Thursday, March 13, 2014

Inside the Brewery at Bacchus - The Most Interesting Brewery in NY That You've Never Heard Of

The Brewery at Bacchus 
4 South Chestnut Street 
New Paltz, NY 12561
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It's rare that a brewery this promising opens this quietly, but the Brewery at Bacchus is a strange case all around. If you haven't heard of them, it's not because you aren't tuned in to the New York beer scene. This is a brewery that's going to take a lot of people by surprise.

For starters: how many breweries in New York do you know of doing funky Brett saisons, farmhouse ales aged on fruit, dark sours, 100% Brett IPAs, whiskey-aged imperial stouts, while utilizing a comprehensive (though small) barrel program? Bacchus has tackled all of these so far, and well. All in the mere six months since their first beer was released.

The main reason you may not have noticed the brewery's opening — even if you live in the area — is that things at Bacchus don't look to have actually changed much, from the outside. Bacchus, a restaurant and bar that's been a staple of the town for years, is located in busy New Paltz, NY. About an hour and a half north of New York City, surrounded by farmland and the looming profile of the Shawangunk Ridge, New Paltz is a Main Street-oriented college town best known for hippies and hikers. I've felt for a while that the Hudson Valley is lousy with opportunity as a beer-tourism destination, and few towns convey why as immediately as New Paltz. The horizon, with the Shawangunks not far in the distance, is just stupidly gorgeous and instantly memorable, and the vibe in the area is as charming as it comes. The town seems to have been uprooted and transplanted wholesale from some valley in Colorado — where, you know, having at least two breweries per town is kind of a thing.

Ad Infinitum imperial IPA.

Bacchus — the restaurant and bar that preceded and still largely overshadows the brewery — was already a fairly curious place. According to its own website, the building has been host to a fascinating past life: " various times a Chinese laundry, litho shop, taxi station, barber shop, a cafe, [and] a porno photography studio." Finally settling on a Tex-Mex restaurant with a pub-like downstairs bar in 1974, Bacchus was off to a fine start. Add to that an attached billiards hall and suddenly you have a multi-tasking establishment that's still pretty well suited to a college town. And New Paltz very much is a college town: the crowd at any business on Main Street skews young and counter-culture.

But Bacchus was never in danger of becoming a frat bar (if New Paltz even has anything resembling frats, which I doubt). The restaurant has been known as the craft beer spot for the town for a number of years, partly due to the influence of Jason Synan, a homebrewer and beer-lover that manages the bar. Then, two years ago, Jason Synan and his brewing partner Mike Renganeschi were in a staff meeting pouring homebrew for other Bacchus employees when the owners suggested: hey, your beer is good, let's put a brewery in too.

From an outsider's perspective, it could easily seem like a case of "why not?" And from a cynic's perspective, not knowing better, you'd expect such an addition to an already-sprawling restaurant enterprise might default to safe, inoffensive standards. You know, the same five beers every new brewery needs to make so they don't scare off mainstream drinkers. Adding a brewpub to this already-sprawling list of projects kind of seems risky, on the face of it. Why would this weird college-town Frankenstein building — a Mexican restaurant, college bar, and billiards hall, built on the bones of a taxi station and porn studio — strive to be something unique and unexpected?

Maybe I've answered my own question. Bacchus is no one thing, and once you give yourself the space to stand back from it all, there's some kind of weird logic to it all.

Even the building itself, as I would learn, is a sprawling labyrinth. I joked with Jason and Mike that their brewery probably fulfills the misconceptions the average person has about how a brewpub works: in this case, beer is literally produced from some pots in the back of the kitchen, behind the dish-washing station. While the brewers share horror stories of the aggressive kitchen-bred wild yeast that ruined one early batch, the setup would seem to humble brewing to just another culinary process. The brewhouse itself is set up in a former cold room, with two fermenters and four brite tanks staged just outside, next to shelves of spices and Maraschino cherries. The brewery seems poised halfway between convenience and chaos. But then there's the massive basement, laid out below the restaurant and bar — and floating somewhere above that, a sort of loft space that serves as the brewery's barrel room and grain storage. It's all very labyrinthian — given the Greek / Roman references that the guys' fall back on for their beers, there's gonna have to be a Theseus / Minotaur homage dropped at some point.

