“New York” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To an arrogant, ignorant city-slicker like myself, it has always only meant one thing: “Manhattan.” But despite being an arrogant, ignorant city-slicker, I can admit when I’ve been shortsighted. And boy, was I ever.
New York state, as it turns out, is a vast and wondrous territory (over 2300 times larger than New York City!) bursting with a wide range of colorful characters, culture, and natural beauty. While I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me three decades to discover the magic of New York life beyond Manhattan, I’m mostly just glad that I finally got to taste some of the best of what the state has to offer: beer.
In addition to producing some of the best wine in the country (most notably, cool-climate varieties such as Riesling and Pinot Noir), the Finger Lakes region -- broadly speaking, the land between Rochester and Syracuse that features 11 long, finger-like bodies of water -- is home to over 100 breweries and brewpubs. And having recently visited the region to learn more about its quickly growing scene, I can assure you that there are, indeed, some tasty suds to be had.
Thanks to the deep influence of the long-standing Rochester-based old-timers that have provided training grounds for over 20 years (including Genesee, CB Craft Brewers, and Rohrbach Brewing Company), roughly a third of the breweries in the Finger Lakes employ brewers from traditional brewing backgrounds, specializing in clean, straightforward, malty beers, with an emphasis on Germanic styles. The rest –- mostly led by former homebrewers -- are pushing the envelope with more modern, often experimental, styles. What unites them all, however, is a camaraderie that stretches across the entire region, as demonstrated by the Rochester-based 585 Brewers Collaborative, devoted to shining a light on the beer brewed in the city and areas surrounding.
Obviously, it’d take weeks to hit all of the Finger Lakes breweries (at least, if you want to avoid one hell of a hangover). But if you only have two days and want to maximize the impact of your trip, here are the must-visit stops and how to line them up, based on my own personal experience.
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DAY 1: Rochester
11AM: Genesee Brewing Company
445 St Paul St, Rochester, NY 14605
Kick off your journey at one of the oldest and largest breweries in America. Founded in 1878 in the High Falls neighborhood of Rochester, Genesee Brewing Company is still best known for three staples: their original namesake American adjunct lager, Genny Light, and Genny Cream (their famous hybrid style first brewed in 1960). Genesee revitalized the brand in 2012 with a new brewpub, gift shop, and a 20-barrel pilot system –- but you ain’t coming here for trendy IPAs. Genny is best at brewing clean, easy-drinking guzzlers. Enjoy them at the brewpub amongst a mix of old boy loyals and wide-eyed tourists, with an incredible view of Rochester’s beautiful High Falls on the Genesee River.
credits:"Ethan Fixell - Genesee Brewing Co."
1PM: Swiftwater Brewing
378 Mt. Hope Avenue Rochester, NY 14620
With a welcoming vibe in the South Wedge neighborhood of the Roc, Swiftwater feels like your second home. In 2015, homebrewer-turned-business-owner Andy Cook secured a farm brewery license -- which legally means that 20% of all of his ingredients must come from NY state. He gets the vast majority of his barley from his parents’ 75-acre farm, which contributes some unique local flavor to his tasty beers -- like Helles Lager, which combines a lovely vegetal, raw peanut aroma and bready flavor with some spice from imported Saaz hops. The often culinary-inspired beer menu changes frequently, but if you can catch them, be sure to try Swiftwater’s savory Thai Pale Ale, or peppery Mango Jalapeño brew alongside a cheese board or Stromboli.
credits:"Ethan Fixell - Swiftwater Brewing"
3PM: Joe Bean Coffee Roasters
1344 University Ave, Rochester, NY 14607
After two breweries, you’ll need a quick boost if you want to make it for the long haul –- and Joe Bean is just the place to get one. Opening in 2011, the first of the third-wave coffee spots in Rochester served as the training grounds for a handful of roasters who went on to found other coffee joints around town. Joe Bean still offers some of the best pour-overs and espresso drinks in New York state. Just don't ask for milk here, or the connoisseur employees might shoo you out with an espresso brush. Paradoxically, you’re welcome to ask for a ‘Spro Bomb: a sacrilegious shot of single origin espresso dropped into a half pint of high-end craft stout or porter. Chug it, frat pledge!
credits:"Ethan Fixell - Joe Bean"
5PM: Roc Brewing
56 S Union St, Rochester, NY 14607
Roc’s taproom was one of the first of the second-wave of Rochester breweries to hit the scene in 2011; today, they’re just as important to consumers as they are to brewers. Case in point: as a proud member of the 585 Brewers Collaborative, their Raising Some Helles lager shares a yeast with Swiftwater’s Helles, but has a clean, slightly citrusy identity entirely of its own. Come to Roc prepared for weird, with kettle sours like their Blackberry Grapefruit, and the cleverly titled Jefe-Rye-Zen, a Hefeweizen brewed with green tea and rye (see what they did there?). And of course, before you leave their incredibly chic, modern taproom, be sure to give Whoopass, their flagship 8% ABV double IPA, the chance to do what its name promises.
