It’s that time of year. Thousands of you have just moved halfway across the continent and are settling in at one of the universities or colleges in the Finger Lakes region. Even more of you live in one of the large urban areas within three or four hours of the Finger Lakes. Perhaps you’re thinking of getting out to enjoy the setting summer, or maybe you’re just passing through the region. Whatever the case, you might find yourself in need of a drink at some point. And probably some food too.
Shifting gears for a moment: It’s been a busy summer hiking, cycling, and riding trains around Austria. No complaints, but no matter how hard I try, I rarely manage to write posts while on the road. I’m on the road again –– this time in rural Pennsylvania after a conference in Philadelphia and a short visit to Pittsburgh. Since I’m only a few mountains and rivers from the Finger Lakes, why not finish up something I was working on last summer before I head back to Vienna? The piece below complements the various articles I have written about the region over the years. Taken together, they give you a comprehensive introduction to craft beverages and good eats in the Finger Lakes.
If you’re looking for something to do during those late summer and early autumn weekends before the frosts hit, read on! And since it’s an ongoing story, let us know in the comments about some of your favourite places that I haven’t written about here.
Wine has long been a Finger Lakes staple, and the notion of good beer no longer raises eyebrows at the communal table. Add cider and the occasional artisanal distillery, and your glass will never be half empty. You won’t go hungry either with the abundance of local fruit, bread, meat, and cheese.
And fish ’n chips –– or, as they call it in the region, fish fry. The most famous of them all is Doug’s Fish Fry, a local pilgrimage site and seafood shrine in Skaneateles. With its stately boulevard and lakeside mansions, Skaneateles is also one of the most beautiful of the Finger Lakes towns. Finger Lakes on Tap hadn’t yet opened when I was in Skaneateles in 2015, but now you can find roughly 60 breweries represented, ranging from Southern Tier in the west and Ommegang in the east to help you digest your visit to Doug’s Fish Fry.
Travel fifteen minutes west along U.S. Route 20 and the undulating green farmland gives way to the shady lanes of Auburn, home of famed abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, and William H. Seward of Alaska Purchase fame. Like many towns in Upstate New York, Auburn was once home to several breweries before the combined blight of consolidation and Prohibition knocked the total to zero. But the aroma of mashed grain and hopped wort is in the air once again. Tucked away at the back of a small commercial building, Garrett of The Good Shepherds brews his beer on a nano setup about the size of a large homebrewing rig. Open since 2014, his rotating roster of brews was heading in the right direction when we visited in the summer of 2015, especially his Raz Brown and Sour Irish Red. Check the website to see what’s on tap now.
Auburn is not just home to famous historical personages. It’s also the site of the maximum-security Auburn Correctional Facility. The latter inspires the jail-themed beers at Prison City Pub and Brewery, with names like Escape from Alca’razz. The impressive Blaubeere, an “American Sour Berliner Weisse aged with wild Maine blueberries and all-Brett yeast” makes up for an ambitious if slightly uneven food menu. Beers change regularly, so you might have an entirely different gustatory experience.
If you’re a photography or film buff, Rochester’s Eastman Museum is well worth a detour from your craft beer itinerary. Time was short after the museum visit, so we opted for one of the newer breweries generating plenty of buzz in the Rochester area: Swiftwater Brewing Company. Located in the gentrifying South Wedge area of Rochester, Swiftwater is attracting a young and stylish set in droves. The beers: Belgian? American? German? Experimental? All of the above, and none of the above at this urban farmhouse brewery.
Then there’s the venerable Genesee. Founded in 1878, Genesee is one of the oldest continually running breweries in the U.S. Recently they began to brew sound but cautious Scotch ales, black IPAs, and English-style brown ales under the Genesee name. At $3 for a flight of 4, it’s probably one of the best deals around. Skip the rather pedestrian tour of their 7-barrel pilot system and spend your time in their well-appointed gift shop/museum learning about the history of brewing in Rochester.
Perched on a ridge overlooking the western shores of Cayuga Lake outside of Ithaca, Bellwether has been producing hard ciders among the wineries for well over a decade. Bellwether has since been joined by a growing chorus of cider producers, including Eve’s Cidery, Black Diamond Cidery, Redbyrd Orchard Cider, Good Life Cider, and South Hill Cider. The latter five cideries peddle their wares at the Finger Lakes Cider House at Good Life Farm in Interlaken, NY, a farmhouse surrounded by bucolic meadows. Ciders range from still to sparkling, and bone-dry to lusciously sweet, with the occasional fortified cider and ice cider thrown in.
Heading out of Ithaca in the other direction, Dryden’s Hopshire Farm and Brewery continues to pump out a range of solid beers emphasizing local ingredients. Among the additions to their lineup when I last visited are Dragon Ash, a rich porter with fruit and chocolate notes, and Abbey Normale, a majestic Belgian dark strong ale with a spicy caramel-plum-raisin character. If these beers aren’t on tap when you visit, chances are you’ll see them when the season’s right.
Last but least, the old standby: Ithaca Beer Company. The burgers have inched up in price, and they’ve switched up the selection, but the quality is as high as ever. That’s not surprising, given that they source their meat from Autumn’s Harvest Farms in nearby Romulus, NY. (If you’re in the area long enough, give them a call and head out for a tour of their farm. Their pork products are superb.) Over a few sessions with friends, I had the Cheddar Burger and the Smokehouse Burger, both accompanied by fries with homemade ketchup and herbed mayonnaise dipping sauces. The great food and solid beer isn’t the only reason to stop by for lunch or dinner; the brewery and restaurant setting is stunning at all times of the day –– a bit like Switzerland minus the snow-capped peaks. Try the perennial favourite, Flower Power IPA, or opt for a one-off in the taproom. (I had a compelling golden amber-coloured coffee beer during my last visit.) It seems like just yesterday that the Ithaca Beer Company opened up their new brewery and restaurant amid the rolling hills and verdant pastures, but even that space wasn’t large enough to meet the double-digit increase in demand. When you visit, lift a glass of one of their experimental Excelsior series ales to celebrate all that the Finger Lakes has to offer.
Postscript: Madison County Hop Fest
Before plant diseases began the job of devastating Central New York’s hop crop and Prohibition finished it, Madison County was the center of hop production in North America. Just a few steps beyond the Finger Lakes proper, the region merits a visit both for its beer history and its contemporary embrace of hop production and local malting. With a bit of luck and the help of a local, the intrepid hop head can find nineteenth-century hop kilns tucked away in hollows or hidden in the shadows of hillocks and knolls along sleepy back roads. Though some structures have succumbed to the ravages of time in the decade since this map was produced, you can still use it to put together a fascinating day trip. For those who don’t want to venture out into the back of beyond, twenty-first century hop yards have sprung up in conspicuous locations along well-traveled country thoroughfares within the past several years. (See my Cultural Archeology, Hopshire Style: The Revival of Hop Cultivation in New York if you want to read more about why that’s the case today.)
For over two decades now, the Madison County Historical Society has been helping locals and visitors celebrate all things lupulin at the Madison County Hop Fest. Mark your calendars: this year’s edition takes place between 16 September and 18 September.
While you’re in the region, be sure to check out Good Nature Brewing in Hamilton and Henneberg Brewing Company in Cazenovia. And for a quick sip of the cultural history of hop production in the region, check out my oh-so creatively titled Madison County Hop Fest.
All images: F.D. Hofer
© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.