The Audacious Unifying Vision of the Region’s Craft Brewers

Friends drinking beer

We live in seemingly divided times: across the country, and on all manner of subjects, an “us vs. them” mentality has become our default mode. The days of merry disagreements about everything from sports to movies and politics at the water cooler have gone the way of, well, having time to stand around the water cooler and chat. Lately though, especially in the Hudson Valley and Capital Region, there have been unmistakably gleeful pockets of good cheer breaking out. A veritable communal spirit can be detected. Who has introduced this rogue element.

Well, it can all be traced back to the original social lubricant indulged in since Colonial Times. A resurgence that can hardly be called a trend, and one that’s sweeping through our towns, bridging the canyon between “us and them.”

We’re talking about the rise of the craft brewery social.

color icon of two shaking hands.CRAFT BREWERIES which are cropping up in record numbers and against considerable odds, have become the heart, minds, and conscience of the communities in which they sprout, and those directly surrounding them. Who would have thought beer joints would be the glue binding our communities together?

They are businesses, but as any astute observer at a Hudson Valley brewery will attest, sometimes craft breweries understand that the spirit of the place, as much as the spirits on tap, will ensure its success.

“We see it as us against the big guys and we want everyone to be able to have access to truly great beer made in their hometown,” Hutch Kugeman, head brewer at the Brooklyn Brewery at the Culinary Institute of America, tells Hudson Valley Wine Magazine. “So we work together, we collaborate on beers, we give each other pointers on sourcing, ingredients, and methods of production. Then it seems to bleed out into the culture of the breweries themselves, transforming them into places where people go to socialize and interact, with some brewers providing board games, some serving great food, and many throwing together various events.”

Defining Craft: Small, Independent, Traditional

First, let’s take a step back and define exactly what a craft brewer is. A craft brewer is small, independent, and traditional. The Brewers Association, a non-profit organization that promotes and protects small and independent brewers, has established these definitions of craft so that consumers can know what they’re buying:

  • Within the small sector, there are numerous categories including: microbrewery (a brewery that produces less than 15,000 barrels per year); nanobrewery (while the definition isn’t official, it’s typically considered a commercial brewery using a three-barrel or smaller brewing system); and farm brewery (the brewer makes and sells beer from ingredients grown on the farm). Nationwide, small breweries have an annual production of about 6 million barrels of beer.
  • Independent means less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by a member of the alcoholic beverage industry that isn’t technically craft themselves. Basically, if a non-craft beer buys up half of a craft beer company, it can no longer define itself as craft.
  • Traditional just means that a majority of its beer contains flavor derived from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients – in other words, flavored malt beverages need not apply.

For many consumers, buying craft-only beers is as important to them as buying, say, an IPA or a stout. Many consumers want to use their spending dollars to support regional products made by small companies who are in turn using their dollars to support their communities.

In addition to the public’s thirst for locally-made products, recently enacted laws helped rev up craft’s economic engine. In 2012, Governor Andrew Cuomo passed farm brewing legislation designed to increase demand for locally grown products and to create jobs. Under the new law, breweries with a farm license must make beer with locally grown farm products. By 2018, 20% of the hops and 20% of the other ingredients must be grown in-state. By 2024, that number skyrockets to 90% for both.

Part of the law stipulates that brewers with a farm license do not need an additional permit to serve beer by the glass, which has suddenly opened the door to tasting rooms, eliminating the need for extensive distribution networks. Brewers could sell their beer on site. And sell it they have.

As of 2015, there were 240 craft breweries in New York. (There were just 95 in 2012.) The state is now the fifth-largest beer producing state in the country behind California, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Oregon, according to the New York State Brewers Association (NYSBA), a non-profit founded in 2003 to serve as the promotional and legislative component for the state’s breweries. The year 2015 saw record growth across the country, with brewery openings exceeding two per day on average for a national total of 4,144 breweries as of last November, besting the record of 4,131 in 1873, the Brewers Association reports.

