Waterfalls, gorges, and verdant rolling hills. Eleven long, picturesque glacial lakes carved into the area just south of the Great Lakes during the last Ice Age. Combining stunning natural scenery with a tapestry of interlacing beer and wine trails, the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York is one of the most ideal regions for the adventurous drinker to explore. Long a travel destination for connoisseurs of fine wine seeking Riesling and cool-climate red varietals such as Cabernet Franc, the Finger Lakes is quickly gaining a sterling reputation locally and regionally for its craft beers. A scenic beer route has grown up along the country roads that meander along the lakeshores and connect Cayuga and Seneca Lakes with smaller lakes like Keuka and Canandaigua. Hop farms and fields of barley sway in the lakeshore breeze alongside row upon row of grapes.
You might be asking why the Finger Lakes aren’t more well-known outside of New York State as a craft beer destination. The answer, fellow intrepid beer traveler, is one of the main reasons you’ll want to visit the region. Many of the breweries that dot the landscape are “farmhouse breweries” that have taken advantage of favourable legislation passed recently to stimulate the local hop and malt industry. Production at these breweries is small-scale –– so small that the only way you’ll get to sample the beer is to head to the taproom or a local tavern that might occasionally have a keg or two of Finger Lakes beer on tap. Only a small handful of the breweries in the region bottle or can their beer, and even then, distribution doesn’t stretch much further than a few hundred miles beyond the brewery.
Need another reason to visit the Finger Lakes? I can think of very few places outside of Napa/Sonoma that offer such a rich blend of culinary-cultural activities. You can take in brewhouse and winery tours in combination with visits to hop farms, vineyards, and micro-malting facilities. And you can dine on high-quality local cuisine tailored with an eye toward the wine or beer you’re drinking.
Installment #97 of The Session comes to us courtesy of Erin and Brett at Our Tasty Travels. The Session is a monthly opportunity for beer bloggers and writers from around the world to chime in with their own unique perspective on a particular topic. Erin and Brett have proposed that we think about emerging craft beer scenes or destinations undergoing a renaissance. This seemed an ideal opportunity to start working through the stacks of notes I have on the Finger Lakes region. I spent several years living in Ithaca, NY, and return every summer. Over that time, I have watched the local craft beer scene blossom into a flourishing patchwork of small breweries scattered about the towns and countryside. What I’ve written here is the beginnings of a longer work on the breweries, hop farms, and maltsters past and present in Upstate New York.
When I feature a brewery or region in these pages, I usually include tasting notes. In this case, I’ll just list a few of my favourite beers so that I have space to introduce more of the people that make the Finger Lakes and the counties between Syracuse and Albany a region that remains special to me. Stay tuned for longer features of the breweries I’ve written about here, including some not listed.
Located at the intersection of I-90 and I-81, Syracuse makes a convenient starting point for a tour of the region. Check out Empire Brewing Company for a pint of White Aphro (a Belgian-style wheat beer brewed with ginger and lavender) before making a slight detour out of the Finger Lakes region in search of one of the few pre-Prohibition hop kilns still standing.
Carrie Blackmore of Good Nature Brewing in Hamilton, NY, is a wealth of information about these kilns tucked away along the back roads of Madison County, once the focal point of nineteenth-century American hop production. Whether you’re a local history buff or not, grab a stool at Good Nature’s cozy taproom in the heart of town to find out more about the history of hop production in the region or sample beers made with hops grown a mile up the road. Unlike many of the other farmhouse-licensed breweries in the region, Good Nature has no plans to grow its own hops or malt its own grain. Rather, Blackmore and her husband (who’s the head brewer) prefer to support the surrounding agricultural community by keeping the new hop farms and maltsters viable. Tempest’s faves: Bavarian Dream Weissbier; Rabbit in the RyePA.
On your way back to the Finger Lakes proper, you’ll want to stop in at Galaxy Brewing Co. in downtown Binghamton. The father-and-son team of Mike and Seth Weisel have made quite a splash since Galaxy’s recent founding, taking home a silver medal at the 2014 World Beer Cup for their St. Stusan Belgian-Style Pale Ale. Popular among the downtown office workers, young professionals, and the SUNY Binghamton graduate student crowd, Galaxy also serves up inspired cuisine prepared by a chef with a Culinary Institute of America pedigree. The name of the brewery and several of its beers pay homage to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Tempest’s faves: St. Stusan is not the only medal-worthy beer that the Weisels brew up. You won’t go wrong with the luscious Omega Dubbel Nitro or the brooding espresso and dark chocolate-accented Pulsar Porter.
By now you’ll be looking for a place to bunk down for the night, so head to Ithaca on the shore of Cayuga Lake. Long before it’s time to turn in, head to the Ithaca Beer Company on the edge of town for a wide range of beers and Ithaca’s best burgers. 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. The Ithaca Beer Company made a reputation for itself brewing a waterfall’s worth of Apricot Wheat, the locally resonant Cascazilla Red IPA, and a perennial National IPA Championship “Final Four” finisher, Flower Power IPA. But it may well be the Excelsior series –– a completely separate line of experimental releases in 750-mL bottles –– that’ll capture your attention. Tempest’s faves: AlpHalpHa, a “double honey bitter” from the Excelsior series; Flower Power IPA.
Rise and shine! From Ithaca, you can head out to Hopshire Farms and Brewery for drinks with Randy Lacey, one of the driving forces behind what eventually became the farm brewery law. 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 so heavily involved with the farm brewery legislation, Randy 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. Here’s a bit of trivia for you: Randy is the person who got me into homebrewing. Tempest’s faves: Beehave; Daddy-o Scottish ale.
