It’s 11 a.m. on a Tuesday; the early lunch crowd shuffles in to Brown’s Brewing Company, on River Street in Troy.
A man sits at the bar, reading his paper, drinking coffee. If he looked up, he’d notice another man, clearly visible through the plateglass window behind the bar. Rubber-booted and hip-deep in a gooey concoction, this man is standing in a 700-gallon stainless steel tank with a shovel and a hose. He is Rob Rafferty, a brewery assistant, and his current job is to clean the vat of mash, a gloppy porridge that is left over from the first step in making what will be Brown’s Pale Ale.
Scenes like this are familiar to beer connoisseurs up and down the Hudson Valley. At least eight small, local craft breweries and brewpubs dot the landscape from Troy all the way to Pearl River. Some, like Brown’s, have been around almost two decades, nearly from the time of the Big Bang of the U.S. craft beer explosion. Others, like Cave Mountain Brewing in Windham, are just getting their sudsy feet wet. They serve English-style beers, Belgian-style beers, German-style beers, beers made of wheat and barley and rye, beers flavored with chocolate and pumpkin and maple syrup, extra-hoppy India Pale Ales and extra-fruity cranberry white ales, Wassails in winter and hefeweizens in summer, and whatever else the brewer fancies that day.
What they don’t make is thin, pale, tasteless, American-style beer. (“Why is American beer served cold?” the old beermaker’s joke goes. “So you can tell it from urine.”) And while thin, pale, tasteless, American-style beer still accounts for about 96 percent of all beer sales in this country, the remaining four percent who drink craft beers — a number that likely skews a bit higher in regions like the Hudson Valley — do so with a passion and devotion that can sometimes border on the religious. They complain when a personal favorite is dropped from the rotation. They pester while awaiting a seasonal style. They expect to see brewers like Rafferty mucking about with shovels and hoses in the background.
As more than one of the Hudson Valley’s humble brewers pointed out, “We don’t own our beers. Our customers own our beers.”
Brown’s Brewing Company offers more than 25 different styles of ales and lagers throughout the year
Photograph courtesy of Brown’s Brewing Company
America was once a nation of brewers. According to a recent article in The New Yorker (which has the best fact-checking department outside of Poughkeepsie), there were about 4,000 regional breweries in 1873.
One of those was the C.H. Evans Brewing Company. Cornelius Evans bought a Hudson-based brewery, which had opened for business in 1786, and produced award-winning ales for about 60 years. Then in 1919 came Prohibition, which killed off Evans and most local brewers nationwide. The rest were snuffed out by the rise of mass production following Prohibition’s repeal. That also put our native beer’s variety, freshness, and flavor on the verge of extinction. By 1965, there was just one craft brewer left standing, Anchor Brewing, in San Francisco.
Now, thanks to changing laws and changing palates, there are more than 1,500 breweries nationwide, the highest number in a century. One of those is, once again, C.H. Evans. Cornelius’s great-great grandson, C.H. Evans IV, revived his family business as C.H. Evans Brewing at the Albany Pump Station 10 years ago. Neil, as he is known, never heard much about his family’s brewing history until he was in his 20s, when he got to know a great uncle, the last family survivor of the Hudson brewing days. “It totally fascinated me,” he says, “but I never thought I could do anything about it.”
The C.H. Evans Brewing Company at the Albany Pump Station is housed in two adjoining historic buildings that date back to the late 1870s
Then, in the 1980s, the brewery laws changed. “There were now some tax benefits to opening a small brewery,” Evans says. That’s when the craft-brew boom really got going. As defined by the Brewers Association, a craft brewery produces less than two million barrels a year. (A barrel contains two kegs, to give you a recognizable, frat-party reference.) A microbrewery produces less than fifteen thousand. A brewpub serves at least a quarter of its beer in house. Hudson Valley brewers are at the small end of microbrewing: Brown’s, for example, topped off just 2,300 barrels in 2009. “What we brew in a year, the big breweries spill in a day,” co-owner Kelly Brown says.