Mike and Jason share my taste in beer, so it's hard to contain my excitement at what they're doing with The Brewery at Bacchus. There are a very, very few breweries in New York willing to experiment with Brett or sour beer, yet the gentlemen at the Brewery at Bacchus are devoting almost their whole program to these experiments, and frequently barrel-aging their creations as long as necessary, until they're ready to drink. With two brew-days per week, Jason and Mike usually focus on a non-wild, quicker turn-around beer for one, and something more experimental for the other.

Mike Renganeschi crushes grain in the barrel room.

So here's the most important information I could share about the Brewery at Bacchus, the stuff you really want to know. So far, Jason and Mike have brewed:

Ad Infinitum - This 10% ABV DIPA is as close to a flagship beer as Bacchus has, if only because it's the closest they've come to brewing a beer on multiple occasions. And in fact, it was their first batch, debuted at Dutchess Hop's Hoptember Festival last September (to great acclaim, I hear.) The exact hop bill changes from batch to batch, however, so come for the spirit of the beer, which is always excellent — it fits the mercurial, multi-faceted nature of the place. A fresh batch of this beer hit the taps on the day that I visited Bacchus, and drinking it throughout the day was a treat. I had not the slightest idea it clocked in at 10% ABV until two or three pints later — it drinks as light and refreshing as a well balanced IPA, focused on fruity tropical aromatics and dank citrusy depth over aggressive bitter intensity. Just how I like my IPAs.

Kamehameha - A fairly big and boozy Brett Trois IPA hopped aggressively with Falconer's Flight, then aged with Hawaiian Pineapples. My Scouter indicates that the Power Level of this beer is over 9000. I love to see more breweries doing Brett IPAs, and the pineapple addition was a smooth touch.

Et Cetera - 7% ABV farmhouse ale with a simple grain bill and a flexible second-life in barrels or on fruit. Some batches stick with just saison yeast, others have Brettanomyces added. According to the guys: "The idea is that it will always be an approachable, drinkable, dry and effervescent beer, but each batch will focus on different fruits, yeast, wood, etc." The version I had was aged on Cabernet grape skins from Whitecliff Vineyards in Gardiner, NY — twas tasty and unique.

Proletariat - A porter aged on Madagascar vanilla beans and locally roasted coffee from Mudd Puddle Cafe on Water Street.

Bourgeoisie - The same base beer as Proletariat, but aged on blood oranges and roasted hazelnuts. I haven't gotten to try either of these two porters, but this one especially sounds fascinating.

Luxuria - An imperial stout aged in whiskey barrels from Tuthilltown Distillery in Gardiner, then racked onto cherries.

Lilith - A dark sour ale fermented with wild yeast and local microflora and aged for one year in American oak barrels with raspberries. Mike and Jason were kind enough to open a bottle of this with me, and it really is a fascinating sour ale, creamy and roasty while still sporting a very tart acidity. There are very few breweries doing actual sours in New York, but Lilith doesn't taste like much else that I've had from any state.

Jason Synan contemplates while brewing, probably concluding that time is a flat circle.
Bacchus is brewing on a 3 barrel system right now, and with limited tank space, that's not a whole lot of beer for an established drinking spot without much local craft-beer competition. And therein lays the real reason few people outside of New Paltz have heard of this new brewery. Producing 6 bbls a week, Bacchus can't hope to brew enough beer to fill all 14 of their tap lines. Usually, only one tap at the bar is dedicated to Brewery at Bacchus beers, while the rest remain a rotating cast of other crafts. But even then — just one tap out of all the rest — each Bacchus beer tends to kick fast. According to Jason, who still manages the bar, it isn't unusual for them to go a couple days each week without any of their own beers on. 

In an out-of-the-way college town, with little promotion or regional attention, these guys can barely keep one line of beer from running dry. Pretty incredible. Frankly, I think their early success speaks volumes about the lingering mentality of brewers who think they "have to brew safe beer styles everyone is familiar with" or else people won't get it. 