credits:"Ethan Fixell - Roc Brewing"
7PM: Rohrbach Beer Hall & Brewery
97 Railroad Street | Rochester, NY 14609
Rochester’s oldest brewpub reminds me of the ‘90s, when such establishments offered locals simple amber ales and porters as respite from the typical macro lager. Since ‘91, Rohrbach has been a family-friendly outpost that attracts customers of all ages. When I arrived at 11AM on a Saturday, it was already packed with such a diverse crowd. Rohrbach’s malt-driven classics are reliable: a traditional, balanced Scotch Ale; a complex and rich Vanilla Porter; a smooth, amber Highland Lager. But surprisingly, their shining star is an entirely hop-driven relative newbie: Space Kitty is an irresistible 8.7% ABV dank, resinous double IPA that I’d guess was brewed on the West Coast if I didn’t know any better!
DAY 2: Canandaigua, Keuka, & Seneca Lakes
10AM: Fuego Coffee Roasters
45 Euclid St, Rochester, NY 14604
Fuel up for the second half of your journey at Fuego’s new shop in downtown Rochester’s Central Business District. With unfinished floors and a chill, minimalist vibe, the joint looks like it could have been built in deep Brooklyn. Here, the coffee is less about nerding out over unique, specific flavor profiles, and all about simple, accessible quality. Ask for a single-origin pour-over brewed on a Clever coffee dripper -- or order a drip coffee and drown it with milk. Either will pair with a ginger oatmeal cookie from local vegan purveyor The Red Fern (which is surprisingly rich for a no-animal-products treat!).
credits:"Ethan Fixell - Fuego Coffee"
12PM: Naked Dove Brewing Company
4048 State Route 5 and 20, Canandaigua, NY 14424
Having left behind the familiarity of landmark buildings and traffic lights within Rochester city limits, you might feel lost by the time you arrive at Naked Dove Brewing. But here, at the first brewery in Ontario county, is exactly where you want to be. Naked Dove co-founder Dave Schlosser is a Siebel Institute-trained brewer who cut his teeth at Rochester’s Rohrbach, CB Craft Brewers, and Genesee Brewing Company before opening Naked Dove in 2010 -- and it shows in his clean, classic beers. Highlights include various traditional German lagers (bocks galore!), Windblown Amber (balanced and malty), and best of all, 45 Fathoms Porter. an amazingly complex, rich, flavorful porter rooted firmly in the British style.
2PM: Crafty Ales & Lagers
2 Exchange St, Phelps, NY 14532
The wood paneling and cozy decorations at Crafty Ales & Lagers will make you feel as if you’ve wandered into a homebrewer's kitchen -- and in a way, you have. Since 2013, owner and brewmaster Mike Darling has cranked out over 70 different recipes in incredibly small batches (less than 200 barrels per year!). This witchcraft-themed nanobrewery in tiny Phelps, NY, treats locals and passersby to a broad spectrum of styles, including dark, malt-driven flagships such as the and refreshing Mystic Mild; a pleasantly roasty Onyx Moro Black IPA; and an easy-drinking 4.1% ABV English bitter by the name of Old Familiar. Oh, and if it’s on tap, don’t leave without trying the Coconut Cream Ale, made with coconut paste, local honey, and honey malt. Yum.
credits:"Ethan Fixell - Craft Ales & Lagers"
4PM: War Horse Brewing Company
623 Lerch Rd, Geneva, NY 14456
With three wineries and a brewery on premise, most locals refer to Three Brothers Wineries & Estates as "Disneyland for adults." But don’t let the bright lights, displays, and branded merchandise distract you from the tasty, well-made beer at Three Brothers’ War Horse Brewing. Previously contract brewing until June of 2016, War Horse now brews entirely on site in a beautiful state-of-the-art facility. Most are true-to-style beers like their citrusy, melony Lt. Dan IPA -- but head brewer Tony Cordova certainly isn’t afraid to experiment with adjuncts like fruit in beers such as Peace Bomber, a wheat ale brewed with Riesling juice from grapes grown on premises, or Tarty McFly, a dry, tart sour made with fresh raspberries from Red Jacket Orchards less than ten miles away.
credits:"Ethan Fixell - War Horse Brewing"
6PM: Abandon Brewing
2994 Merritt Hill Rd, Penn Yan, NY 14527
If you thought Naked Dove was out there -- wait until you get to Abandon Brewing. But put some trust in your GPS and you'll find yourself with one of the greatest landscape views any brewery in the world has to offer. The concept is simple: "farmhouse beers in a barn," as founder Gary Sperrick describes it. He bought 19 acres of land in 2008 for its apples and grapes, and ended up launching a farm brewery five years later. Three beers have been on tap from the start: Brett Farmhouse IPA, Pre-Emption Line Porter, and Brimstone Row peppercorn saison. And the latter of the three -- made with peppercorn, coriander, sour orange peel, and grains of paradise -- is perfect for sipping as you gaze upon the beauty of Keuka Lake, and reflect on all of the delicious beer and gorgeous scenery you’ve taken in over the last 48 hours.
credits:"Ethan Fixell - Abandon Brewing"