Everyone knows about the wineries of the Finger Lakes; now there’s a big push to make their neighbors to the East famous for breweries. An initiative called Brew Central has mounted an aggressive campaign to highlight breweries, cideries, distilleries and even hop farms in the rolling hills Madison, Onondaga, Broome, Schoharie, Otsego and Oneida counties

Using NY’s farm brewery license, ushered into law last year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as a springboard, the campaign aims to bulk up agritourism in the area, even to reinstate the hop industry in Madison and Oneida counties, once the nation’s largest hop growing area.

Since the legislation passed last year, close to 50 farm brewery licenses have been granted.

Farm Brewers

Good-Nature-05Good Nature Farm Brewery & Tap Room in Hamilton was one of the first to take advantage of the new license. Founded two years ago by the energetic young couple, Matt Whalen and Carrie Blackmore, Good Nature is moving fast. They went from a 2-bbl system to 7-bbl, then opened a taproom in Hamilton’s townsquare across from the Colgate Inn (a great place for dinner if you’re visiting, with a more than decent tap list). Now they have plans on the drawing board for a brand new brewery with a 20-bbl brewhouse to be built on the edge of town. As their name suggests, Good Nature plans to be as green as possible.

The use of locally grown hops and grains, as required by the farm brewery license, is right up their alley.

Justin Behan at Green Wolf Brewing Co. in Middleburgh, in Schoharie County is brand new — just now opening his doors. Justin had plans to go into organic farming, but fell in love with brewing. With the farm brewery license he can combine both his passions on his 3-bbl system.

Not so new are Larry and Kate Fisher at Foothill Farms in Munnsville. They’ve been dabbling in hop growing for several years and now have six acres devoted to a dozen hop varieties. Hands on is an understatement for Foothill: Larry, who runs an electrical business, built his own 20-ft-tall hop harvesting machine; Kate, a technical coordinator in the local school system, makes all kinds of hop related goodies on sale in their farm/homebrew shop: beer glazed almonds and walnuts (Good Nature beer brewed with Foothills hops); hop infused shampoo; and various hop jellies and jams.

critz3Critz Farms is no stranger to agritourism. Matthew Critz, a former civil chemical engineer, bought his Cazenovia farm 20 years ago. Along with his wife, Juanita, he began growing Christmas trees as a cash crop; then he harvested pumpkins and pick your own apples; then maple trees and syrup. Don’t forget a restaurant to cater to visitors, and a corn maze.

When he installed a heavy-duty cider press, things began to get really interesting. Now he produces a range of award-winning hard ciders using both imported European cider apples as well as his own, under the Harvest Moon label; visitors to his farm/tasting room reach 5,000 a day during harvest season.

The well-established orchards at Beak and Skiff in neighboring Lafayette took notice. They now produce their own ciders as well as vodka and gin distilled from their own apples that have been grown commercially for generations. A brand-new visitor center sits on their hilltop property selling all kinds of craft beverage related products.

Cazenovia is sort of a poster town for Brew Central. In addition to Critz, the town hosts a winery (Owera Vineyards) and an about-to-open distillery (Life of Reilly) — and as Madison County tourism Exec. Director Scott Flaherty says, Empire Farmstead will become the fourth leg of Cazenovia’s craft beverage stool.

A “natural” outgrowth of the 20-year-old Empire Brewpub in Syracuse, owner David Katleski, has plans for one of the largest farm breweries in NY State so far: A 60-bbl JVNW brewhouse with an estimated 60,000-bbl annual production; eight of the farm’s 22 acres devoted to barley, rye and wheat crops and six to hops; as well as a 32,000 sq ft visitor center.

Katleski, who co-founded the New York State Brewers Association, and was instrumental in the passage of the farm brewery license, expects to break ground on the Cazenovia location this month (Aug).

saranacinset2Utica Some breweries may never be able to take advantage of the farm brewery license, which currently requires 20% state-grown ingredients, and as much as 90% after 2023 — they are simply too large. In central New York, one brewery spreads its wing like an eagle over the surrounding territory — the venerable FX Matt Brewing Co.

Founded in Utica in 1888, Matt is into its fourth generation. The brewery has seen the seasons change — from its inception and days of rapid growth around the dawn of the 20th century, to weathering Prohibition, to struggling against national breweries as post-industrial Utica was turning into a backwater, and finally embracing the craft brewing revolution with their Saranac brands. The brewery has continually reinvented itself and with a view to the future is helping fuel a renaissance in Utica.

Their Thursday night summer concert series at the brewery has become legendary and turned Varick Street into a veritable nightlife hotspot. “We finish the concerts at 8 p.m. so you basically have a captive audience of 2,000 people who want to go out somewhere,” said President Nick Matt.

Chris Talgo, who opened his Nail Creek Pub next door to the brewery six years ago, said Matt has been a great neighbor. He also said that a fire that destroyed the brewery’s packaging room five years ago, might have had a silver lining. “I think it enabled them to upgrade a lot of their equipment,” he said.

Notably, Matt has invested a lot in lab equipment including a $100,000 spectrometer to study the beer aging process. One new toy in the brewhouse that Rich Michaels is particular proud of (his title is Quality Innovation Manager) is a horizontal decanter which strips liquid from hops making their whirlpool much more efficient. Another toy is a 2-bbl pilot brewery that Matt took on from Good Nature when they upgraded, although Michaels said, “they wouldn’t recognize it now.” New blood to the brewery comes in the person of Nick Matt Jr. who brings marketing savvy in his return to the family business with his father and uncle, Fred Matt, CEO.

Talgo has been part of the Varick Street renaissance. He says he bought the first part of his current operation for $2,000 seven years ago. While his 3-bbl brewhouse is currently on hiatus, he has found growing success in his increasingly locally-sourced menu. I can attest the chicken, cappicola, red pepper sandwich was fantastic and if you don’t want a side of fries or slaw, you can order a side of Utica Club beer.

ADK-Distilling-05At the other end of Varick Street, past the pubs and pizza places, is Adirondack Distilling Co. Jordan Karp, a former political advisor, has invested in high-end microdistilling of gin, vodka, bourbon and white whisky. His spirits are all distilled from corn, which he says is a “a little more expensive and a little more finicky.” But there are three main reasons why he does so: “One, it’s gluten free; two, the flavor — it makes a slightly sweeter spirit; three, there’s a good local source.”

He will be making a whiskey for Good Nature using their wort. Good Nature will sell it in their tap room.

Indeed, farmer brewers license holders are able to cross-promote selling each other’s beer, wine, ciders and spirits in their shops.

The Craft Act

There’s good news coming from Albany for non-farming craft brewers also. When Gov. Cuomo signs the Craft Act, as he is expected to do, all craft breweries will be able to sell by the pint at their breweries and tap rooms, not just serve samples.

While some are now questioning the advantages of now applying for the farm brewery license. NYBA Director Paul Leone says most who have applied for the license are in it for the opportunity to source locally, not just to sell beer by the pint.

Said Katleski, “Brewers used to be the ugly step-child of the wine industry.

Not any more.”

“This will provide an important revenue source for small breweries,” said Nick Matt. (The Governor’s) just trying to make it easier to do business in the state.”

And that’s a good thing.

– Tony Forder, Ale Street News