It's not the 1990's anymore. Brew whatever you love. (As long as you brew whatever you love well). If you love blurring style boundaries, do that. If you love weird and funky beers, do that. There's no built-in market for sour beer or farmhouse Brett funk in New York, at least not yet. People just want to drink good beer.

And that, in my opinion, is what brewers tend to over-think. The average person has no clue what Brettanomyces is, and is more likely to be turned off by over-explanations than the actual flavor of a beer. You don't really need to share all the complicated background to them when you can just tell a curious customer: "this one really tastes like pineapple." Or, "the yeast and the oak create a wine-like character." Or, in the case of farmhouse ales: "it's tart and tropical." According to Jason, who spends most evenings behind the bar explaining beer to anyone curious, "Most people don't care about the specifics of how the beer is made. Beer geeks do, but not the average drinker. Most people just care how it tastes. The fermentation process and yeast strains might not interest them, but once I start explaining the different flavors in the beer, the fruit and stuff, then they're immediately interested."

By now, presumably, you're excited to pick up a few growlers of Bacchus beer for your next bottle share. Here's where the downside of the Brewery at Bacchus comes in — by necessity, there are no taster flights or growler fills just yet, and if you pick a day at random to visit, you may miss out on their beer altogether. As their goal for right now is simply to serve New Paltz, blending in with the locals at the bar over a couple weeks is probably the best way to get a sense of what these guys are doing. That town-bar dynamic could change soon, though, especially as more beer lovers realize that there is, in fact, a brewery hidden inside the sprawling Bacchus maze. Drinkers will be hanging out for the easy-drinking, high-impact IPAs and saisons, but the specialty batches lurking in barrels behind the scenes might eventually have them lining up.

Fortunately, Bacchus has plans for a 7 barrel brewery in a large, currently-unused space next door to the restaurant, and with a significant bump in equipment, it's easy enough to picture a full-fledged brewpub setup in another year.

It's too early to make any promises, but according to Mike, they're hoping to start the transition to the new space and new system sometime later in 2014. Still, the standard uncertainties apply. "It takes a long time to get all that together: the whole place has to be rebuilt and fitted with plumbing, electric, etc. Even when we move down there, we will still be working on our system for a while. But we will continue the same model of business. We will use our bright tanks to serve from and get more fermentors. So we should be able to have more beer, more consistency, as well as doing some growler fills."

The situation is such that it almost feels risky writing about these guys — not that my blog drives huge local traffic in the Hudson Valley, but with their beer limited as it is, it'll be awhile before Bacchus can stay comfortably ahead of demand. For those who don't live in the Hudson Valley, it's difficult to express just how much more success Bacchus could find if they simply become an established, regionally-popular destination. I know a lot of beer lovers, and outside of those that live in or very close to New Paltz, none were aware that Bacchus had installed a brewery. Or that they were making truly interesting beer. Their market, right now, is as local as it can get, and that's still not enough. But good breweries of this sort across the country rarely stay local for long.


  1. There's a brewery that's been operating in my town (Brisbane, Australia) called Bacchus for a few years now. Bring in the lawyers!

    1. Haha. I haven't actually done a search on how many Bacchus-related bars and breweries there are. I bet it's a lot.

    2. it's called "the brewery at bacchus" ... the bar and restaurant is called bacchus

  2. And a brewery called Bacchus outside of Ithaca ny

    1. Yeah, I asked them about that. There's bound to be some confusion. Both breweries are very new, but Bacchus in New Paltz has been around for a couple decades (the restaurant, if not the brewery). It's an interesting situation to be sure, especially given all the lawsuits in the industry lately.

  3. Nice write up. I can't wait to try more of their beers.

  4. Very enjoyable profile of this brewery. Thanks Derek!

  5. For the record, New Paltz does have a few frats and frat bars like McGillicuddy's, but nothing beats Bacchus!

    1. Haha, interesting! It seems like such a hippie-oriented town, I just remember ever seeing super bro-y folks around. I guess I should never assume!

  6. With the previous comments. New Paltz does have the frat bars. But Bacchus and the Gilded Otter are some good local craft brews that bring some originality to this college town


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