Travel Stories

Pointing the Way — Searching for a Beer Revival in the Finger Lakes

Carved by giant glaciers millions of years ago, filled with trillions of gallons of water, and split amongst a collection of 11 different entities, New York’s Finger Lakes represent the extended digits of outstretched hands that found their way to Upstate New York. Old stories told by Native American tribes original to the area say the region’s namesake trenches were formed when the Great Spirit blessed the land, placing his fingers upon the earth and leaving the sacred marks, providing a source of sustenance. 

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While wholly different in story, the geological or mythical realities still share a common denominator of their lasting impact. These large reservoirs, natural in their formation and supernatural in their story, have influenced society and culture for a very long time, transforming millions of acres into a climate that balances its gray skies and plentiful white snow of winter with Norman Rockwell-level serenity during the spring and summer. It is a harsh and beautiful place to be.

Among the certainties the Finger Lakes provide are their conditions for wine. Comparable to Germany’s Rhine River, grapes thrive in the local microclimate thanks to the deep bodies of water that moderate the harsh temperatures of winter. Going back nearly 200 years, growers have benefited from this pact between Man and Nature, building an industry that now features more than 100 wineries dotting fields and along the edges of Seneca, Cayuga, and Keuka lakes.

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But in the way that life adheres to a cycle, where old becomes new again, the region is seeing a rebirth in beer. At the end of the 19th century, Upstate New York was a hotspot for the state’s booming beer industry, centered around weather patterns that made it an ideal place for the agricultural needs to fulfill requests for hops and barley. As beer has grown in relevance around the country, it’s also returned to prominent status in the Napa Valley of New York. For decades, interest in beer was celebrated through the likes of Genesee Cream Ale or Saranac Black Forest Schwarzbier. But that’s no longer the case.

Drinking in the Finger Lakes is no longer defined by viniculture. Beer is back.

Traveling through this portion of New York is meditative, one small municipality connected to another via meandering roads, often miles of open farmland between the two. There are cities, towns, villages and hamlets, an array of descriptions defined by density of population that feels anything but. It’s a “Sunday drive” kind of place.

After leaving Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains behind, a shift to rolling countryside presents a route through the right hand of the Finger Lakes, Route 414 taking travelers between Seneca and Cayuga lakes. Signs promoting the area’s wine trails are as common as ones that call for caution toward horse and buggies driven by the local Mennonite population. More than five million tourists visit the state’s wineries annually, with about a quarter of those businesses located in the Finger Lakes.

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Along those trails (roads so populated by wineries there is a literal “stone’s throw” distance between some), beer has busted a monopoly. Since 2014, the number of state brewery licenses supplied to the area’s 13 counties has almost tripled, accounting for about a third of the state’s overall growth.

“Our cultural concept was already there,” says Theresa Hollister-Ball, president and founding partner of the Finger Lakes Beer Trail Marketing & Tourism Associates, LLC. “The whole ‘craft’ movement appeals to people nationally, but we’ve always had farming as part of our culture here, and people who want to focus on local. For a long time, beer was a stagnant industry, but as it caught on in other places, it was only a matter of time.”

So many people ask, ‘What is an IPA? Is that the name of your brewery?’ Lots of people just have no idea, which seems baffling to those of us caught up in this beer world.
— Victor Pultinas, Lake Drum Brewing

The rapid change is tied directly to a 2012 law passed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, creating a "Farm Brewery" license modeled after the state's successful 1976 Farm Winery Act, which helped triple the number of those businesses in New York. The same has essentially taken place for beer in just a half-decade.

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Under the law, a brewery can receive tax benefits if it makes beer primarily from locally-grown products. Until the end of 2018, farm breweries must derive at least 20% of their ingredients from in-state agriculture, with percentages increasing through 2024.

“With the explosion of craft beverages nationally, deregulating our process has done an astounding amount of good for New York State,” says Stefan Fleming, assistant director of industry development for Empire State Development. “It’s not just breweries. Malting barley is now up to 4,000 acres, and we went from zero acres of hops to 400. Industries are expanding, and interest is too.”

Growth in the Finger Lakes beer industry isn’t defined by its parallel to an already established wine business. It’s creating something mutually exclusive that fits ideally in a blue collar region long reliant on industrial jobs and agriculture. Beer, the stereotypical “drink of the people,” is just that. Wine has long driven interests for tourists, whereas its fermented cousin of barley and hops has typically held its place at the table of those that live there, only recently growing its capacity in number of breweries and volume of options.

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In that way, beer comes with a built-in advantage: whereas the “locavore” movement has just recently become more popular in cities and towns around the country, there are decades worth of connections to what it means to source products from a local source in Upstate New York. Pride runs deep.

“It’s all part of the Finger Lakes culture,” Hollister-Ball says.

