Even though it’s just a tick past noon, as we head up the long, gravel driveway, I can see that the parking lot is already packed. In one corner is a bus that looks like a hotel shuttle, labeled Hudson Valley Craft Beer Tours. Uh oh.
But upon entering Sloop Brewing Co.’s homey tasting room, I see whom the bus has dropped off: Not beer geeks, but a bunch of reveling middle-agers, slugging beers like they’re at a Jimmy Buffet concert. I take a seat at the bar and order a flight as a man with a, “Hello, I’m...Gary” nametag stuck to his New York Giants Super Bowl XLII Champions sweatshirt sidles up beside me. He orders “whatever I had last time,” seemingly more concerned with intoxication than examination.
“Where’s the bus headed next?” I ask, hoping to get a tip on some brewery I might not yet know about.
“No clue!” Gary tells me, grabbing his fresh pint. “But it’ll be good. They’re all good!”
Indeed they are. While most beer geeks are obsessed with what’s going on in New York City at the moment (and why wouldn’t they be, what with hip breweries like Other Half, Grimm, Singlecut, and Threes?), in the last year, the Hudson Valley has quietly become ground zero for the next batch of breweries that could dominate the national conversation. It reminds me of Vermont circa 2010: a somewhat out-of-the-way country scene, where dusty backroads are the only routes one can take to find a frothy pint at the end of the rainbow.
Most people don’t believe me, but the first time I visited Hill Farmstead five years ago, the only other guests in its small tasting room were two local farmers clad in overalls. And when my wife asked for the bathroom, she was told to go squat behind the barn. That’s the Hudson Valley today: a region destined for greatness, but not yet inundated by the type of obnoxious beer geeks that now invade Hill Farmstead or The Alchemist’s state-of-the-art facilities on a daily basis to haul trunkfuls of beer back to more populated lands. (Thankfully, I should note, not once on our Hudson Valley brewery crawl was my wife instructed to pee behind any barns -- though we did have to change my daughter’s diaper in an apple field.)
We start Columbus Day weekend in Elizaville, New York, on the eastern side of the Hudson River -- only about 100 miles from Times Square, though completely inaccessible via public transportation. Sloop has a unique, symbiotic relationship with Vosburgh Orchards, a 134-acre apple farm that also produces poultry and fresh eggs. Since 2015, Sloop’s Justin Taylor has brewed on this farm in a restored, 1830s-era barn. While the brewery’s tasting room is newly-built, its stone walls and exposed wooden beams give it the same rustic charm. I have to walk past an old-timer selling pumpkins and gourds out of bushel baskets to enter.
align:center width:800 credits:"Aaron Goldfarb"
Inside, I find an unexpectedly raucous scene: people blowing through their beers to a soundtrack of rockabilly and classic country blaring from the Spotify channel hooked up to the room’s sole TV. In the back corner, a little general store sells locally-made Boursin, soppressata, “salty bread” (i.e. a soft pretzel stick), and of course, apples. We buy some of everything and the man behind the counter simply hands us a cutting board and sharp knife to take back to the bar.
Despite Gary and his crew thumping along to Dolly Parton’s "Jolene," I can’t tell you how relaxed I am in this brewery, where people care more about having a good time than ticking coveted ales off of a list, checking Beer Advocate scores, and/or amassing trade fodder. Odd, since Sloop makes exactly the kind of hazy, juicy, New England-style IPAs that have the geeks lining up for hours down at Brooklyn’s Other Half this very weekend. In fact, Sloop’s most noted beer is called Juice Bomb, and the brewery even offers a series of single hop varietal beers with hop-splosive monikers (e.g. Mosaic Bomb, Citra Bomb, Galaxy Bomb…you get the picture).
“So who comes here? Are they beer geeks?” I ask the bartender, baffled by this crowd of seemingly normal folks.
“No, not really. Most are just locals,” she notes, matter-of-factly.
Only five minutes away is Livingston, where Suarez Family Brewery quietly opened late last summer. Dan Suarez’s pedigree -- Hill Farmstead’s first employee! -- is one that should have beer geeks drooling, but his brewery is fairly empty when I arrive mid-afternoon. The space is more industrial than Sloop, all-brick on the outside, with cement floors and giant glass windows overlooking the road like some sort of new car showroom (I learn later that it was once a farm equipment store). There’s no bar to belly up to -- just a small, portable podium like you might see at a wedding reception. Guests line up single-file to order, and beers come out of a nearby window like triple-deckers at a diner.
align:left width:500 credits:"Suarez Family Brewery"
When I ask for a flight, wanting to try everything, the bartender calmly explains, “We believe you need a full glass to appreciate the beers’ flavor profiles.” That’s easy to scoff at, but Suarez doesn’t brew the kind of extreme beers (i.e. boozy, adjunct-laden, or bourbon-barrel-aged) that you can "get" by sipping a mere ounce or two. He makes what he calls “little” beers: farmhouse ales, crispy pale ales, and unfiltered lagers that are meant for actually, you know, drinking. And, drinking…people are doing. Seated at long, communal tables is a slightly older crowd than I’m used to seeing at top-notch breweries, but everyone is imbibing and having fun. I’m the only bozo checking my phone, and no conversations I overhear are actually about the beer.
That’s too bad, as I want to geek out about Suarez’s beer. Hecto is the closest Suarez has come to a breakout star so far, a frothy pale ale dry-hopped with Citra, Mosaic, and Amarillo. But it’s Palatine Pilsner that I find truly eye-opening. Two winters ago, I traveled through Prague and Munich, trying the best pilsners from these homelands of the style. Palatine is every bit as good as the best abroad, with Suarez managing to pack more melon and tropical flavors into it than even the haziest of modern IPAs. That’s because none of his lagers are filtered, as he believes filtration strips these delicate styles of their best flavors and aromas.
