Destination Drinking | Craft Beverage Industry | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

Abundant in natural resources, once a vital thoroughfare of trade and travel, the Hudson Valley has long been a tourism destination, though the nature of its draw has evolved over time. In the 19th and early 20th century, it was a pastoral refuge for the wealthy and powerful, who built their estates along the river. In the early 1900s, creatives flocked to arts colonies to be kissed by the muse of nature. The Borscht Belt resorts fostered a culture of luxurious summer recreation and a safe haven from anti-Semitism. In the second half of the 20th century, the rocky crags, thick forests, and winding waterways sang out to hikers, bikers, and rock climbers, who travelled from all along the East Coast to summit the peaks, swing from the ledges, and swim in the lakes. 

690 x 858 Now the amenities of the region's cities and towns have shifted again, as a new era of economic and cultural revitalization sweeps the area like a matchbox caught fire, enticing visitors who might never take a hike or bike a rail trail. COVID has accelerated the urban exodus that started slowly decades ago. 

And in the past 10 years, the rise of the New York State's craft beverage industry has become an entirely new reason to visit the Hudson Valley. Thanks in large part to Cuomo's industry-friendly policies and economic incentives, the state is now one of the largest craft beverage producers in the country. In the US, New York ranks first for the number of hard cider producers, second in craft distillers, third in breweries, and fourth in wineries, for a combined annual economic impact of over $15 billion.

(Editor's Note: Chronogram's coverage area—roughly north of Westchester to south of Albany—contains over 150 craft beverage producers alone.)

Stand-Alone Outings

The craft beverage industry's high profile is not lost on the producers, who are capitalizing on the wave of interest and tourism dollars to transform their production facilities into cultural hotspots. A trip to the local brewery or distillery has become a stand-alone weekend outing.

If you want evidence of craft-brewery-as-cultural-destination, look no further than Arrowood Farms in Accord. On every nice day from April through November the lawn is a maze of picnic blankets and strollers, leashed dogs, teetering toddlers, and canoodling couples. 

In the past three years Arrowood's operation—and following—has steadily grown. In 2019, they inaugurated their outdoor stage with a summer concert series that brought big names like Guster, the Midnight Ramble Band, and Real Estate, and debuted their plein-air pavilion with an outdoor bar, bathrooms, and covered seating.

Then, over the 2019-2020 winter, the brewery closed to the public for renovations and expansion, including remodeling the kitchen and taproom and building out a new brewery and distillery that would allow them to increase their brewing capacity by 400 percent and launch their distilling operation. 

Despite the unknowns of the pandemic spring, the brewery reopened last year for outdoor service on Memorial Day weekend—its vast lawns and outdoor bar already perfectly adapted to COVID regulations. July 1 marked the opening of the Apiary—the onsite restaurant, serving up an elevated take on classic bar food. And in October, the distillery released its first small-batch, unrefined New York State spirits for sale on-farm. They launched with vodka and gin, distilled onsite with local ingredients and no added enzymes, followed a few months later by a single-barrel bourbon.

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Arrowood Farms
The fried chicken sandwich from Arrowood Farms, one of the offerings at its new Apiary restaurant.

Even on chillier days, people can be seen in repose on the many hammocks, playing a round of cornhole in the hopyard. Kids honk at the geese in the pond. With food, fresh air, beer, and, now, spirits, Arrowood has something for everyone. It is both a trendy destination for weekenders and a fixture in the regular rotation of locals. The brewery is a weekend plan. 

Across the street at Westwind Orchard, the vibe is much the same, though cider is the central focus. Trendy young families sprawl across the lawn, surrounded by a complex of black-painted farm buildings that includes a gift shop and market, restaurant, and brewing facility. Here, you can order wood-fired pizza and authentic Italian fare alongside your small-batch, unfiltered, bottle-conditioned cider. Come fall, pick-your-own apples and raspberries.

Changing Demographics

"I've noticed more young couples with children, more affluent people, more educated consumers who know what they are looking for as far as wine goes," says Barry Milea, of the changing clientele at his winery Milea Estate Vineyard in Staatsburg.  