The real challenge has become building beer’s niche among taste preferences that veer closer to classic brewpub tap lists than 21st century experimentation that is often defined by one-offs, seasonals, and specialty releases. 

Upstate—like so many other rural locations in the country—suffers from a persistent “brain drain” of youth who grow up there and leave after attending college there or leave for college elsewhere. Only 10% of college graduates in the region decide to stay after attending a four-year program. The median age of the Finger Lakes counties is 41, three years more than the national average.

It all sounds a bit ageist, but this outcome directly impacts the economy, especially for products like beer that thrive off youthful interest in new flavors and brands. Millennials, the murderous demographic best known for embracing all things craft, represent 41% of weekly beer drinkers and 57% of weekly craft beer drinkers, according to U.S. Yankelovich MONITOR. All of which is to say: the Finger Lakes’ brain drain isn’t just related to young, educated people skipping town to find a job elsewhere—it might also impact enthusiasm for breweries offering new and different brands locals might use to stock their fridge.

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“So many people ask, ‘What is an IPA? Is that the name of your brewery?’” says Victor Pultinas, co-founder of Geneva’s Lake Drum Brewing. “Lots of people just have no idea, which seems baffling to those of us caught up in this beer world, but the truth is we can’t assume everyone else is on the same page.”

For years, Wegmans, a regionally-beloved grocery store chain that began in nearby Rochester, has made it easy for local shoppers to expand their understanding of beer with increasingly large sections of their stores devoted to craft beer, often brands made in-state. But that doesn’t always translate to easy sales in taprooms. For many of the customers Pultinas and others have to convert to their products, it’s older residents who come in potentially turned off by something “dark and heavy” or bitter. It’s not that these drinkers are stuck in the past—it’s just that the opportunities weren’t there before.

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“It's the most exciting thing when someone comes in and they make a really general statement like, ‘I really don't like beer’ or ‘I really don't like IPAs,’ and then you give him a sample of something and their reaction is, ‘This doesn’t taste like what I’m used to drinking,’” Pultinas says. He keeps classic and more adventurous brands on tap, from a Brown Ale and Stout to a Cider-Berliner weisse hybrid or Whiskey Sour Ale. His plan from the start was to have Lake Drum be known for its sour program, inspired from the time he and his wife and co-founder Jenna LaVita spent working in the wine industry.

“It’s hard to avoid beer culture now,” Pultinas says. “It’s everywhere and it can be anything.”

“We read about this place in the Citizen,” says Deb Janish, 57, referring to her local newspaper in Auburn, NY, while sipping from a four-ounce sample of Witbier. She and her husband, Jim, 59, who have lived in Auburn for almost four decades, traveled to Seneca Falls’ Fleur De Lis Brew Works to see what the new business was about. Fleur De Lis opened in May, setting up on farmland that’s on its third generation of family ownership.

“We like to try new things,” she says.

This wasn’t always the case.

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“I was your typical Genesee beer drinker,” Jim says of the ubiquitous Cream Ale that has long been a go-to option for Upstate New Yorkers. “Then we started going to breweries and tasting stuff.”

Exposure to good beer is not isolated to just progressive areas or big cities anymore. It’s not isolated to just wealthy areas anymore.
— Brent Wojnowski, Wagner Valley Brewing Company

Jim raises his own sample-sized glass, angling it toward others. “I started drinking IPAs,” he says with a smile. His favorite kind of beer is now India Pale Ale made with rye. 

Like so many other locations in the Finger Lakes, tourist attractions in the Janish’s hometown of Auburn have typically revolved around aspects of history. Centuries-old homes have always been popular, and in the city of about 27,000, properties that once belonged to Secretary of State William Seward, who served under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson, or Harriet Tubman, receive plenty of due attention.

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But a big part of renewed interest in downtown has come from Prison City Pub and Brewery, a business that garnered national attention when, in 2016, Paste Magazine named its Mass Riot New England IPA the best in the country in a blind taste test of 247 India Pale Ales. The recognition created a sudden and unexpected duality. Prison City became known for a beer style wholly new in existence, in a location where many visitors to the brewpub are likely to have never heard of something like a hazy IPA, let alone understand why there’s a sticker of an upside down bottle on the restaurant’s front door, alerting customers the business is “independent,” as certified by the Brewers Association.

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“I realize it makes me seem like kind of a hypocrite,” half-jokes Marc Schulz, co-owner and co-founder of Prison City, motioning toward the sticker. He sometimes has to keep macro products in stock because local customers, accustomed to finding them in bars and taprooms around the area, ask for them specifically. “But I’m really proud of what it means to be independent.”

He’s also proud of the attention he’s brought to Auburn. In an odd way, Prison City’s rotating collection of turbid juice bombs—found next to classic styles like Saison, ESB, Porter, and Pilsner—may be a perfect answer to a new beer drinker who proclaims with untested certainty they don’t like IPAs because they’re bitter. And there are a lot of those that come through the brewery’s doors.