“I try to brew beer that I want to drink, and place less importance on what a certain sect of beer drinker is interested in buying (I’m a reckless business owner, I know!),” Suarez tells me via email. “Luckily, some beer geeks have come back around to enjoying subtle and highly quaffable beers, and this gives us hope for the future as we look to grow our lager production.”
Of course, if you peek through that diner window toward the back, you’ll notice several rows of wooden barrels resting. Indeed, Suarez has just begun to release barrel-aged wild ales like Triangular Nature, a buckwheat saison aged in French oak. Some fruited sours are soon to follow. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time those beers go into bottles, the geeks have arrived en masse.
align:right width:600 credits:"Aaron Goldfarb"
The next day (as a treat for allowing my wife to drag me around the Woodbury Common outlet mall), we head to Industrial Arts Brewing Company. Closer to the city in Garnerville, on the west side of the Hudson, it, too, had opened just a few weeks earlier. The Garnerville Arts and Industrial Center complex in which it's located is nothing short of massive, with woodworkers and metal fabricators, photographers, painters, potters, and even a “movement” studio occupying the complex’s numerous pre-Civil War warehouses. A towering smokestack atop a brick building that used to make Union war uniforms acts as a much-needed beacon for finding Industrial Arts’ particular warehouse.
Jeff “Chief” O’Neil owns around 30,000 feet of space amongst three buildings, but is only using around 4,000 at the moment. O’Neil made his bones starting over a decade ago at Ithaca Beer Co., and is responsible for the best beers they’ve ever made: stuff like the double IPA Flower Power and Brute, a champagne yeast wild ale I still consider the best beer in New York State history. Most recently, he took his hoppy chops to The Peekskill Brewery, quickly turning it into a “must” day-trip for metro-area beer geeks.
O’Neil has toned it down a bit for his latest venture and on the day I visit, his tap list mainly consists of accessible, mid-ABV hoppy beers like his “extra” pale ale Tools of the Trade. All his beers are flawless, though, and O’Neil, like Suarez, shows a true mastery of a long-practiced craft. Especially now that he can make beer on the state-of-the-art, four-vessel German brewhouse he designed himself.
While I'm asking O’Neil nerdy question after nerdy question, every other guest is pounding fresh brews at the gorgeous bar, set underneath a brick arch that, again, O’Neil helped build. These customers are mostly his upstate neighbors, enjoying the day with their dogs and children, all of which who run freely around the large brewing space. O’Neil even tells me a local crew of Dominican construction workers have taken a shine to hitting his brewery after shifts.
“And that’s the final destination, isn’t it?” O’Neil asks rhetorically. “Just getting regular people to drink our beers…”
Before I leave, I pull up Untappd on my iPhone and check to see if there are any geo-located check-ins from the brewery. Other than mine, there are none. Again, most of the “regular people” were actually enjoying their beers, their conversations, and their Sundays.
I’d like to make one final stop before heading back to Brooklyn, but unfortunately it won’t be on this trip. Not far from Industrial Arts, slightly north of West Point, is the newly opened Hudson Valley Brewery. About an hour-and-a-half train ride from Grand Central to Beacon, HVB is set on Main Street in a graffitied former factory building that dates back to the 1800s.
“We're interested in exploring the balance between late-end hop oil expression and varying levels of acid, funk, and barrel character,” Jason Synan tells me. He and Michael Renganeschi were the ambitious former brewers at The Brewery at Bacchus when John-Anthony Gargiulo plucked them for his new brewing venture. The twosome currently work on a 30-barrel system, predominantly dealing with liquid that has spent time in oak, whether that be from primary fermentation with mixed culture in gigantic foudres, intermediate conditioning in puncheons, or long-term maturation in wine barrels.
credits:"Hudson Valley Brewery"
Hudson Valley’s first official release was Amulet, a sour farmhouse ale aged in oak, brewed with Citra and Mosaic hops and conditioned on blueberries and hibiscus flowers. And, earlier last year, at a beer festival earlier in Brooklyn, I was fortunate enough to try something called Soleil. The wine-barrel-aged saison, made with pineapple, rose petals, marigold, and cornflowers was maybe the best beer I had in all of 2016. I’ll be shocked if a year from now geeks aren’t making pilgrimages to this barrel-stacked brewery to score bottles and cans.
Alas, I haven’t even yet mentioned Plan Bee, a 25-acre farmhouse brewery in Poughkeepsie that uses a wild yeast strain extracted from beehives. Or From the Ground Brewing, a one-year-old brewery that makes fruited, 100% New York State-ingredient ales thanks to the 100-acre Migliorelli orchard on which they are located. Or any of the "old" dogs of the Hudson Valley, the most ancient being Keegan Ales (2003), followed by Captain Lawrence (2006), Rushing Duck (2012), and Newburgh (2012). Bigger outfits are catching on, too: Brooklyn Brewery has just opened a branch at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and Boston Beer Company (i.e. Sam Adams) chose Walden, New York as the location for their Angry Orchard cidery due to the "great soil, reasonable winters, wet springs, and humid summers."
The beer geeks will be flocking to the Hudson Valley shortly. With great breweries producing remarkable beers in charming, but hard-to-access locations, the Untappd checkins and stockpiling of their limited offerings are soon to follow. Enjoy it while you can. These days are just the calm before that geeky storm.