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. 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.
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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, 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 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. 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, 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, 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: http://www.visitithaca.com/about-ithaca-tompkins-county/facts-trivia.html
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.