TAP New York Craft Beer Festival: Innovative Beer, Farmhouse Brewing, IPAs Huge Hits In 2015

Diverse and innovative brews — including sour ales and beer aged with breakfast cereals — packed the biggest punch at the 2015 TAP New York Craft Beer Festival at Hunter Mountain

My first feeling upon stepping onto the grounds of Hunter Mountain’s 18th annual TAP New York Craft Beer and Food Festival was panic: There is too much beer for me to possibly try.

I knew this because the organizers of New York’s largest beer festival did something both very right and very intimidating: as I entered, someone handed me a pamphlet with a list of every brewery… and every beer that each is pouring. (Just to be clear, that’s more than 360 beers from 95 breweries.) Now, knowing all the options available to you is a great help in plotting out the course of your afternoon. But it also solidifies a reality that may not have sunk in before: you’re probably going to miss some things. Maybe a lot of things.

Related: The TAP New York Game Plan

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That said, I refined my list of priorities. I was excited to see what new offerings the old standbys had brought, as well as check in with the dozens of breweries that have popped up in New York since last year. The festival’s greatest strength, perhaps, is that no matter which part of the state you travel from, you’ll have the option to try breweries unavailable to you any other time. And sometimes, even those only a few towns away will bring some shockingly good surprises.

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A sample from the Brewery at Bacchus (left) and festgoers

Best of the Fest

Two of the standouts at the festival for me couldn’t have been more diametrically opposite on the brewing spectrum. In my preview post for the fest, I predicted that the Brewery at Bacchus (New Paltz) would be a highlight. I was wrong: they weren’t just a highlight, but the best.

Indigenous sour ale, spontaneously fermented on grape must and aged in barrels for months, solidified its place as a world-class sour beer. Word spread quickly, and I heard mutterings of its growing legacy all over the festival. With one of the best IPAs I’ve had in the state, an exceptional dry-hopped sour ale, and a hibiscus saison rounding out the options, it was no surprise to see the Brewery at Bacchus with one of the longest-lingering lines at the festival.

On the other end of the brewing spectrum, far removed from the naturalist approach of spontaneous wild fermentation, Keegan Ales (Kingston) brought three beers aged on three different types of breakfast cereal. Yep: actual breakfast cereal. Bine Climber session IPA on Trix was a tasty confusion, mingling unexpected but complimentary fruit flavors; while the always-reliable Mother’s Milk stout on Cocoa Puffs was a more obvious flavor pairing that worked equally well. Kudos to Keegan for pulling off an idea that could have been weird or even gross, and turning it into one of the creative highlights of the fest.

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More than 7,000 beer enthusiasts arrived at Hunter Mountain for the 18th annual TAP New York Craft Beer and Food Festival

Down On the Farm

Farmhouse brewing — in which breweries grow a portion of their own ingredients, or simply call upon the ideals of pastoral craftsmanship — has been one of the main trends in New York beer over the last few years. This type of brewing often relies on wild yeast and nontraditional ingredients, so it’s been incredibly fascinating to watch breweries attempting these styles.

This year’s festival saw far more experimental wild options than ever before, and while the nature of experimentation often means not every shot will be a bullseye, it’s encouraging nonetheless. Some of the most promising of these experiments came from Sloop Brewing — which bodes well, as the brewers just moved their operation out of Poughkeepsie and aim to expand significantly at their new facility in Elizaville. Out of the Finger Lakes, Abandon Brewing is dabbling with farmhouse IPAs and barrel-aged sours, while Nedloh showed promise with a couple of unique takes on beers incorporating wild yeast and funky flavors.

Proving that the wild side of brewing is as much of a mindset as it is your location, not every brewery making these styles is actually located on a farm, or even calling themselves a farm brewery. Bandwagon (Ithaca) brought two impressive sours to the festival in addition to a number of other successes, and newcomer Prison City Pub & Brewery (Auburn) had one of my favorite beers of the whole festival in Cherry Poppins. This surprisingly complex cherry sour dodged the pitfalls of many fruit beers: dry, acidic and funky, it let the essence of cherry shine through and avoided tasting like candy. Rare Form (Troy) offered another wild yeast experiment with their Bioluminescence 100% Brett Black IPA, but even more approachable and surprising (though entirely not-wild) was the Coconut Cream Ale, a simple, refreshing treat.

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Unlike many other beer festivals, the brewmasters themselves are on hand to pour their own beer

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Get Hoppy

But while the wild side inspired by New York’s farm brewing revival is encouraging to see — a clear sign of diversification and innovation — hops still dominated the festival overall. The majority of breweries offered an IPA of some kind, and this year featured more stand-out successes than ever before. One of those was bound to receive attention, as it brought some of the state’s finest brewers together for a 12-way collaboration, hosted and presented by Crossroads (Athens). In spite of the name and concept, Too Many Cooks managed to bring both balance and flavor to the table. But other great IPAs came from every corner of the state, with standouts including a number of hoppy offerings from Barrier (Oceanside), Finback (Queens), Good Nature (Hamilton), Mill House (Poughkeepsie), and of course, Peekskill Brewery (Peekskill). A number of these, like Barrier, are focused on new interpretations of the dry West Coast style IPA, but are shifting toward lower-alcohol and more drinkable iterations of IPA as well. While plenty of boozy wine-strength offerings could be found, the surging popularity of session beers definitely made itself known, with new spins on old beers like Rushing Duck’s (Chester) Baby Elephant.

With our brewing scene expanding at a seemingly exponential rate, the next few years will be among the most fascinating to observe in New York history. Next year is guaranteed to bring dozens more newcomers, while many of the current brewers will continue to find their footing — and push new experiments.

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Winners of New York State’s Best Craft Beer and Best Craft Beer Brewery, respectively: Barrier Brewing Company (left) and Horseheads Brewing Company

2015 TAP New York Winners

Governors’ Brewers’ Cup
Best Craft Beer in New York State

F.X. Matt Memorial Cup
Best Craft Beer Brewery in New York State

Best Individual Craft Beers in New York State

The Matthew Vassar Brewers’ Cup
Best Craft Beer Brewery in the Hudson Valley

Best Individual Craft Beers in the Hudson Valley

John Calen Memorial Award

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