 

color icon of two shaking hands.ANY INDUSTRY’S GROWTH in a region that has struggled with a faltering economy, job losses and shifts in industry that have moved jobs elsewhere should be welcomed by residents and visitors. But it’s the added sheen of homegrown love and community outreach that has made the craft beer world such a positive addition to the Hudson Valley and Capital Region.

Besides providing a pit stop to quench New Yorkers’ thirst for hometown quality beer, craft brewers are also feeding their appetite for deeper meaning and connection. In most industries, new businesses are often viewed with suspicion, but brewers truly believe the Hudson Valley has plenty of room for new craft beer makers. “There’s a certain personality type that seems to gravitate toward making beer,” Kugeman says. “They tend to have collaborative spirits, and want to be good, upstanding members of their communities.”

Breweries aren’t bars. Not even close. They differ from bars in their operating hours and their vibe. Breweries are open during the day, welcome babies with open arms, and frequently feature outdoor spaces, board games and live music. In other words, people don’t go to craft breweries to get intoxicated. They go there to hang out. Like community centers of yore – schools, the “Y”, rotaries, etc. – breweries offer G-rated, family-friendly physical spaces where members of the community and visitors alike can sit, be social, and know that everyone there has at least one thing in common: in this case, a love of quality beer.

Millennials Drive Craft

“Millennials are driving the craft beer sector, and Gen Xers are big supporters of locally-crafted food and beverages too,” says Paul Leone, Executive Director of the NYSBA. In study after study, all younger generations, but Millennials in particular, seem to be on a quest to find meaning in their life and work. And unlike previous generations, they are not necessarily seeking meaning from traditional sources. Instead, they are investing in more earthly connections through their peers, their work, and yes, the products they consume.

Across the board, Millennials value locally-made, environmentally responsible, sustainable, heirloom products. Other craft demographics are changing too: these days, women between the ages of 21-34 are consuming 15% of craft’s total volume, in contrast to 2000 when the median consumer was a 39-year-old male.

Millennials didn’t create the craft beer social though – they just helped bring it back. “If you look at the history of beer and brewing in our country and the very first settlers, what we’re seeing now in many ways echoes the more classic conception of a brewery or tavern,” says Leone. “Going to the tavern was an inherently community-oriented, social activity.”

The Hudson Valley and Capital Region have a rich history of brew culture, so much so that historic tavern crawls are now a thing to do. C.H. Evans Brewery, for one, first opened its doors in Hudson in 1786, and (after a Prohibition-instituted break) continues to provide delicious beer, a vibrant social scene, and farm-to-table pub fare in Albany to this day. But it was in the late 1980s, when a few very prescient beer geeks took the first steps toward freeing our palates from a heritage of pallid lagers previously produced by New York’s industry big guns, such as Rheingold, Ballantine and Knickerbocker.

Then in 1988, Brooklyn Brewery, one of the most successful craft brewers in the state, was founded and changed the industry. Flash forward to 2014, they announced an official Hudson Valley outpost at the Culinary Institute of America, helmed by Kugeman in partnership with Brooklyn’s brewmaster Garrett Oliver and the CIA’s director of food and beverages operations Waldy Malouf. Here students can learn the art and science of brewing, and visitors can enjoy the suds of their labor at the on-campus brewpub. Craft brew has come full circle with millennials making beers for millennials at the CIA – and of course, a Brooklyn-based brewery is involved.

Crafting Beer History

There’s no denying it: the craft sector is booming, doubling in sales by volume every five years. In 10 years, the Brewers Association projects that craft will comprise 50% of the domestic beer market. And, craft beer tasting rooms are not only boosting community morale, they are having tangible economic impacts on the communities they’re in.

