Upstate New York is replete with beer and beverage trails, and there are at least six beer trails that include the Capital Region.
There is little doubt that this is a result of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s initiatives to grow the craft beverage industry. These initiatives began with the Farm Brewery and Farm Distillery license legislation, which eases the legal process to produce and sell local craft beers and spirits. New this year is the Taste NY Inaugural Craft Beer Challenge, designed to promote New York craft beers.
There are hundreds if not thousands of beer competitions each year. The Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup are considered the most prestigious by beer industry professionals. Major competition entry fees are steep, especially for GABF and the World Beer Cup, but entering the events, even without winning, offers some benefits for craft brewers.
“The large competitions are judged by professionals who are certified judges,” said Nathaniel Zerbe, brewmaster at Adirondack Pub & Brewery in Lake George. “Win or lose, their feedback is invaluable for advancing your beer-making skills.”
Winning a major award is a big marketing coup for a brewery. Ryan McDermott, Adirondack Pub & Brewery’s operations manager, said that after the announcement of last year’s GABF awards, customers visited the pub looking for the gold medal-winning Sour Project Ale.
However, the beer had a limited run. So customers had to try a very suitable substitute. The current Sour Project Ale is another Belgium Lambic that has a lemon’s fresh fruit overtone and is absolutely unique and delicious.
The Capital Region has had a number of GABF and World Beer Cup award-winning craft breweries. In 1980, Bill Newman formed Wm. S. Newman Brewing Company in Albany. It was the first craft brewery east of the Rockies. Newman’s Albany Amber was a GABF award winner in 1989. Alas, Newman was ahead of his time, and the brewery closed in the early 1990s.
Newman offered an apprenticeship/internship program for people who wanted to learn how to brew. One of his apprentices was Jim Koch, who went on to create Sam Adams Boston Lager and found Boston Beer Co. In another twist of fate, Newman’s brewery first opened in the building that currently houses the very popular Wolff’s Biergarten.
In 1993, around the time that Wm. S. Newman shuttered, Garry Brown opened Brown & Moran Brewing Company in Troy. It was the Capital Region’s first brewpub. In 2004, he changed the name to Brown’s Brewing Company. In 2012, Brown built a large production facility in Hoosick Falls to facilitate bottling and distribution, and later added the Walloomsac Brewery & Taproom at that location.
Brown’s in Troy still has the look of a 1990s brewpub, lots of rough wood and a bit discombobulated, but in a good way. The restaurant always seems to be busy. It might be because of the reasonable prices. It might also be that it is a hangout for the graduate-student crowd. But there are also many baby-boomer beer aficionados, probably reminiscing about when they were at that age and drinking at Brown & Moran’s.
The beer that put Brown’s on the map is its Oatmeal Stout. However, it would be a shame to limit yourself to that beer, especially since it is available at many local beer outlets. The Troy location offers a rotating list of beers not available elsewhere. These include various styles of wheat beers and sessionable beers, low in alcohol but high in flavor, that enable one to spend an evening there without stumbling out. It also offers Imperial beers and double IPAs with an alcohol content that approach double digits.
In 1999, Neil Evans opened C.H. Evans Brewing Company at the Albany Pump Station. The Evans family has been brewing beer in the state since the 1700s. The building, actually two adjoining buildings, housed the pump station that supplied the city of Albany with water until 1932.
Prior to opening, Evans met George de Piro, an analytical chemist, at a homebrewing contest. De Piro was well known as a brewer and already an American Homebrewers Association National Homebrewing Competition winner. Evans convinced de Piro to join him in his new venture.
At the Pump House, as it is typically called, de Piro became the Capital Region’s celebrity brewmaster. The Pump House’s American Brown won a GABF gold medal in 2000. In 2002, its iconic Kick-Ass Brown was awarded the GABF gold. The beers and menu made this corner of Albany’s industrial riverfront a happening place.
Kick-Ass Brown is still available at the Pump House, but do not limit yourself. They offer many interesting beers. The Capital Light is an American pilsner that is refreshing, easy on the palate with a hoppy finish. At the other end of the spectrum is the Imperial IPA, hoppy, malty with an alcohol content high enough that it should be your last beer of the night.
In 2011, de Piro met Chris Martell. Martell convinced de Piro to be a partner, and they opened Druthers Brewing Company in Saratoga Springs. The Broadway location, the outdoor seating, the beer and the way above-average cooking turned Druthers into an overnight success. The only issue was that it often ran out of particular beers.
So the partners opened a second Druthers in the industrial section of Albany’s Broadway. Located in a former warehouse, the restaurant portion is much larger than Saratoga’s, and the bar area has ample room for the many fans of Druthers’ beers. Most importantly, de Piro now has the production capacity to meet the demand. Another plus is the space for a canning line to make the beers available at other outlets.
