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Brewer's Choice, SMaSH Beers, and NY Agriculture

Michael Donato, February 26, 2015 -   

Sometimes you can forget just how big New York State is and just how much farmland there is between New York City and Niagara Falls. Way back before Prohibition, New York was actually one of the top hop growers in the country and had breweries all over the place. Now thanks to a nifty piece of legislation, the state is starting to get back up there. 

You may have noticed the explosion of breweries in New York over the past two years. Part of that is the establishment of the farm brewery license which makes it cheaper and easier for new breweries to get going as long as they make their beer with at least 20% New York grown hops and at least 20% other NY ingredients, a threshold that grows in 2018 and 2024 all the way up to 90% of NY ingredients. 

Part of the theme of NYC Craft Beer Week is this Think NY Drink NY angle, and really emphasizing New York breweries, agriculture, and how they can all work together to make New York a craft beer destination state. One of the special projects for beer week was for brewers to make a SMaSH, co-opted to mean State Malt and State Hops beer (instead of the usual Single Malt and Single Hops) and many of them did. While the hop-growing and grain-growing side of this is still in its infancy, especially the malting of said grain, these brewers turned out some very delicious beers using only these New York ingredients. Farmers have basically had to relearn how to grow barley and hops in the state after not doing it for so long. There are unique qualities to New York from Long Island's sandy soil to the climate differences and cold temperatures of upstate New York and they've made remarkable strides in just a short timte. 

 

I had the opportunity to chat with some breweries as well as try many of these SMaSH beers at the New York City Craft Beer Week Brewer's Choice event, and I was amazing at how many different styles of beer there were. IPAs, Ryes, Saisons, California Commons and many more. I was impressed with the quality and diversity of these beers. 

A common theme seemed to be that the legislation was a great step, but that there is still a lot to do. No one thinks New York agriculture is ready to support as many brewers as exist right now, especially if they ramp up to 90% NY ingredients by 2024. Valley Malt is one of the main maltsters the breweries used this year, and they're in Massachusetts. The rule about using New York grain doesn't mention where that grain gets turned into malt, and there are so few places to do that in New York that many places export it to Valley. I spoke to Christian from Valley and he expressed concerns about eventually being legislated out, but that right now New York is issuing farm brewery licenses with no regards to whether or not the farmers can supply the breweries with the grain they need.

Hops were a big topic of discussion too. Hops are a crop that take a few years to really get going, and a lot of New York hops are only just starting to be comparable to similar hops in the Pacific Northwest.

I spoke to the brewer from Port Jefferson Brewing Company and he said the hops they used from the guys out in Wading River, NY where he gets them from were much better this year.  This year they've turned a corner and he was happy with the hop crop, specifically the cascade used in his SMaSH beer. They're really pungent in part because of the decreased distance you need to deliver hops from Long Island as opposed to Oregon. The brewers at Transmitter agreed with this sentiment. Hops really need about four years to really get established and there just aren't enough New York hops to go around. Transmitter's NY1 SMaSH beer was very impressive. It was a dark saison that was rich and flavorful, with what I would describe as almost milk chocolate characteristics. I hope to get a chance to get out to Long Island and see if I can visit this hop farm this summer. 

Empire Brewing's owner David Katleski, who's on the NYSBA Board of Directors and has been instrumential in the legal progress breweries in New York have made over the years, spoke passionately about a recent grain crop that they lost due to a poorly timed rain storm. He talked about how the farm brewery law made some sense factoring in New York water but that there is no way farming can keep up the way it is now. There's just too much demand. 

I sampled quite a few SMaSH beers, and while they were all good the best beers I had were beers that had a little more planning behind them. Other Half's Indian Ladder Farm Stout, a beer still made with primarily NY ingredients, was alive and bursting with flavor. Carton's Gilded Lily was full of exotic taste I never expected in a beer, and Finback's Small Sour Stout was another one of those very drinkable sours.

I had a chance to speak a little with Sarah Annese who wrote the book 'Beer Lover's New York' which from my skimming seemed to be an interesting book on the New York beer scene. We chatted a bit about how many new breweries there are, particularly in New York City. Other Half and Finback were among her favorites, as well as her neighbor at the event, Bridge and Tunnel Brewing. Bridge and Tunnel was one of my first stops, because I'm a Bridge and Tunnel New Yorker myself; Google navigation actually diverted me from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the Manhattan Bridge on my way to the event.

I'm partial to Queens breweries anyway as a Mets fan, and think they should all be on tap at Citi Field. Mostly due to the availability of grain, ordered in bulk by Kelso Brewing Company, they chose to make a double rye beer which was rich and flavorful and a great place to start my night. The rye malt in every beer I tried with it was very distinctive and earthy, and I loved the taste it brought. 

There was so much great beer, and the people were so passionate. Some of these breweries are literally just husband and wife. The time and effort put into some of these very small breweries is impressive and it's much appreciated from the drinker's end of things. I added quite a few breweries to my list to keep an eye on.

If there's one thing I took away from this event it's that the explosion of New York craft beer, both from a diversity and quality standpoint, is only just beginning. I bet by the end of the decade we'll be able to enjoy a single-hopped beer from one of these breweries made with an exclusive NY hop variety.

Michael can be found on Twitter and Untappd where he's planning his next New York City Beer Week event.  You can also email him at beer@ceetar.com.

This is part an effort by BeerGraphs to team up with the New York State Brewer's Association to give you complete coverage of New York City Beer Week.

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