
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*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!
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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: bandwagonbeer.com
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: bandwagonbeer.com
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.