That pattern of a brewery coming into a down-and-out town only to see a serious revitalization occur a few years later, is common. And it’s not a coincidence, according to Kugeman, who has been on the front lines of the craft beer revolution for decades. “Breweries are not only natural gathering places, they’re engines for economic revitalization,” he explains. “Brewers need a ton of square footage to launch an ambitious project, and they need it to be cheap. So they end up buying up old industrial factories and empty buildings in communities with easy access to highways for deliveries. The places that most breweries can afford are not in neighborhoods that already have a bustling scene. Think Crossroads Brewing Company in Athens, Blue Collar Brewery in Poughkeepsie, Newburgh Brewing in Newburgh, and Captain Lawrence in Elmsford. And these brewers want to be a part of the life of the community, so they sponsor local charities, teams and events.”

“The bustling scenes will come – guaranteed,” Kugeman affirms. “Often as a direct result of a brewery’s success, you’ll see new farm-to-table restaurants in town, new residents, a general revitalization.”

Like the beers themselves, local craft breweries come in various shapes, sizes and flavors, and they all agree on one thing: they depend on each other as much as they depend on their community and customers. Breweries are as focused on creating the perfect tasting room as they are on creating the perfect brew.

“One of the many interesting things about the craft beer movement today is seeing how different not only the beers being produced are from each other, but how different the breweries themselves are,” Leone says. “Each person brings in their own interests and tries to reflect those of the community they’re in. So there are craft breweries having pig roasts and a battle of the bands, while another a few towns over is holding a yoga class.”

Smaller breweries, like the five-barrel Rare Form Brewing Company in Troy or Rushing Duck in Chester, are completely dependent on their communities embrace to succeed, and boast small tasting rooms where visitors can sample their work. Rare Form sees brewing as an “art form” and their esoteric exploration of historic ales and hop-heavy IPAs in a tiny tasting room perfectly suits the urbane hipsters of Troy, who flock to the handful of stools at the bar. Rushing Duck, stationed in the bucolic town of Chester in Orange County emanates a decidedly different vibe, but the brews are just as aggressive. “We’re in the historic section of the town, with one main street. It’s a sleepy, agricultural place, says Nikki Cavanaugh, co-brewer and owner of Rushing Duck, along with partner Dan Hitchcock. “We have been really happy with how the community has embraced us.”

The founders of Crossroads Brewing Company, Janine Bennett and Ken Landin, did their research before settling on a deteriorating opera house built in 1893 in Athens, NY, as their base of operations. Bennett says they were determined from the get-go to not only make good beer, but “be part of something bigger.”

“We were overwhelmed by the positive response we received from our local community,” she says. “We do have a great bunch of locals that are really more like family. We’ve hosted many beer dinners, fundraisers and holiday parties. On New Years Eve a local farmer creates a BBQ feast for our guests, free of charge, in exchange for a year’s worth of spent grain that we give him to feed his animals. It’s a great opportunity for customers to get the big picture.”

Brewers also know that day-trippers from the City aren’t just stopping at their place for a pint. “You visit a few breweries and you’re hooked and want to try them all,” Bennett says. “The best part is the impact that has on other small businesses nearby. Folks travel for the beer then hang around and visit the area shops and eateries.”

Getting Social

With roughly 280 craft breweries strong and growing in the state, according to the NYSBA’s latest count (August 2016), chances are, most drinkers can find a great place within easy driving distance that fulfills the needs of their palate and quite possibly, their mind, body, heart, and spirit. So what’s next? And how, as Leone and others allege, could there possibly be room for growth?

“The key is getting people who love beer to drink more New York-made beer,” Kugeman says. Leone agrees. “Look, there are so many great beers out there. We’re just saying ‘drink local first.’ There will still be plenty of room in the New York market for growth, as long as drinkers continue to support the breweries in-state.”

Whether you’re a local or an out-of-towner, it’s a relief to find a fabulous, airy, happy place where there’s always an excuse to meet a new friend, bond over a cool new band, do some downward dog, play a good round of cornhole and maybe contribute to a good neighborhood cause while you’re at it. It’s just the neighborly thing to do.

And did we mention there’s beer at these places too?

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