By the 1980s several craft breweries were pretty well established on the West Coast. And in the late ’80s they drew Kelly and her then-boyfriend, Garrett (Garry) Brown, on a cross-country trek that led to Brown’s Brewing. “Garry was a photojournalist, and I was a flight attendant,” says Kelly. “He introduced me to craft beer. I had never had one — I tried the tasteless yellow stuff in college and didn’t like it. Once I tried real beer, I was hooked. And he had this idea to start our own brewery.”
Like most nascent brewers, they first tried home brewing. “We made beer for our wedding in 1990. We called it Wedding Feast Ale. It was completely awful,” Brown laughs. Undaunted, they teamed up with a partner, bought an abandoned warehouse on the Troy waterfront, spent three years rehabbing it themselves, and launched Brown and Moran’s in 1993. (Partner James Moran left a few years later.)
Steak, shrimp, and suds: Hearty food — and brew made using only German, British, and Belgian malts — is on tap at the Skytop Steakhouse and Brewing Company
It wasn’t long before others in the Hudson Valley followed the Browns’s lead. In 1996, after a successful career in the casino and food-service industries, Evans began pondering his family heritage. If he was going to start brewing again, he needed to get his hands hoppy. Like the Browns, he tried home brewing. “Then I knew that was what I wanted to do,” he says. He hoped to open again in Hudson, but the demographics weren’t right. He found an abandoned water pump station in downtown Albany, remodeled it, hired a professional brewer named George De Piro (“I knew I wasn’t good enough,” he admits), opened in 1999, and has been winning beer-making awards ever since.
“When I first pitched the idea, everyone said I was nuts,” Evans says. “It took a couple years, but those doubting Thomases came to me and said, ‘Wow, you were right. That was fun.’ ”
But financial I-told-you-so’s weren’t his motivation. “I was a successful businessman prior to this,” he says. “I did this out of passion.”
Garry and Kelly Brown originally planned to open just a brewery and tasting room, but were convinced that they needed food to entice an uneducated beer populace. Joey LoBianco, who co-owns Hyde Park Brewing Company in Hyde Park, which opened 15 years ago, and the five-year-old Skytop Steakhouse and Brewing Company in Kingston, came from the opposite direction.
“I was already in the restaurant business, and an old friend from the Culinary Institute was looking for a new idea,” LoBianco says. “He put this concept of brewing in the restaurant to us. He said it was going on in California and he thought it would sweep the East Coast next. He was right.”
Rick Rauch, co-owner and managing partner of the Gilded Otter in New Paltz, who opened his pub in 1998, also added beer to food rather than vice versa. “A restaurant is just a restaurant, and there are many theme restaurants out there. We needed a gimmick to ensure success. People see the tanks and all the bells and whistles. It was a good gimmick at the time, and it’s proven to be a lasting gimmick.” Still, 95 percent of his customers come for the food, he says. “The brewery is our cherry on top of the sundae.”
For others, though, beer is the ice cream, hot fudge, and whipped cream.
The Gilded Otter’s lagers and ales are available in bottles as well as on tap
According to another highly reliable source (well, Wikipedia), beer is the world’s oldest and most widely consumed alcoholic beverage. It trails only water and tea as the most popular drink on Earth. Its origins are prehistoric, and when humans first began writing, they even wrote about beer. The Code of Hammurabi, circa 1790 B.C., was in part a liquor licensing authority; it included laws regulating the ancient Babylonian version of today’s brewpub. In its Draconian, eye-for-an-eye style, rule 108, for example, says that female barkeeps who overcharge should be drowned.
Flash-forward 3,800 years, and we write about the Valley’s newest brewpub. Tim and Amber Adams opened Cave Mountain Brewing just over a year ago in Windham. It’s the first brewery ever in Greene County, Tim claims. A restaurant chef since 1991, “I always wanted to open a fish fry or barbecue place,” he says. “But then I started home brewing six years ago. My first batch was five gallons of pale ale. I followed the instructions to a T, and it came out incredible, just mind-blowingly delicious.” He had been called to the church of beer.
