Our contest featured two of the well-known “big boys” of American craft brewing — Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown and Southern Tier Brewing in Lakewood (near Jamestown). Both have nationwide distribution, business partnerships with other major U.S. brewers, and fall easily within the top 50 largest breweries in the United States.
Also in our list of finalists were four smaller brewers, who sell most of their beer to loyal customers right out of their tasting rooms. They were Raquette River Brewing in Tupper Lake, Naked Dove Brewing in Canandaigua, Lucky Hare Brewing in Hector on Seneca Lake and The North Brewery in Endicott, near Binghamton.
The six finalists were chosen over the past month in a poll of our readers at NYup.com.
THE READERS’ PICK
Craft beer lovers like to be surprised, intrigued and even challenged. And while all small brewers do that to some extent, no one takes it to extremes like The North Brewery in downtown Endicott.
Our NYup.com readers are up that challenge. They named The North Brewery, 110 Washington Ave. in Endicott as the Readers’ Choice as Best Upstate New York Brewery.
The North prides itself on coming up with new beers all the time. In four years, it has made more than 400 distinct beers, according to owner Zach Pedley, who runs The North with his father, Eric. When they do roll out a beer more than once, it’s an unusual one. Check out, for example, the popular beer called God Complex, an imperial stout made with hot peppers, mocha and hazelnut.
The North Brewery won the readers’ poll with 28 percent of the vote, followed by the six-month-old Lucky Hare Brewing Co. with 22 percent and Brewery Ommegang with 17 percent.
THE JUDGES’ PICK
Well-made beers? Varied selections and interesting seasonals and specialties? A top-notch visitors’ experience?
Both of the bigger breweries in our list of finalists check off all those boxes. We’re giving Brewery Ommegang a slight edge and naming it the Judges’ Pick for Best Upstate New York Brewery.
Much of that edge comes from the visitors’ experience: Ommegang has a first rate cafe that pairs its beers with Belgian favorites like frites, waffles, mussels and more in a European beer hall-like setting. It also hosts a variety of festivals, including the enormously popular Belgium Comes to Cooperstown each August. And it sponsors a compelling live music series in the summer and fall.
It’s beers are mostly in the Belgian tradition, like its year-round Abbey Ale, Witte wheat ale and Hennepin saison, plus those that push Belgian styles in new directions, like its tie-in series with the HBO TV series “Game of Thrones.” But it’s also recently shown an interest in the American fixation with hops, offering beers like Nirvana IPA and it’s New York-centric Hopstate NY.
Southern Tier is no slouch when it comes to varied, remarkable beers. It shows an enormous range, from its year-rounder IPA, 2XIPA, Live and One Buffalo, to its seasonals like Hop Sun, Harvest Ale and Old Man Winter, and its bold and flavorful Blackwater series of flavored stouts. It rates an extremely close second in the judges opinion.
Was it unfair to judge the big breweries against the smaller ones? Perhaps a little.
But the smaller breweries in this list are worth noting for their friendliness, their ability to build loyal followings and the passion of their owners and brewers.
Naked Dove, for example, makes easy-drinking but flavorful beers and owner-brewer Dave Schlosser is happy to discuss brewing nuances with visitors.
Lucky Hare, although not even a year-old, is showing signs that its beers will satisfy both those who love the classic and those looking for something different. (And its tasting room is about to welcome a full-service kitchen).
Raquette River Brewing is a terrific stop to make on any tour of the Adirondacks. You’ll find a warm northern New York welcome and beers that fill a wide range of styles.
And The North Brewery? Expect to be challenged.
Our judging team included Don Cazentre, food and drink writer for syracuse.com and NYup.com; Jared Paventi, restaurant reviewer, beer reviewer and contributor to NYup.com and syracuse.com and Steve Carlic, managing producer for the Life & Culture team at syracuse.com and manager of NYup.com.