On 98 pastoral acres in Dutchess County, Milea, his production manager Ed Evans, and winemaker Bruce Tripp are ostensibly growing grapes and making wine. But perhaps just as important as their bottled output, the team is also self-consciously crafting a destination.

Even in early spring, without lush verdant shades of summer or the vibrant fall foliage, the vista from the tasting room is dramatic. The main building perches atop a tall hill; a horsehead weather vane and stone retaining wall beckon you upward. Once indoors, huge banks of windows on every wall leave you feeling airborne. The panoramic views of the vineyard and the sunsets over the Catskills are at least as good a vista as many hikes will give you. The thoughtfully built structure feels organic, as if it had been renovated from an old farmhouse or barn rather than built from the ground up. 

"The super-rich used to try to blend in," Milea says of his pre-COVID customer base. "Now they want everyone to know," he chuckles. There is a certain see-and-be-seen vibe at Milea, which you can also detect at breweries and wineries throughout the region, though the aesthetic of each establishment draws a slightly different crowd.

Classy live jazz and low-key staff make the Staatsburg tasting room civilized but not snooty. Milea is clear that he does not want Long Island-style busloads of tourists toting lawn chairs and beach blankets. He takes tasters by reservation only, a practice that has been necessary during COVID times but that he plans to continue.

Founded in 2015, Milea is one of the newer kids on the block but has already snatched up plenty of accolades. These include recent golds at the New York Wine Classic for the up-and-coming Bläu Frankisch, a layered red beauty of which Milea is justifiably proud; the Cabernet Franc, which is cherry in hue and taste with a graphite finish that would pair well with a good steak; and for the buttery Proprietor's Reserve Chardonnay, barrel-aged in French oak. (Milea also makes a tasty Chard aged in stainless steel that earned a Bronze)."The terroir here is closer to France than California or Long Island is," Milea claims.

Cider Sleepover

Heading west into Sullivan County, the brand new Seminary Hill Orchard & Cidery will be opening their Callicoon tasting room in late spring or early summer. The cidery is currently sourcing fruit from area growers as they wait for the trees they planted in 2014 to bear fruit. In the orchard: 58 heirloom American, English, and French cider apple varieties as well as pear trees under holistic orchard management practices. 

Built with reclaimed larch wood from the discarded underwater pilings of the Tappan Zee Bridge, the 4,000-square-foot Seminary Hill tasting space will be a design destination as well as a craft beverage outpost. With a cathedral ceiling and walls of windows that frame peaceful views of the orchard and the Delaware River Valley beyond, the tasting room typifies the architecture of experience that is becoming the hallmark of craft beverage producers. The facility is a certified Passive House, a rigorous construction standard that incorporates the most energy-efficient set of performance-based building technologies currently available.

"Our tasting room will carry the full selection of our ciders," says Stuart Madany, director of cider, events, and marketing. "Except for the occasional micro-batch that will only be available to our subscription members." 

Seminary Hill will also take the destination concept one step further with onsite accommodations. The Mountain House, a timber-frame home built with lumber from the property, sleeps up to 10 people. Two restored historic buildings on the property make up the eight-unit boarding house, while a few miles away the Meadow House will offer a third option for overnight guests.

New Faces in the New Normal

It's no secret that droves of urbanites relocated to the Hudson Valley in the pandemic. The new residents are already proving to be an economic boon to the region's craft producers. "We have seen an exciting influx of new Hudson Valley residents," says Breanna Nussbickel, marketing and events manager for Coppersea Distillery. The New Paltz farm-based operation is working to perfect the state's signature Empire Rye style, using New York-grown grain, malted locally and distilled to perfection over direct fire.

"Our large outdoor farm space makes for a perfect safe outing during uncertain COVID times, and we've welcomed the many new faces," adds Nussbickel. "Our tasting room hours and set up had to be adjusted due to the pandemic, but once the weather was nice enough we were able to open our new expanded outdoor space to the public and introduce our now-famous Whisky Slushies."