Cave Mountain is small, making just one barrel at a time. Out of that one barrel Adams can supply six mainstay taps with blond ale, Irish red ale, English nut-brown ale, German hefeweizen, Centennial IPA, and oatmeal stout, and six seasonal brews like cranberry white, spiced winter ale, blueberry wheat, and Oktoberfest. But he’s done so well he is planning to open an offsite brewery and try regional distribution.
“My wife and I had no idea we would be this popular,” he says. “We thought it would be us two and a couple of waitresses, but after two weeks we were a lot busier than we ever imagined.” He doesn’t have time to cook or brew anymore. “I now manage — I’m a consultant for the brewery and kitchen,” he says, leaving the beer to his head brewer, Chris Tilley.
Though Adams is also a chef, he fully credits his success to his beer. Cave Mountain recently was named best brewery at the Hunter Mountain Microbrew and Wine Festival, beating out other local brewers and larger producers like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada. Talking to him, a relative newbie, you sense his wonder at his new calling. “The word ‘brewery,’ ” he says, “is a magical thing.”
The ever-popular Mother’s Milk at Keegan Ales is a dark and creamy stout
Stomp some grapes and put them in a barrel, and they will turn into something like wine all of their own devices. Beer, however, requires a guiding hand. In fact, there is some archeological argument about whether wheat was first cultivated by humans in order to make bread or beer.
“For grain to turn into an ale or lager, it has to be malted, cooked, strained, cooked, strained, fermented in a barrel, and sometimes again in a bottle,” Burkhard Bilger wrote in The New Yorker. That alchemy of biology, chemistry, and mechanical engineering (see sidebar) can be so captivating, it causes otherwise sane men and women to utterly change their lives. Indeed, the best way to become a brewer, one learns by talking to them, is to be something else first. Along with photographer, flight attendant, and casino executive, some Hudson Valley brewers once held the title of biochemist, health care manager, state worker, and knockabout.
Tommy Keegan, proprietor of Keegan Ales in Kingston, studied biochemistry at San Francisco State and worked in a lab. He was home brewing on the side, and found a master’s degree program in brewing science at the University of California at Davis. “That seemed like too much fun to pass up,” he says.
He then moved back to his native Long Island and got a job as a biology lab manager at SUNY Stony Brook. When a Long Island brewery called Blue Point offered him a job, he took it. But with a mortgage and a second child on the way, he thought he needed a “real job.” He almost took a position with a pharmacy company. Then, he learned about a defunct brewery in Kingston, and in 2003 he moved in. He made three beers — the same three he makes today — and his first batches won medals at a beer festival. Life in the lab was never an option again.
John Eccles, head brewer at Hyde Park and Skytop, worked in hospital management until he was in his late 30s. But, like all the others, he home brewed and was hooked. “I ingratiated myself with the late, great brewmaster Jay Misson at Mountain Valley brewpub in Suffern, which is no long there,” he says. “I left the hospital at three, got to the pub at four, and Jay gave me the worst possible jobs to get rid of me — scrubbing the tanks, pulling the grain, going into the cellars on hands and knees scrubbing the gunk. That would dissuade most people, but I really wanted to do this. I worked for free almost three years just to learn, then became a brewer when they expanded.”
Darren Currier, the Gilded Otter’s brewmaster, worked in air pollution control for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. Home brewing got the better of him as well. “I had bought a home brewing kit for my father, who loved beer, but he was too busy to use it,” Currier says. “I found it as a freshman in college [at SUNY New Paltz], tried it, and I loved it from the first batch.” He left the DEC to attend the Siebel Institute for Brewing in Chicago, and eventually took over the Gilded Otter soon after it first opened.
Cheers, the award-winning TV comedy, was born just before the craft beer revolution; if it were to be remade now, no doubt Sam’s pub would brew its own. A Coach’s nutty ale, perhaps, or a Carla’s bitter or a Normie’s Irish stout. Cheers wasn’t a brewpub, but it certainly was a pub, and that is the real strength and sustenance of all of these brewing establishments. The beer is great, to be sure. But even more special is that they truly are a place where everybody knows your name.
