TAP New York Festival Toasts NY Craft Beer Culture And Industry

A festival this weekend in New York’s Greene County highlighted the recent expansion of craft brewing across the state. WAMC’s Patrick Donges was there.

Sunday, 9:30 a.m. – As some people cracked open their newspapers or got ready for church, Jessica Kwant, manager of The Albany Pump Station at C. H. Evans Brewing Company in downtown Albany, was behind the bar.

More than 50 people gathered for a bus trip organized by the brewery about 55 miles southwest to Hunter Mountain, in Greene County, for the second and final day of the TAP New York Craft Beer & Fine Food Festival, billed as the largest craft beer and food event in the state. Chris Dum, a 29 year-old criminal justice doctoral student at the University at Albany, says what drew him and two friends to the event.

Just inside the gates at the TAP New York Craft Beer & Fine Food Festival, April 28, 2013.
Credit Patrick Donges

“It’s definitely the beer,” Dum said. “The New York State craft beer scene is really taking off which is amazing, that we have so many different breweries and festivals and things going on.”  

Like the festival, the craft beer industry in New York has grown over the last few years through a combination of an increase in quality local brewing, legislative considerations, and increased consumer interest.

About two hours later just outside Hunter’s main lodge, Dave Abrams and his wife Erin, who took a bus with a group organized by Peekskill Brewery in Westchester County, waited patiently with hundreds of other beer fans for the gates to open.

"New York makes some great beer, and some stuff actually doesn’t make its way down from the Central New York region or from Western New York,” said Dave.

“Sometimes the only time you can really taste it is at a festival like this.”

“I’d say we spend about $50 to $100 dollars a month,” said Erin, when asked what the couple budgets for beer. Dave specified that that’s on craft beer, particularly beer that’s brewed locally.

The doors opened at noon and more than 65 craft brewers began pouring some 225 craft beers, the largest turnout of brewers in the festival’s 16-year history.
Dan Hitchcock of Rushing Duck Brewing Company, based in Chester in Orange County, was one of about 15 brewers new to the festival this year. Here he is describing his Beanhead Coffee Porter.

“It’s one of our year-round styles and we use a local roaster from Bethel, New York, called Java Love,” said Hitchcock, describing how he transported a pilot batch nearly an hour north to the Sullivan County coffee roasters, who helped him choose the perfect coffee to complement the taste of the beer.

“It’s a Guatemala Antigua blend,” he explained.

Bruce Lish, who has been brewing in New York for 16 years, the last four with CB Brewing Company in Monroe County, said the increased popularity of craft beer and small-scale brewing is propelling the industry forward.

“The business model is becoming more attainable for smaller people,” he said. “You can start out with a two- or three-barrel system and just work up from there. It’s really benefiting the whole culture in New York State.”

“A farmer from the Finger Lakes called me up one day to ask me if I had any use for black currant juice. I said, ‘No, but I’ll find a reason to use it,’” Lish said, describing the inception of CB’s Signature Series “Cassie” black currant ale. He went on to describe how the tart acidity of the currant juice blended with some honey gave the brew its distinct flavor.

Those collaborations are just some examples of the local business-centric culture that has formed around craft brewing in the state, and it’s one reason Rushing Duck’s Dan Hitchcock, a New Jersey native who got his brewing start in Pennsylvania, decided to start his business in the Empire State.

“There’s as many good beer bars in the Hudson Valley as (there are in) the whole state of New Jersey,” he said, adding that the laws are better for brewers in New York, calling Governor Andrew Cuomo “very pro-beer.”

Rushing Duck began brewing in August 2012, only about two months after an agreement between Cuomo and state legislative leaders on several policies designed to support the state’s growing craft beer industry.

That legislation included the creation of a "Farm Brewery" license which gives craft brewers many of the same considerations afforded to the state’s wineries, including allowing them to sell New York State labeled beer at their retail outlets, to conduct on-premises tastings of New York State produced beer, and to sell beer making equipment and supplies.

To qualify for the new license, brewers must use locally sourced ingredients – Until the end of 2018, at least 20 percent of the hops and 20 percent of all other ingredients must be grown or produced in New York State. In 2018 that number is set to increase to 60 percent, and by 2024, no less than 90 percent of hops and ingredients must be from New York.

New York State Senator Cecelia Tkaczyk awaits her turn to taste and present the Governor's Cup, pictured behind her, to the best beer in the state at TAP New York 2013.
Credit Patrick Donges

The legislation is not only being credited with helping boost brewing, it’s also spurring new opportunities for farmers.

Standing behind a table of bowls filled with various fragrant grains, Natalie and Marty Mattrazzo aren’t pouring beer. They’re the owners of Farmhouse Malts, based in Tioga County, which according to Natalie is, “The first craft malt house to open in New York State since prohibition.”

"There has been a local drive in New York State to produce hops and barley, mostly in support of the new farm brewery legislation," she said.

"This legislation went through so quick, but there was really no funding for an infrastructure or supply chain," she added, noting that that Farmhouse Malt is just the first of a handful of malt houses opening across the state in the coming months.

Mattarazzo also gave an update on the latest industry numbers as provided at the annual meeting of the New York State Brewers Association, a brewing advocacy and lobby group, which was held before the day’s festivities.

“As of last year New York was about sixth in craft beer production,” she said. “We’re third or fourth now.”

She described the industry as a “moving train” being powered by interested customers looking for new locally produced beers.

The Mattarazzos weren’t the only local farmers at the festival. State Senator Cecelia Tkaczyk, a Democrat who represents the state’s 46th district, which includes all of Montgomery and Greene Counties, and parts of Albany, Schenectady and Ulster Counties, was on hand for the final tasting and presentation of
the Governor’s Cup, named for Cuomo, awarded to the state’s best beer.

“I grew up on a dairy farm, so anything that connects farmers with breweries, encouraging them to grow more hops or malt even is a good thing,” she said.

“The microbreweries are growing,” she added. “I’ve visited the ones that are in my district and they’re very excited to be here,” noting the festival turnout.

Michael Benz, Brewery Ambassador and pub manager Lauren McFadyen, both of Peekskill Brewery, pose with the Governor's Cup after winning best beer in the state for their Higher Standard Triple IPA.
Credit Patrick Donges

While the growth of the industry is exciting for beer enthusiasts, some wonder whether a time could come when there are too many craft breweries for the state to support; when the increased competition starts cutting into the industry instead of supporting it.

Ryan Demler, has been brewing at C.H. Evans in Albany for about a year, taking over for award-winning local brewer George de Piro, who went on to open Druthers Brewing Company in Saratoga Springs, which was also represented at the festival. Demler said the increased quantity hasn’t diluted quality.

“We’re all making more beer, and we’re all selling more beer,” he said.

“It’s not at all that we’ve eaten into anybody’s turf, it’s just better access as we have little guys stepping up,” he added, noting one nanobrewery, Community Beer Works from Buffalo, that started as, “a bunch of guys in a garage.”

“We want more beer,” he said. “More, better beer, and that’s the goal.”