HUTCH KUGEMAN, TALL AND BROAD, peers intently into a large steel kettle in which swirls an unappetizing greenish liquid with the uninviting name “wort.” This is essentially what’s left behind when malted barley is boiled and strained, before it’s fermented into beer. Observing from the sidelines on this day, talking beer talk, is brewer Scott Veltman, of Indian Ladder Farms Cidery and Brewery, in Altamont (Albany County).
Kugeman and Veltman are working in a glistening, glass-enclosed brewery that sits on the Hudson River at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, where students now study the science, technique, marketing (and quaffing) of craft beers.
That the prestigious CIA, better known for its vinous education, has built a state-of-the-art brewery (with backing from Brooklyn Brewery) underscores the growing popularity and status of small-scale beer making in New York State, particularly in the Hudson Valley. The winding corridor along the Hudson River from lower Westchester to Albany could be dubbed the brewers’ Bordeaux.
“It’s really incredible,” says Kugeman, who has been making beer at small and medium-sized breweries for 16 years. “When I moved east in 2002, there were 38 craft breweries in New York State; we’ve just passed 400.” (The previous record was 396, in 1873.) The suds-crazed Hudson Valley is home to nearly 60 breweries turning out a kaleidoscopic array of both unique and classic beers: IPAs, porters, pale ales, stouts, sours, lagers, wild ales, Pilsners, saisons—and dozens that defy classification.
In the youthful firmament of craft brewing, Kugeman is viewed as somewhat of an elder statesman. After two years as a high school teacher in North Carolina, he decided to pursue his passion for beer in Portland, Oregon, a hub of the burgeoning West Coast craft beer industry. He ran a brew pub there for three years, then rolled his kegs East to Ithaca Beer Company (Ithaca). Then, “When the chance to start a new brewery at the CIA came up, I jumped for it,” he recalls.
Most Hudson Valley breweries are small, and most sell their wares within a 25-mile radius of the brewery. Even the valley’s largest—Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, in Elmsford (Westchester County)—has a distribution range one could cover on a bicycle. Consequently, many breweries have tap rooms and full-service restaurants, some quite stylish, adjacent to the tank room. A short list would include the Mill House Brewing Company, in Poughkeepsie, where rustic wood decor, beamed ceilings and an award-winning chef beckon serious eaters as well as serious drinkers.
“The Hudson Valley is unique,” notes Paul Leone, executive director of the New York State Brewers Association. “It has everything going for it—the population is dense enough, there are lots of people who are curious about craft beer, it’s a relatively inexpensive place to do business compared to surrounding areas, and you already have the wine industry that brings in tourists.” Nonetheless, he adds, this does not mean all are profitable. For some, brewing is a labor of love, a lifestyle.
Craft beer brewing is a collaborative sport. Brewers visit each other’s plants, share technical notes, even hold periodic seminars. On days he is not teaching students how to finesse the flavors in beer, Kugeman experiments with brews that, if successful, will find their way onto menus of the restaurants on campus.
Today’s eccentric cast of trial ingredients comprises red chili peppers, guajillo peppers, lime zest, coriander and pink salt. “This one should come together without any one ingredient taking over,” Kugeman predicts. With the conviction of someone who has spent a lot of time around fermenting grains, he claims a two-out-of-three success rate.
Like wine geeks, fervent craft beer drinkers always are looking for something new, and they’ll travel far to savor it. Consequently, brewers, like chefs, have to keep their menus creative, if not startling. Smaller breweries without large distribution demands tend to be the most daring. Rushing Duck Brewing Company, in Chester (Orange County), offers a spring brew called Bauli Saison, a new take on a classic Belgian beer jazzed up with white peppercorns, coriander and kaffir lime leaves.
At Plan Bee Farm Brewery, near Poughkeepsie, owners Emily and Evan Watson are among the growing community of brewers committed to using 100 percent New York-grown ingredients—”ground-to-glass” beers, as they say. Things literally are buzzing at the two-year-old brewery this summer—the yeast used for fermentation is cultivated from their own on-site honeycombs and bees. “Because we use only local ingredients, we are a little restricted as to what we can make,” Emily says. Still, Plan Bee produces a slew of brews, including Tulsi Blue (barrel-aged ale tinged with blueberries and basil) and Pitz (made with whole peaches, including the pits).
For decades, New York State brewers had been hampered by Prohibition-era liquor laws that made it difficult and expensive to sell beer by the glass at the brewery. In addition to obtaining a state liquor license (with its notoriously long waiting process), owners were required to serve food. In 2012, a new state law allowed farm breweries that use a certain percentage of New York State products (mainly barley and hops) to operate without a liquor license and without having to serve food. The 2014 Craft Brewery Act extended the provisions to all breweries. Since then, the number of breweries in the state has risen by 50 percent.
While the Hudson Valley craft beer business appears to be accelerating at Mach speed, some in the industry predict, to use a Wall Street euphemism, a “correction” is on the horizon.
“We’re getting to the point where there are not enough people to consume all the beer,” observes Tommy Keegan, of Keegan Ales in Kingston, which produces 40 varieties of beer. “It’s very expensive to keep up, and the margins are not high.” Last year, in fact, seven local breweries closed.
At the Brewers Association, Leone concurs. “New York State has recently seen the largest growth ever, with one brewery opening every five days,” he says, adding, “I would say that within a year there could be a dramatic slowdown.“
Craft beer trends in the Hudson Valley mirror those in greater New England, where the climate, geography and even taste preferences are similar. Because beer can be made and modified in a matter of weeks rather than years, variations are easier than for wine. Since beer is not pasteurized, its shelf life is only from weeks to several months.
For decades, Americans preferred clear, light and minimally bitter craft beer. That eventually flipped to a preference for darker, more complex and bitter brews. About three years ago, tastes changed again, and the IPA craze was on. (IPA stands for India Pale Ale, historically favored on eighteenth-century trading ships sailing between England and India because its high hop content preserved the beer on long voyages. Today, an IPA could be loosely defined as almost anything that is hazy in the glass, bitter from extra hops, tart and high in alcohol.)
“The IPA trend has been remarkable,” Kugeman says. “Just three years ago, if your beer was not crystal clear you’d think there was something wrong with it. Now it’s just the opposite.” Today, he explains, consumers are drifting toward ”fruit-forward” brews, which helps explain the Polynesian buffet in the beer coolers: brews accented with lime, kaffir lime, papaya, mango, lychee, pineapple, lemon and more.
As summer approaches, seasonal beers, sometimes called “saisons,” are proliferating. All share a light body and are relatively low in alcohol, but their flavors are all over the map: Some are flowery, others spicy; most are fruity, often tinged with a little spritz. Newburgh Brewing Company is known for its popular Checkpoint Charlie Berliner Weisse, which is light bodied and invigorating, with a sharp finish.
Also coming on strong, particularly in the Hudson Valley, are sour ales. Said to be an archetype of modern beer, sours traditionally are made with wild yeast and a specific bacteria that yields a light, faintly puckery and complex character. “Sours offer the drinker a chance to experience flavors that are not typical beer flavors,” Scott Vaccaro, founder of Captain Lawrence Brewing, explains. “They can be infinitely complex and wine-like in character.” A sour may not be to everyone’s taste, but its partisans are loyal and vocal.
As the industry flourishes, Kugeman says, ample job opportunities should arise in the Hudson Valley and beyond. Unless they don’t.
Summer Beer Pairings
Summertime is here and there’s nothing like a refreshing cold beer. Here’s just a sampling of what local craft breweries have to offer. These pair nicely with light summer fare.