The Newburgh Brewing Company co-owner Paul Halayko identifies two factors behind the new faces he is seeing in the taproom: the COVID flight from New York City and artists being priced out of other parts of the Hudson Valley. Yet taproom sales are still not back to where they were pre-COVID, when Newburgh Brewing's enormous industrial tasting room drew dozens of people for trivia, live music, and friendly conversation. Opening hours remain limited. "Fortunately, stores really want to support local breweries selling local," he says, "and that helps."

Asked what he sees happening in the days to come, Halayko says, "My pessimistic side says that social distancing will continue through the rest of 2021, that tables will have to stay six feet apart, that the economic impact will linger on. Some restaurants and breweries have closed. There will be more that will close. But my optimistic side says that the Hudson Valley is densely populated. There are lots of beer drinkers. People want to support local products."

Another Newburgh business, Spirits Lab, opened its tasting room in early March 2020, barely bringing their small-batch craft spirits to market before COVID hit. Owners Lynn Hason, Phoenix Kelly-Rappa, and Matthew Frohman quickly had to pivot. "We decided to take the cocktails we had developed for the tasting room and bottle them for sale," Hason says. In a stroke of pandemic good luck, the shift was a life-saver. "Since people were unable to go out to eat or have drinks, these bottled cocktails ended up becoming wildly popular. Today, they continue to be a large part of our business and we've now made the bottled versions a permanent part of our core collection."  While they initially started with four different bottled cocktails, Spirits Lab has added on special releases and seasonal offerings, like a Mint Julep for the Kentucky Derby and a Rosé Lemonade for the spring/summer season. 

And now that the tasting room is back open, the bottled cocktails have become all the more reason for people to visit the Spirits Lab. "We have a lot of regulars and support from the community," says Hason, who points to Instagram as a useful tool for building the brand's fanbase beyond the immediate area. "We love that people find about us through social media and make a trip out of it," she says. "We've noticed a definite increase in visitors from New York City—we have multiple visitors from there every weekend. Many of them mention that they have either just purchased real estate in the area or are looking to."

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Eric Lewandowski
Chris Negronida, chief cider consultant at Seminary Hill Cider, in the production facility/tap room/bunkhouse in Callicoon.

When There is No Taproom

The phenomenon of the craft producer as a destination is the logical progression of several different trends. On a pragmatic, dollars-and-cents level, agritourism is a necessary facet of the monetization model for many small- and medium-sized farms—as is value-adding. A farm-based craft beverage producer with an on-site taproom and a bottle shop rolls that all into one.  

And on a cultural level, in the slipstream of the farm-to-table movement, the craft beverage industry has a fresh focus on provenance and elevated the cult of the producer. Brands—whether beer, cider, whisky, or wine—are no longer abstract labels on bottles. They are teams of individuals, whose quirky faces you see on social media, making a distinctive product bubbling with the terroir of a particular place. A visit to the source becomes a pilgrimage for fans of the brand both near and far.

So, in that source-centric climate, what happens when you don't have a destination? Kimberly Kae and her husband Matt DiFrancesco have managed to build up a loyal following around their Esopus-based brand Metal House Cider without the benefit of an onsite watering hole. "There wasn't a decision not to have a tasting room," Kae says somewhat ruefully. "If we could open one we would, but we're maxed out on space. We've been looking for a while. I don't want to leave Esopus, but we're working on it."

In the meantime, thanks to the influx of new residents in the area and the wine shops that have sprung up to support them, Metal House is doing solid business. And the occasional intrepid fan will call or email to see if they can swing by the farm, despite the address not appearing online. "Even though we don't have a tasting room, we do have some people purchase bottles directly," Kae says. "I do one-off tastings and visits, as time allows. It makes it really special for us to meet people directly who are willing to take that extra step of calling or emailing."

Reflecting on the rising interest in drinking at the source, Kae questions, "Is that focus on provenance newfound, or is it resurrected?"  She goes on to say, "Once upon a time, it was like that—we knew where our eggs came from, where our fruit came from. Then it became so comfortable to buy a can of beans. Convenience outstripped provenance until the quality was so compromised that we came back around to where we started."

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