“It’s all about relationship building,” says Amy Acer, who runs Defiant Brewing in Pearl River with her husband, Neill. “There are no TVs here. We are like an old English pub where you come to talk to your neighbors.”
Including the ones who may have inspired the very beer you’re drinking. When Tommy Keegan draws a pint of his Hurricane Kitty IPA, Hurricane Kitty herself — Keegan’s 87-year-old grandmother — may be knocking back a pint next to you. “When she walks in, the band yells, ‘Hurricane Kitty’s in the house,’ ” Keegan laughs. “The rugby players ask her to autograph a bottle. She has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember it later, but she loves it.”
Pubs, after all, are fun places to be. The libations they serve are fun to drink. The people who make and serve them have fun doing it. That’s not to say it’s always easy. Success brings its own frustrations. “I spend more time thinking about workers comp than I do about beer these days,” says Keegan. Many brewers complain that they can’t experiment with new recipes as much as they’d like, for fear of losing customers who expect their favorites. Brown’s expansion plans — they are building a new brewery in Hoosick, scheduled to open in 2011 — have Peter Martin, once a one-man brew crew, juggling more and more responsibilities.
Still, when asked why he likes his job, Martin hesitates for just a second, as if it’s the dumbest, most self-evident question he’s ever heard. Then he smiles, shrugs, and offers the obvious answer:
“Because it’s beer.”
Good, fresh beer typically contains just four or five ingredients: water, malt, hops, yeast, and sometimes flavoring agents, which can be any carbohydrate or sugar such as grain (rye, wheat), fruit, honey, chocolate, or even maple syrup.
In step one, ground malt steeps in hot water for about an hour. This converts the malt’s starches into sugars. The sweet liquid is called wort, which is pumped to a boiling tank. The leftover gruel is called mash, which many brewers send to local farms as animal feed.
Next, the wort is boiled for up to two hours to sterilize and purify the liquid. Hops, the flower clusters of the humulus plant, are added during the boil. Hops come in many different varieties, and are used to add flavor, aroma, and bitterness — the hoppier a brew, the stronger the bite.
After boiling, the wort is allowed to settle a while to remove sediment. Then it’s pumped through a heat exchanger (to cool it rapidly) and piped into a fermentation tank. Here, the brewer adds the yeast, which feeds on the wort’s sugars, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Like hops, yeast comes in many varieties and determines what type of beer will result: lager, ale, porter, Belgian-style, German-style, what have you.
After anywhere from three to eight weeks or so, depending on the brew, the yeast has consumed all the sugar and goes dormant. It settles to the bottom of the tank and is removed and reused. The rest is beer.
More to the point, it’s craft beer. Why does craft beer taste better than Bud or Coors or Miller? Like any foodstuff, it’s in the ingredients. Large, industrial brewers typically substitute cheaper grains like corn and rice for the more expensive malt. Some even add corn syrup. That results in lighter-colored, lightly flavored beer. And once you’ve had a craft beer, you will never drink the other stuff again.
Source: Brewers Association, August 2009
C.H. Evans Brewing Company at the Albany Pump Station
19 Quackenbush Square, Albany
“The Pump Station,” as it’s often referred to, can best be described as “casually dramatic,” says owner Neil Evans, noting the 40-foot tall ceilings in the two historic buildings that now comprise the pub. It’s a great place to carry on a conversation and have award-winning beer: their Kick-Ass Brown ale, a hoppy, American-style ale, has won gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival three times. Another favorite, the Bavarian hefeweisen, is brewed with yeast that’s been salvaged over the years from an old German pub. Their diverse menu ranges from quality steaks to comfort food, but for a complete German meal, try the hefeweisen with their wurst platter or the classic fish and chips.
Photograph courtesy of Brown’s Brewing Company
Brown’s Brewing Co.
417 River St., Troy
Having a comfortable place to drink good beer is important to Garry and Kelly Brown of Brown’s Brewing Company. Even their meals can be described as comfort food, according to Kelly, and they usually incorporate their brews right into their recipes. The crowd-pleasing barbecued pulled pork with homemade ale sauce pairs well with Brown’s rich Cherry Raspberry Ale. The brew is made with over 400 pounds of cherries and raspberries, providing sweet undertones — and a tad higher alcohol content. The casual brewpub caters to all types of patrons, and as Kelly puts it, “even if you’re out mowing the lawn and need a cold beer — hop in the car as you are, and meet us.”
