A beer trail is brewing in New York’s Finger Lakes
Hops grow on a fence near the Keuka Brewing Company, a stop on the Finger Lakes Beer Trail. (Finger Lakes Beer Trail)
Winemakers have a saying: “It takes a lot of beer to make good wine.” But no matter how many lagers and ales built upstate New York’s Finger Lakes wine industry, the region’s world-class rieslings have made it hard for its microbrews to receive much attention.
But lately, the tides seem to be turning, and the Finger Lakes’ brewpubs and breweries are flourishing among the area’s picturesque, more-established vineyards and chateaux. This spring, locals even went so far as to launch the Finger Lakes Beer Trail, a guide to more than 40 breweries, brewpubs, tap houses and specialty beer stores that competes with the area’s many wine trails. From classic small-town beer bars to cutting-edge microbreweries that are dabbling in bold and unusual styles, the Finger Lakes beer scene is good enough to leave any beer lover satisfied — and maybe convert a few wine lovers, too.
Nestled among antique shops and craft stores in Watkins Glen, at the south end of Seneca Lake, Roosterfish Brewing, which released its first beer in 2004, is based out of the Wildflower Café and its neighbouring Crooked Rooster Brewpub, both owned by brewmaster Doug Thayer. Embrace the classic pub vibe at the Crooked Rooster, where beers are kept in a vintage wooden icebox behind the bar and live music is featured every weekend, or head to the Wildflower Café for pizzas, soups, salads and sandwiches made with local ingredients. There is also a full list of New York wines, mostly from the vineyards around Seneca and Keuka Lake.
The main draw, though, is the beer itself. The light, slightly fruity Firehouse Blonde and the malty English-style Dogtooth Pale Ale are sure to please, while the spicy, high alcohol Belgian-style ale called Tripel Witch and the intense Hop Warrior Imperial IPA are better suited for more adventurous drinkers. (The latter’s tagline? “Watch out, the Warrior will get you.”) The best approach: opt for a flight of four-ounce tasters, $1.75 each.
Two Goats Brewing
It is hard to imagine a better Finger Lakes brewpub than Two Goats. Just up the road from Roosterfish on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake, the tiny one-room tavern sits on a hill that falls sharply toward the water, an ideal place to laze on the porch and enjoy the view. Alongside an impressive selection of brews from abroad and throughout the US, Two Goats pours a handful of easy-to-drink beers, including a smooth cream ale, a rich oatmeal stout and the Headbutt!, a blend of the two.
There is another attraction, too: the roast beef sandwich. The only dish Two Goats serves is made from moist, hand-carved beef, piled on a roll from a local bakery and topped with horseradish mayo. It is unusually good — a pleasant reminder of the well-executed, rustic simplicity that is so characteristic of the Finger Lakes region.
Wagner Valley Brewing Company
Founded in 1997, Wagner Valley Brewing is the beer-centric offshoot of Wagner Vineyards, one of the Finger Lakes region’s oldest wineries. The two companies share a sprawling facility in Lodi, complete with tasting rooms and retail areas, making this one of the few spots where the area’s two premier beverages can be sampled under one roof. The brewery also sets itself apart through its emphasis on European-style beers, many of which adhere to the German Purity Law of 1516, which allows only high-quality malts, hops, water and yeast to be used for brewing. Its line-up includes a refreshing pilsner, an amber Vienna lager and a dark, syrupy doppelbock. Do not miss the seasonal releases, such as the Sugar House Maple Porter.
Ithaca Beer Company
“The Spirit of the Finger Lakes” is the motto of Ithaca Beer — an appropriate slogan for what is almost certainly the region’s most acclaimed brewery, located in the college town of Ithaca, New York. (In recent years, it has regularly medalled at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival.) With its strip-mall-style architecture the brewery does not look like much, but head inside for some of the most varied, flavourful beers the region has to offer. Regular tours are followed by free tastes of the brewery’s five year-round beers and a handful of limited releases.
Start with the Ithaca Beer’s bestseller, its mellow and fruity Apricot Wheat, before progressing to stronger offerings like the Flower Power IPA, packed with tropical fruit flavours. For a souvenir, pick up a big bottle or two of Ithaca’s Excelsior series — its hard-to-find limited releases range from AlpHalpHa, brewed with New York-grown hops and local honey, to Brute, a complex and funky American sour ale.