“This style has legs because it’s delicious, but it also proves there are different flavor profiles to open the door for more craft beer fans,” Schulz says. “That’s what we need around here.”

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“The local customer is just starting to explore and see what’s out there,” says Jon Paul Partee, the brewer and one of four partners behind Fleur De Lis.

“At first we got a lot of people who said, ‘I want a light beer because I don’t like dark beers,’” added Craig Partee, Jon Paul’s brother and fellow partner in the business. “At festivals we’ll get requests for the closest thing to Bud Light or Coors Light because that’s what people know—domestic brands.”

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There’s a constant feel of reinvention across the Finger Lakes in a non-punny, macro and micro (beer) way. On a broad scale, small cities and rural communities are trying to determine the next series of businesses that will complement the centuries of agriculture that have supported generations of families. Beer is most definitely a part of that. It has spawned brand new economic opportunities for the likes of Fleur De Lis, and provided a reason for other longstanding businesses to evolve.

Wagner Valley Brewing Co. opened 20 years ago as a companion to Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery. Located in Lodi, NY, along the eastern side of Seneca Lake, it’s found among nearly a dozen wineries that speck a five-mile stretch of Route 414, set among lake houses and picturesque views. It’s one of the oldest breweries in the Finger Lakes and was the first on the lake, which now features nearly two dozen. In 2011, Wagner made seven total brands. Today, there are typically 10 on tap at any time, sometimes 12.

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The brewery was once known for its flagship Sled Dog Doppelbock, a 8.5% malt bomb that catered perfectly to the tastes of local customers. (Naturally, it’s since been replaced by an IPA.) Hop Tropic, made with Citra and Galaxy hops, accounts for around a quarter of production and is the most in-demand beer from local distributors, whether being sold in nearby college town Ithaca, metropolitan Rochester, or Watkins Glen, a village of about 2,000 best known for visitors who come for a NASCAR race or to visit a state park while passing through.

“That tells me that our culture is shifting,” says Brent Wojnowski, brewmaster at Wagner. “It tells me that the exposure to good beer is not isolated to just progressive areas or big cities anymore. It's not isolated to just wealthy areas anymore. People want something that tastes better. They want something that's different. Especially if it's local. There's a higher respect for stuff.”

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Wagner's original lineup consisted of a Honey Wheat, Pilsner, Amber Lager, Pale Ale, ESB, Stout, and its Doppelbock, several styles of which can still be found in the brewery's lineup alongside a mango Gose, Amarillo Session IPA and a kettle-soured Berliner Weisse. This summer Wojnowski made a Gose with passionfruit and coconut, and has used a dry-hopped Pilsner as a gateway beer to ease Bud, Miller, and Coors drinkers into the idea that hops don’t always have to equate to bitterness.

I realize it makes me seem like kind of a hypocrite. But I’m really proud of what it means to be independent.
— Marc Schulz, Prison City

“The average customer that comes in here is probably mid-30s to mid-40s, maybe has been here once or twice before, usually part of a wine tour or is a tourist, and we can’t afford to mess it up,” says Steve Boucher, a server at Wagner’s taproom. “That's why it's really nice to have those classic styles, because they come in and think they know what they like, but then we can slide a sample across to them that they’re probably not going to find somewhere else and have them give it a shot.”

It’s a one-pint-at-a-time philosophy that also happens to be at the core of craft beer’s ethos, a goal established decades ago where one person, with one good beer, could start a kind of Ponzi scheme that people would feel good about, giving up their money for something exciting and new, only to inevitably share it with friends and family. Change, especially for drinkers still learning what “craft” can be in all its forms and flavors, comes one six-pack at a time.

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“There are lots of epicenters where trends are on the cutting-edge, but it’s OK that we’re on this slow trickle,” Wojnowski says of Finger Lakes beer drinkers. “I think the catalyst is that people are finally becoming a little more open-minded to it all.”

It’s a couple years removed from U.S. craft’s last double-digit growth year, but in Upstate New York, it doesn’t feel that way. In 2017, the area’s beer scene is still climbing toward an undetermined apex, a hidden peak being pushed ever higher by the sheer number people who are experiencing IPAs, flavored stouts, and wild or sour beers for the first time. More breweries and beer-dedicated businesses are adding to a growing base, providing an expanding number of options from which drinkers can start their journey.

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Beer is on a methodical march upward, gaining more followers who realize the potential of what it can be, not just fulfilling expectations of “hoppy” or “dark.” Change doesn’t always come quickly, and can sometimes feel like a glacial pace, but maybe the Finger Lakes are blessed after all. Those long, deep marks, left so long ago by a Great Spirit, are now offering rebirth and a newfound love for so many.