This past Saturday, brewers from across New York state packed up their cars and vans full of their tastiest brews and made their way to Albany for the Craft NY Brewers Festival. Having learned about the changing landscape of the craft beer scene a couple weeks ago, I wanted to take a different approach. I was interested in hearing from the brewers about the defining ideas behind their beer, so I asked as many of them as I could one question: "If you had to pick just three words to describe your brewing philosophy, what would those three words be?"
It's a simple question, but it's a difficult one. Have you ever tried to describe your job in one paragraph or one sentence, let alone three words? Some brewers had an answer right away, while others requested some extra time to think about it.
Some brewers emphasized integrity and transparency. Others talked about how one of their primary goals was to produce a consistent product, despite the challenges of doing so on a small scale. I got a lot of different answers, but at the end of the day, there were three answers that came up on several occasions and stood out as some of the defining philosophies of the craft brewers of NY.
Here they are, along with a couple of the beers from the event that best captured their spirit.
"Local" - Supporting the Local Economy and Serving the Community
With the demand for craft beer at an all-time high, one way brewers are serving their community is by providing consumers with the fresh, quality product they're looking for. Many breweries still have a very limited distribution footprint, with many only distributing within NY state and others barely leaving the city limits.
Community Beer Works, located in Buffalo, is one of the latter breweries. President Ethan Cox admitted that they "mostly distribute within a few miles of the brewery," although he admitted to personally driving the occasional keg out to the suburbs. "We go out and do festivals because we hope that when you come to Buffalo you’ll seek out our beer, not that we’re going to be distributing out here any time soon."
In addition to local distribution, many brewers also talked about utilizing local ingredients and flavors. St. Lawrence Brewing Co.'s brewing philosophy is all about "incorporating local flavors." They purchase hops from a number of local farms and are working on a way to use local barley as well.
While some brewers like to purchase local ingredients, others are producing ingredients themselves. Brown's Brewery has been growing their own hops for years, and Ithaca Beer Co. is working on getting their own hop fields in the near future.
New York's first Farm Brewery, Good Nature Brewing, is always thinking local. According to them, their mission is "to brew the highest quality beer we can utilizing local ingredients as often as possible," even when it comes at a cost. New York hops can be pricy, as the demand has grown so fast that it's a challenge for supply to keep up, but investing back in the local community remains a priority for Good Nature.
Good Nature "Biere de Marc" - A Biere de Garde (described as being similar to a Belgian-style pale ale) where the local ingredients really shine. Dry-hopped with locally grown Willamette hops give a bright citrusy, floral aroma, full of fresh oranges and tangerines, that perfectly complements the Belgian yeast. It was fairly light bodied and easy drinking with a light bitterness on the finish that was more reminiscent of orange zest than hops.
Community Beer Works "The Whale with Coffee" - This brown ale is usually full of coffee flavor, but the brewers decided to kick things up a notch for this event and collaborate with a local Buffalo roaster to brew a one-off batch with a special blend of coffee. The aroma of freshly ground coffee with a hint of brown sugar served as the perfect way to start off the festival -- and wake me up after a long drive north.
"Tradition" - Integrating Culture and Heritage
These words may seem out of place in an industry growing so fast, especially one that is known to push the boundaries of style and flavor. However, beer has about as much history behind it as any part of our society. Loren Taylor-Raymond, head brewer at Third Rail Beer, spoke to me about how they always try to be respectful when they are brewing. "When we brew a beer, we think about the heritage of that beer. Where did it come from? Who invented it? Culturally, did some group of people brew this beer for dozens of years or more, doing it well, and what can we learn from that?"
Sometimes, it's not the beer itself with the history, but the ingredients. Culinary brewer Ken Hettinger of Jonas Bronck's and Happy Elephant told me that "all the beers we brew now and will brew have some kind of history to them." He doesn't just want a beer to be tasty, he wants it to tell a story. As for the history of beer, Ken remembers being a child and hearing adults (including his father) sing the following ode to beer:
I love beer, beer makes me happy and mellow
I love beer, beer makes me a jolly good fellow
While his dad may not have been drinking anything like the Jasmin Rice Beer and Thai Wheat Beers he brews, Ken appreciates how beer has a history of bringing people together. Motioning to the crowd around him, he told me, "This is what beer does. It makes people happy, it brings them together."
Third Rail "Field 2" - This field captures the true spirit of the farmhouse ale, which was originally brewed to quench the thirst of farm workers putting in long hours under the hot summer sun. The yeast for this beer comes from a farm brewery by the border of Belgium and France and gives this refreshing brew a delicious herbal, spicy character.
Jonas Bronck's "Egg Cream Stout" - Ken uses food ingredients in all of his beers, and this is no exception. This stout happens to be made with Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup, which has been produced by a family in Brooklyn for 120 years and is older than Hershey. The beer has a delicious chocolate aroma and flavor without being sweet, and is unlike any other beer I've ever tasted.
"Drinkability" - Making Approachable Beer Without Sacrficing Flavor
This might seem like a bad joke. A word that was entered into the mainstream lexicon as part of a Bud Light marketing campaign is now being used by some of the finest brewers in NY state. However, what began as a synonym for "tasteless" has taken on a new meaning in the craft community. Now, drinkable doesn't mean watery and inoffensive, it means flavorful without being overpowering.
This focus on approachable beers is one of the factors contributing to craft beer's rapid growth. Paradox Brewery told me that their goal is to make "good drinkable beer." This is why their Beaver Bite IPA is heavily dry-hopped with minimal contact time, to reduce bitterness while emphasizing the piney, citrusy aroma that hop-lovers crave. Keegan Ales had a similar message, telling me that they want to brew "beer people drink."
This seems to be a trend across the industry. As some breweries have been involved in a sort of arms race of who can make the hoppiest and highest alcohol beers, many are going the other way. It's why the session IPA has become such a popular style, and why a festival which can often serve as a way to showcase big, bold, unique beers was serving up just as many Kolsch and Pilsners as Imperial Stouts and Double IPAs.
Keegan Ales "Bine Climber" - The first ever beer being canned by Keegan, this "lawnmower IPA" featured loads of piney hop aroma but remained refreshing and clean with just the faintest bitterness on the finish.
Upstate Brewing "Common Sense" - Also a beer with history, the Kentucky Common Ale was a popular style in the pre-prohibition United States. While it pours dark brown, it really drinks more like a light beer, with bready, toasty malts and just a hint of hops. A perfect "change of pace" beer.
Here are a few more descriptors I heard over the course of the day, and a beer to match.
"Fun" - Brown's Cherry Raspberry Ale was packed with fruit without being sweet, and left me wanting more.
"Complex" - Ithaca's Seventeenth Anniversary Ale was described to me as "a double wheat IPA with Brett." The beer was actually lighter than I expected, and was quite refreshing, with a nice funky finish.
"Fresh" - There were plenty of beers that I could choose here, but one that stood out was Naked Dove's Cone-a-Copia Double IPA. The aroma was loaded with pine and grapefruit, and the bitterness was offset by a light malt sweetness.
When he's not writing about beer, Matt works at the NYU Medical Center where he does cancer and stem cell biology research. You can find him on Twitter at @murphym45.