I tried an unfiltered cask ale from The Beerocracy, a cream ale with corn and honey from Grist Iron Brewing Company, and Slo’ Mo’ IPA from Empire Brewing my first night in the Finger Lakes and knew this was going to be a good trip.
For a few days after I drank my way across the state, trying a few flavorful beers paired with cupcakes at Felicia’s Atomic Brewhouse, then had a Congress beer based on an early 1900s recipe at a Marriott of all places, in Syracuse. In the great terroir around the Finger Lakes of New York, it’s fertile ground for making great craft beer.
The Finger Lakes area of New York State is best known for its flavorful white wines, but there’s a whole lot more to drink there. For students of brewing history, it should be no surprise that upstate New York is a major force when it comes to the craft beer scene.
When you think of the areas that were home to the biggest beer brewers in the USA before the craft beer scene took off, many were in German-settled cities like St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Chicago. New York State ruled when it came to volume and variety though. In 1873 there were 4131 breweries producing 9 million barrels of beer in the USA. More than 3/4 of them were in New York and Pennsylvania.
The Beer Brewing Powerhouse of New York State
Why was New York such a brewing hotbed? Well, the obvious answer was the population spread: East Coast states had more people in them, with more railroad tracks, the Erie Canal, the Hudson River, and other ways to get the beer to the people. But New York State had another big advantage: the climate was right for growing hops.
In the mid-1800s, New York state grew around 80% of the hops used in the United States, producing a staggering three million pounds a year. Even in those days, people drank a lot of beer. But then came some dark times, in the form of a Bible-thumping tea-totalers pushing prohibition and a fungus that wiped out a lot of crops. It was a double plague.
In 1934, after the end of the grand Prohibition experiment that led to organized crime, bootlegging, and a general attitude that bad laws were made to be flaunted, there were fewer than 800 breweries that had the guts or the capital to start back up again. The farming of hops had become a losing business prospect and the USA went through a long and painful beer decline. There was cost-cutting, consolidation, and a general abdication of brewing quality to the Europeans. By 1983, we had reached a low point. Just 51 companies were operating a total of 80 breweries. A mere six brewers controlled 92% of the market. Things were looking dire.
Now there are more breweries than that in just upstate New York, thanks to craft brewing scene that took off starting in the 1990s. But it’s going to take a while for hops production to return in earnest to the state. It wasn’t until the rise of craft beer in the past couple decades that U.S. hops production ramped up again. Most of that production was on the west coast, where there were more breweries and a higher consumption level of quality suds.
The Finger Lakes Craft Beer Scene Today
Thankfully the beer industry in the area stretching from Corning to Cooperstown and beyond is coming on strong. This area best-known for wine and a bit of cider also has one of the USA’s best beer scenes, with a good mix of mature pioneers and experimental start-ups.
Even in tiny Corning, population 10,709, there are three local breweries. Liquid Shoes is so confident about their output that the tap room only serves their elixir in 10-ounce glasses and they kick everyone out by 11 p.m. sharp on weekends, 10:00 on weekdays.
The Finger Lakes is a vast area, so it’s home to a lot of small breweries serving the local community. It does have some monsters though, starting with the 12th biggest brewer in the USA, Ommegang. This is a craft brewer for sure when you taste what comes out of their kegs, but it’s so big because it’s the U.S. subsidiary of the Belgian brewer Duvel Moortgat. That company also owns Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City, so the production gets combined in the stats.
I went on a tour of Ommegang while I was there and it’s a great place to visit. Outside of Cooperstown in the countryside, it’s got fields of grass where they have concerts in the summer, experimental hop fields where a local university is testing strains for fungus resistance, and forests behind those.
Matt Brewing Company of Utica, makers of Saranac, is a top-50 brewer in the USA by volume and is one of the pioneers. I drank some craft beers from these folks while skiing in Vermont in the early 1990s, back before the whole scene took off. Before that, some family members were making mass-market beer since the 1800s.
I didn’t visit that one, checking out the much smaller farm-to-glass Woodland Brewery instead. Not everything was a home run there, but they don’t serve anything you would call “blah.”
I did visit the downtown Syracuse location of Empire Brewing, another fast-growing player in the region. (Update in 2020–formerly fast-growing. They got saved from bankruptcy by a buyer that is changing the name of the brewery.) I thought I wasn’t going to knock too much back since our tasting was at 11:00 a.m. But then the brewmaster Matthew Ducey kept handing us interesting concoctions so…
We had their famous cream ale, a Hop Harvest IPA, and a cloudy wheat Spacewitch out of the tank. There’s a Skinny Atlas Kolsch, a Deep Purple Pilsner that uses local concord grapes, an Oktoberfest Marzen, and a White Aphro wheat beer flavored with local ginger and lavender. Empire was very committed to using everything it can from local farmers, with a slogan, “We grow beer.” I’m hoping the new owners stay committed to the region’s agriculture.
Local Hops, Barley, and Fruits
As a guy coming to visit from Florida, where the tap water tastes terrible and most of the big local crops are things you peel, I can’t help but notice the strong ties to the land here. Steuben Brewing Company of Hammondsport has almost no text on their website’s home page. What they do have, however, is this:
Family run farm brewery with a passion for beer and local agriculture.
I notice that some local breweries proudly list the percentage of local ingredients in their beer. For the “Second Runnings of Trisk” strong ale from The Brewery of Broken Dreams, the usual alcohol percentage and ABU bitterness units are joined by “97% New York State Malt and 100% NYS Hops.”
Syracuse is also home to Middle Ages Brewing Company, which you’ll start to see everywhere because of their distinctive tap handles. They have been making great beer since 1995 but are one of the few bucking the local products trend. With names like Boxing Day Bitter and Jester’s Nectar, it may be obvious—they get their yeast and malt from England.
Overall, I was impressed with the output in this region, both in volume and quality. It’s a thing of wonder to visit a small-town pub like Finger Lakes on Tap and see almost 60 beers on tap just from regional breweries. I had some terrific beers I’d love to drink again from every brewery and pub I visited and feel like you could spend a whole year cycling through all the options.
Nobody is quite sure exactly how many breweries are operating around the Finger Lakes region of New York, but it’s somewhere north of 50. to see all the options in the area, check out the Cooperstown Beverage Trail, the Southern Finger Lakes Beverage Trail, Brew Central NY, Finger Lakes Beer Trail, and the Sip on Syracuse Trail.
I’m heading back to Syracuse next week for a conference after a few days of sampling what’s on offer in Rochester. I’m looking forward to it, knowing I’ll be drinking great drafts there for sure, beers with a real connection to the place.