Skytop Steakhouse and Brewing Co.
237 Forest Hills Dr., Kingston
The warm, lodge-like feel of this brewpub and steakhouse attracts visitors from all over the region, especially skiers checking out the local scene. The spicy Cajun-rubbed ribeye steak might warm them right up, especially when washed down the popular Winkle Lager — a light colored, medium-bodied pilsner with a hoppy bite. Those who can’t decide which pint to draw of the six beers on tap can try the sampler — four ounces of each brew — and after discovering their favorite, order a two-liter growler to go.
Hyde Park Brewing Co.
4076 Albany Post Rd., Hyde Park
For a light beer in a lighthearted environment, Hyde Park Brewing Company’s Big Easy Blonde is a Munich-style lager with a refreshing feel; it goes well with the blackened salmon chopped salad. Named after an old Hudson River steamboat, the Mary P’s Porter is a favorite among brew enthusiasts who like a darker, more robust beer. Menu options for those who pack a heartier appetite include two-pound burgers with homemade bread, and boneless braised short ribs. Trivia and open-mic nights keep customers entertained, and the eight TVs at the bar ensure sports fans don’t miss a game.
3 Main St., New Paltz
Situated on Main Street in this bustling college town, this brewpub tends to attract more professors than students; outdoor enthusiasts trekking back into civilization from a day in the Shawangunks Mountains make up an even larger portion of the clientele. Top pints poured include the Stone House Imperial Stout — full-bodied, with sweet notes of coffee and chocolate, and a high alcohol percentage (after climbing a mountain, you don’t order a wimpy beer). It’s a fine complement to the popular three-meat chili. Indoor dining provides views of the brewing equipment, but for those who can’t get enough of the great outdoors, their dining room extends to a deck overlooking the Wallkill River.
Cave Mountain Brewing Co.
5359 Rt. 23/Main St., Windham
In a town mostly known as a playground for winter sports lovers, Cave Mountain caters to both locals and weekend warriors. With plenty of brews to choose from, the Centennial IPA — a crisp, somewhat bitter pale ale using both English and German malts — is a favorite among “hopheads,” according to manager Tim Adams, and pairs well with bold-flavored foods. Most of their dishes — which include steaks, ribs, and wraps — are considered “upscale pub fare,” says Adams. But weekday specials highlight more typical pub grub, such as $1 tacos on Mondays and $5 wings on Tuesdays.
20 Saint James St., Kingston
“Casual is almost an understatement” at Keegan Ales, according to brew master Tommy Keegan, pointing out that peanut shells clutter the dining room floor under picnic tables and benches. Their mix of simple pub fare — wraps, steak sandwiches, hot soups, and salads — and award-winning beers draws in quite the diverse crowd. (“You’ll see motorcycle guys with big purple mohawks and safety pins in their noses talking happily with guys in three-piece suits,” Keegan says.) Popular pints include Mother’s Milk, a light, sweet stout composed of milk and oatmeal with hints of coffee and chocolate; and Old Capital, a crisp, refreshing golden ale named after the brewery’s hometown of Kingston, which was once the capital of New York State.
Defiant Brewing Co.
6 Dexter Plaza, Pearl River
After experiencing the comfortable, meeting-place feel of pubs in England and Ireland, Defiant owner and brew master Neill Acer was inspired to capture that same sense of camaraderie at his own brewpub, according to his wife Amy Acer. They even serve an ale named after Pearl River’s original moniker, Muddy Creek (the name was changed after mussels with pearls were found in the creek). The malty, sweet amber lager has subtle notes of caramel and a dry, hoppy finish. If you enjoy barbecue with your brew, smoked, slow-cooked pulled pork, brisket, and ribs are available with a variety of sides. Although the crowds vary, you’ll generally find “people who love a good craft beer,” says Amy.