The increase in production volume did not affect the quality. De Piro is still brewing GABF and World Beer Cup award-winning beers. Like the aforementioned brewpubs, you cannot go wrong ordering anything. Even if the style is not to your liking, you will probably finish the beer because it is so tasty. Both locations also offer ciders on tap from Nine Pin Cider Works, their neighbor in Albany.
The Saratoga location is rustic chic. The menu is subtly geared to the Saratoga customer. It also has a courtyard patio on Broadway. The Albany location is Brooklyn industrial chic. The look is similar to brewpubs in New York and Boston. The typical customer is younger.
The Albany Druthers is also very children-friendly. It takes full advantage of its location near Huck Finn’s Playland. The visit to Druthers is the young parents’ reward for spending a few hours at the amusement park.
John Carr started homebrewing in 1988. Shortly thereafter, he met Charlie Papazian, the godfather of homebrewing and current president of the Brewers Association (the craft beer industry’s trade association). The enthusiasm of that meeting inspired Carr to be a dedicated brewer. After 10 years of honing his skills, Carr started the Adirondack Pub & Brewery with the support of his family and friends.
“In 2000, customers would return glasses of IPA back to the bar because it was too hoppy,” Carr said. So Bear Naked Ale became their biggest seller. Times have changed. IPAs are now the most popular beer style nationally and at Adirondack Pub & Brewery. Currently they offer several IPAs, including an ever-changing series of experimental IPAs.
Adirondack’s philosophy is to use local ingredients whenever they are available. The Oktoberfest uses hops grown in New York State. Oktoberfest is a marzen-style seasonal beer. And this year’s is especially tasty and easy-drinking. Another beer that uses New York hops is the Harvest Rye IPA, brewed with fresh hops from last year’s harvest. The recently expanded brewery has a facility dedicated to sour beers, and the one this fall will be plum-based. Another reason to visit is the new distillery, which will open shortly. One of the first products will be a single malt whiskey.
Olde Saratoga Brewing Company started on Excelsior Avenue in Saratoga Springs in 1997. The primary purpose was to enable California’s well-regarded Mendocino Brewing to provide a fresh supply of its beers to the East Coast. The brewery’s owner is India’s UB Group, known for Kingfisher beer. At the same time, craft beers were just becoming the rage. It did not take long for Olde Saratoga to become one of the go-to contract brewers for the burgeoning craft-beer industry. Contract breweries enable small craft brewers to bottle or can their products for distribution.
Olde Saratoga also brews its own brand of beers. Two, Kingfisher Premium Lager and Saratoga Lager, are GABF winners. Olde Saratoga also brews beers with Round Lake’s Death Wish coffee. Of note is the Imperial Barley Wine, an 11 percent alcohol ale that can age like wine. The brewery’s small tasting room has the atmosphere of an old school, funky bar where your parents would be comfortable.
In 2013, one of Olde Saratoga Brewery’s customers, Shmaltz Brewing Company, opened its first brewery 20 miles down the road in Clifton Park. Shmaltz is well known for its humorous marketing. Its first beer was He’Brew Genesis Ale. It followed up with She’Brew Double IPA and Messiah Nut Brown Ale. One of the company’s mottos is HE’BREW The Chosen Beer. Also, shmaltz is the rendered chicken fat that provides the savory flavors of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine.
While most of the beers are widely available, it is still worthwhile to visit the tasting room at Shmaltz. It will have some of its limited production beers on tap. It should include the current year’s version of the Funky Jewbelation barrel-aged sour. Shmaltz’s beers are multiple World Beer Cup award winners.
Brewery Ommegang, in Cooperstown, is outside of the Capital Region but just barely. We would be remiss if we did not include it on our award-winning beer trail. It is one of the country’s most decorated breweries. Look up and down the GABF and World Beer Cup winners lists from any year and you will see its beers. Ommegang was awarded the Brewers Association World Beer Cup 2016 Champion Brewery and Brewmaster award for mid-size brewing companies.
Don Feinberg, Wendy Littlefield and three Belgium family-owned breweries formed Brewery Ommegang in 1997 to brew Belgium-style ales for the U.S. market. The brewery is on a 136-acre former hop farm. In 2003, one of the family-owned breweries, Duvel Moortgat, bought Feinberg’s and Littlefield’s shares.
There are many reasons to visit Ommegang. Of course, one could consider tasting its not-easily-found limited edition and historical beers on tap. But the café does a credible job of serving Belgian cuisine. It even has beer-food pairing dinners with guest celebrity chefs. And the grounds are a concert venue that has drawn national acts such as Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt.
When traveling to these award-winning breweries, don’t ignore the small to nano breweries. They probably do not have the budget to enter the major competitions. It does not mean that they do not make beers that would be winners. For an analogy, consider the immigrant food stand in New York City that makes just one or two items that rival what the four-star restaurants can produce.
Clifton Mark’s beer journey began in the 1960s, when his high school German class tasted Oktoberfest brews at a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. His interest in local beer, wine and food has taken him across Europe and into countless brewpubs and restaurants in the Capital Region and the Northeast.