Here’s a Local Food Issue challenge (don’t worry, it will be fun): Go to your local Price Chopper (this may not work in all neighborhoods, so bear with me). Walk to the refrigerator aisle. Pass the eggs and cheese and find the beer. Now, skip the 40s, cases of Busch and even the long-neck High Life. You should be staring at a rack of assorted craft beers, some with labels that may be familiar and some not. Take the cardboard six-pack and select only the brands brewed within 100 miles of your house. Purchase your mixtape of fine libations, go home and drink them.
OK, this sounds easy enough, but it’s actually an arithmetically impossible feat, unless you get a few of your friends, armed with their own six-pack sleeves, to help you. Rather than finding the local brands, the challenge these days for consumers of artisinal craft beer is figuring out what you want to drink from the vast array of brands and varieties that have set up shop in the region and begun to distribute in grocery and convenient stores. A welcome connundrum, to be sure. Born of DIY home-brewing enthusiasm and riding the general trend toward the local-sourcing of food and away from the soulless mass-branding of beverage giants, craft brewing in the Capital Region is more popular than at any point since prohibition. It’s actually a national trend that has caused the American Brewers Association to declare that there has “never been a better time or place to drink beer than in the U.S. right now.”
Between C.H. Evans, Brown’s Brewing Company, Davidson Brothers, Brewery Ommegang, ADK Brewery, Chatham Brewing, Lake Placid Pub, Saranac, Olde Saratoga Brewing Company, Druthers Brewing Company, and probably a dozen more that I’ve regretfully omitted, craft brewing—through either on-premises brew pubs or regional distributing—has become a local industry with seemingly infinite growth potential. It hasn’t always been this way, but the trend also isn’t entirely new.
“Before prohibition, there were hundreds of breweries in every state,” says ADK Brewery spokeswoman Laura Stevens. “That’s just the way it was.” Until, prohibiton of course, which left the beer market in a vulnerable place when the push toward mass-distribution and consumer convenience set in post-WWII. Ask your grandpa what kind of beer he prefers, and he’ll probably tell you Genny Cream Ale, which is actually a bit exotic among the crop of low-calorie light lagers that cornered the beer market up until the late ’70s. It was only then that home brewing enthusiasts began to open small brew pubs and bottle their wares under the “microbrewery” designation. A couple decades into this trend, the term “craft brewery” has become more prevalent, along with strict guidelines determining what does and does not qualify.
“It doesn’t denote size anymore,” says Brown’s Brewery Vice President Garry Stacy. “It denotes quality.” In fact, to qualify as a craft brewery, the brand must be 100-percent U.S.-owned, be no more than 24-percent owned by a beverage company that is not a craft brewery, and have an all-malt flagship ale (disqualifying Budweiser, Coors, etc. not because of size but because their beers often use rice and corn rather than barley; this also disqualifies smaller breweries like Blue Moon, whose flagship is a wheat beer). Despite the prevalence of Miller, Bud and Coors, these somewhat simple requirements actually put craft breweries in the national majority by a long margin. The Brewers Association claims that the majority of Americans now live within 10 miles of a brewery, while some of the largest national brands, Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, for instance, retain their craft brewery designation.
The story of just about every local craft brewery begins with a beer lover toiling over a carboy in their basement. What happens next is what distinguishes them. ADK Brewery owner John Carr started fiddling with beer recipes after returning home from a post-college trip to Europe, where beer quality and variety at that time far surpassed what was available at a reasonable cost in the United States. “It took off and he decided to open a brewery,” says Stevens. This was 13 years ago. Patrons of the Lake George brew pub began requesting the beer be served at local restaurants, causing the small brewing staff to up their production and actually hand deliver the kegs themselves. It was only in the last five years that ADK signed on with an outside distributor, and now their beer is available in 19 New York counties.
For Greg Brown, the cofounder of Brown’s Brewing, distribution was the goal all along. “You can do one of two things,” Stacy says, “Start as a bottling production brewery, like Ithaca, Southern Tier or Magic Hat. Many will put in a pub after that. Or you do what we did. Because that’s such a big investment [bottling equipment, packaging, etc.], you subsidize that business with a pub.” Brown’s is currently the largest brew pub in the state, since everything they produce comes from the pub facility. This was not Brown’s original plan when he started the Troy Pub and Uncle Sam Brewery with Jim Moran in 1993. A resident of Hoosick Falls, Brown has owned an abandoned factory on the Walloomsac River that the brewery has recently announced it will be using as its primary production facility, upping their 2,800-barrel production capacity to 20,000 barrels. This change will likely drop Brown’s brew pub ranking, but up their overall distribution with new licenses in Massachussetts and Vermont.
While the market seems to accommodate infinite growth from the perspective of the consumer, craft breweries like Brown’s don’t look to ever-wider distribution as the definition of success. Slowly expanding distribution by concentric geographic circles, the brand looks to eventually reach the four B’s: Burlington, Boston, Brooklyn and Buffalo, with no aspirations to reach beyond a market that will recognize their regional character. “Then we’ll get into distilling bourbon or cheese,” Stacy says, only half joking.
In their branding and distribution models, craft breweries rely on the ethic of localism that has become prevalent in all facets of food culture, understanding that they lose their market value the closer they approach the brand identity of a Budweiser or Coors. Despite the fact that New York state is weak on barley production, ADK Brewery sources many of its ingredients from local farms. It offers a coffee stout using coffee beans roasted at Café Vero and a double IPA using honey from one of the brewer’s personal apiaries. One of ADK’s most popular beers is the Fiddlehead Creek Farm Pale Ale, which used the farm’s entire crop of hops—115 pounds. “It may not be your all-time favorite style of beer but you’re going to try it because the hops came from right down the street,” Stevens says.
Of course, what a brewery chooses to make available for distribution, versus what can be produced in smaller batches at the brew pub, is another matter of economics. So, when you go to fill your six-pack at the grocery store cooler, understand that you’re only looking at the tip of the iceberg. “There is infinite growth,” Stacy says, “but there isn’t infinite cooler space.” Which means there’s potential for extra credit in this assignment: If you like what you’ve tasted, a short drive is all it takes to toast a specialty pint with the folks who created it.