It's Thursday night, the monthly meeting of the Mohonk Home Brewers Association, and founder Jerry Pantano is waxing rhapsodic about craft beer. "This is the hottest thing happening in the state of New York," says Pantano, 55, owner of Pantano's Wine Grapes & Home Brew, a winemaking and beer-brewing supply store in New Paltz that serves as the homebrewers clubhouse. "It's a craze. The club does a brew day here every month, and there's a lot of passion, there's love there. You can see the glow in people's faces."
All across the Hudson Valley, homebrewers and professional brewers are toiling to make great craft beer, drawn by their love for it as well as the camaraderie offered by the tight-knit craft-beer community. As the Hudson Valley's profile continues to rise as a destination for farm-to-table foodies, the region is also gaining recognition for this broad selection of delicious craft beer, along with a slew of beer-centric events. New breweries, brewpubs, bars, homebrew shops, beer stores, and hops farms are popping up, while existing ones are expanding their offerings.
Hop to It
"It's a revolution hitting the Valley," says Justin Riccobono, owner of Dutchess Hops, a two-year-old hops farm in LaGrange. "It's really captured everyone. It's bringing more tourism to the region. It's helping agriculture, it's creating jobs. The Hudson Valley over the last 10 to 15 years has really garnered the whole local-food movement, but to get a beer made locally with local ingredients takes it to a whole new level."
A decade ago, the Hudson Valley was home to just a handful of breweries: the Gilded Otter, Keegan Ales, and Hyde Park Brewing Company. Now there are close to 25, along with several in the planning stages. They range in size from Captain Lawrence in Elmsford, which cranks out about 24,000 barrels a year, to backyard and barnyard operations that produce just a few hundred barrels. In the last two years alone, at least five breweries have opened, and at least five more are in various planning stages. To help cultivate the next generation of brewers, the Culinary Institute of America has partnered with Brooklyn Brewery to build a brewery and pub on its campus, with plans to open to the public next summer. Courses on brewing will be integrated into the school's curriculum.
Meanwhile, at least half a dozen festivals celebrating beer have sprung up, with one of the newest, Dutchess Farms' Hoptember Harvestfest, drawing some 600 revelers last September. The largest festival, TAP New York at Hunter Mountain, attracts scores of breweries and thousands of attendees in late April.
On the retail side, Beer World in Kingston, opened last August, carries nearly 2,000 types of craft beer and holds daily tastings of its 32 beers on tap. The four-year-old Grand Cru in Rhinebeck is a craft-beer market with a tavern's license, so you can sip while you shop. Even local vineyards are trying to get a piece of the beer action by offering beer on tap or applying for brewery licenses.
Homebrew shops are growing, too. Pantano plans to offer regular beer-brewing and winemaking classes and expand the retail space in his four-year-old, 3,500-square-foot facility. Former marketer Jeff Rossi, 39, says sales and traffic have been strong at his shop, Beacon Homebrew, since it opened last January.
Craft beer is generally defined as beer produced in small batches using barley, water, hops, and yeast. By contrast, large commercial brands—disdainfully referred to as "TV beers" by craft-beer aficionados—often use rice, corn, and genetically modified additives such as corn syrup and dextrose.
Beyond the four core ingredients, "the sky's the limit," says Geoffrey Wenzel, 29, general manager at Keegan Ales in Kingston, one of the region's largest brewers. Many spices and fruits are finding their way into beer. For instance, Rushing Duck Brewing Company's spring release, Bauli Saison, is a Belgian farmhouse ale brewed with kaffir lime, coriander and white peppercorn. Double IPAs with twice the hops and alcohol content of a standard IPA are also popular.
"Craft beer tastes as good as it does because the brewers are concentrating on flavors and ingredients that the big guys overlook," says Alan Daniels, 59, president of Half Time Beverage in Poughkeepsie, which carries 2,500 types of craft beer.
Craft beer attracts people of all generations from all walks of life, even as it is treated with increasing sophistication by producers and consumers, who discuss it in terms formerly reserved for wine: potential food pairings, desirable aging period, collectability quotient, and uses in cooking. Today, it is possible to spend $100 on a particularly fine growler of beer. "Beer's getting like wine," says Bruce Franconi, 48, founder of the Hudson Valley Homebrewers association, which has seen several of its members go professional. "It's very chic."