After drinks at Hopshire, head through one of the last dry counties in Upstate New York en route to FarmHouse Malt and Brewery in Owego, where you can hear about Marty and Natalie Mattrazzo’s trials and tribulations turning raw grain into kilned and roasted barley, wheat, and rye. Be prepared to be fully entertained. Marty and Natalie embody the indomitable spirit that set craft beer on its current course way back in the seventies, and their enthusiasm is infectious. I’m not exaggerating when I say that some pieces of their equipment are genuine museum artifacts, yet somehow they’ve managed to make it all work. Not only are they among the pioneering northeastern micro-maltsters, but they also found time to get a brewery off the ground in 2014. For a Picaresque read on how to become a maltster while also setting up a brewery, check out Natalie’s blog. Tempest’s faves: Marty and Natalie. As for their beers? Ayam Cemani Black Saison; Hog Hollow Belgian-Style Pale Ale.
When you’ve satiated yourself on good beer and lore, follow your compass west along the Susquehanna River to Upstate Brewing Company in Elmira. A Norwich College grad with an avuncular smile, head brewer and co-owner, Ken Mortensen, was a lieutenant in the armed forces before a non-combat injury sidelined him and set him down a different path. Upstate is unique among the smaller Finger Lakes breweries in two ways: it packages two of its year-round offerings in cans, and, with the exception of a few seasonal brews, its offerings don’t go very much further than that. As Ken explains it, he’d rather focus on consistency at this point and go with a small but high-quality line-up of beers. Bucking the trend of sour this and barrel-aged that, Upstate’s year-round offerings are correspondingly (and refreshingly) unconventional: Common Sense (a Kentucky Common Ale); I.P.W. (an imperial pale wheat); and X.P.A. (an extra pale ale). Tempest’s faves: Common Sense and I.P.W.
From Elmira, you’ll head through Revolutionary War-era towns like Horseheads and lush vineyards en route to Seneca Lake, the longest lake in the region and, at 630 feet deep, the second-deepest lake in the country. Make for Climbing Bines on the western side of the lake, where you can also stop in at wineries such as Herman J. Wiemer and Anthony Road before settling down to a pint among the gently swaying hop fields of Climbing Bines. After a stint as an elementary school teacher, Climbing Bines’ Chris Hansen returned to his farming roots. His great-grandfather emigrated to the U.S. from Denmark in 1905 and farmed 280 acres fronting Seneca Lake. Today, Hansen grows fifteen acres of hops that go into Climbing Bine’s brews, and sources grain from local growers and maltsters. Brian, Climbing Bines’ co-owner and head brewer, acknowledges that with the smaller economies of scale, “You get what you get, and we figure out ways to work with the unique qualities of the local ingredients.” A Cascade hop grown along the shores of Seneca Lake does not taste and smell the same as a Cascade grown west of the Rockies. Northeastern brewers realize this, and are beginning to produce some compelling brews that bear the stamp of the region. Tempest’s faves: Big Ivan’s Red; Imperial Stout.
It’s just a hop, skip, and a vineyard or two from Climbing Bines to Abandon Brewing Company perched above the western arm of Keuka Lake. The Abandon story begins several years ago when owner, Garry Sperrick, purchased the barn and 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 in a barn? All he needed was a brewer. Enter Jeff Hillebrandt, who once worked for Ommegang. If Hillebrandt favours traditional Belgian styles and yeast strains, he doesn’t shy away from experimentation. I still have fond memories of a splendid April afternoon before Abandon opened. Jeff had invited me out for a brew day on their pilot system. I arrived to the sound of “Thwack! Thwack!” When I got inside, I saw Jeff smashing up black walnuts with a 2 X 4 for a Belgian-style dark strong beer with walnuts and cinnamon. Whatever works. Then as now, 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. Tempest’s faves: Abbey Ale; Peppercorn Saison.
The back-road drive from Abandon to Naked Dove Brewing Company on the outskirts of Canandaigua makes for a quintessentially bucolic outing. You climb a steep hill to the ridge above Abandon, where you can see clear across Keuka Lake and almost to Seneca Lake. From there, the road dips down and meanders along wooded valleys that open out periodically onto meadows and small dairy farms. You’ll pass through a few small towns and traverse a few more valleys before reaching the glistening shores of Canandaigua Lake. Slung low along a light industrial-commercial stretch of National Route 20 on the outskirts of Canandaigua, Naked Dove’s setting is less impressive than that of Abandon or Hopshire, but the beers are no less well-crafted. The folks at Naked Dove don’t raid the orchard or the spice cabinet for their beers, preferring instead to brew excellent examples of American, British, Belgian, and German standards. Tempest’s faves: 45 Fathoms Porter; Altbier. Alas, the Altbier was a one-off. Here’s to hoping it appears again some day.
Once you’ve slaked your thirst at Naked Dove, it’s but a stone’s throw to Rochester, where a vibrant craft beer scene awaits. I’ve yet to check it out, though, but when I go back to the Finger Lakes this summer, you know where I’ll be heading.
Odds and Ends
Even though I’ve written this article as a day-by-day itinerary, what I’m outlining here is less an actual itinerary than a set of possibilities. In most cases, it would be unadvisable if not impossible to fit in everything I’ve suggested for a given day. Take your time. Drink some wine. Stretch your legs exploring one of the many gorge trails. Grab a bite to eat at one of the many bistros and restaurants that dot the shores of Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. Enjoy.
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All images: F.D. Hofer.
© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.