Thursday, May 8, 2014

Where Are All the New York Wild Ales?

What do disaster movies, romantic comedies, and the birth of hip hop all have in common? Chances are, when you're picking a location, it's gonna come down to either California or New York. The two states have long been seen as either rivals or bizarro counterparts, hotbeds of culture with recognizable skylines for aliens or monsters to blow up real good. The states are similar in many ways even outside of their manufacture of culture: huge population centers anchor the state, while the majority of their geography is farms and mountains and all sorts of pretty scenery (well, I guess California has a few more deserts than NY.)

Unfortunately, the comparison and rivalry hasn't been true of beer, at least not for the last few decades. While New York at one point dominated the industry, and supplied almost all of its hops, it's now playing an (admirably energetic) game of catch up, and the state gov is giving it a real good push. By sheer number of breweries, it's undeniable that the brewing industry in New York is exploding. At the annual TAP NY beer festival, the NY State Brewers Association announced there are currently 154 breweries. In 2011, there were only around 50 in the state. By next year, I wouldn't be surprised if the count tops 200.

Do you remember when I wrote that article about the dudes at The Brewery at Bacchus? Do you remember how I called them the Most Interesting Brewery in New York That You've Never Heard Of? Six months in, those guys are knocking out all sorts of barrel-aged Brett saisons and Berliner Weisse and such, with a number of other sours in the works — which, depending where you live in the country (or the world), may not sound all that remarkable. It's kind of hot right now, that wild stuff, right? It certainly is in sunny California.

The other week, Mike and Jason of Brewery at Bacchus Tweeted this:
First of all, I personally love the hell out of Almanac. I loved them the first I ever saw their incredible bottle design, I love their model, and I love the beer they make. The sours I've had from them have been world class. So yes, I agreed with Jason and Mike's random musing, and it got me thinking about this lament more... literally.

Where are all the sour beers in New York? And what does that say about our brewing scene?

There's a lot of analysis to be done with what's happening here in general; New York is in the middle of a paradigm shift. I still can't figure out why we're starting out so far behind other states, but regardless, we're finally going from almost nothing, the pack of the back, to a huge explosion in both state attention, local interest, and micros opening their doors. And a bunch of new businesses opening their doors all at once, as the first wave of a trend, tend to follow the most straightforward, conservative business model. Most new breweries tend to be small or medium-small; even now, there are very few in NY that even distribute throughout much of the state. I think there's at least a few articles to be gleaned from this alone, but that's just to set the context.

So almost all these breweries starting up are scrappy nanos with lots of help from friends and family and probably not a ton of funding. In fact, I'd wager that the majority of the breweries that have opened here in the last year are 3 bbl or smaller (super-nano), with probably only a handful over 10 bbl in size. (Conventional wisdom for a while has been that you need to brew at least 7 bbl to survive long term, so we'll see what this nano-craze demonstrates about that.) Now that NY is offering a farm brewery license, many are hungry to just get some beer out there. Most don't have the funding to take big risks or spend extra on things like a barrel-aging program. Most of them, frankly, are homebrewers who splurged on a license and a slightly larger system, and being a homebrewer myself, I don't mean that to sound condescending. Nano-breweries have intriguing potential, even at 20 gallon (yes, gallon) batches, regardless of the economics of it all. But it's a lot of work and very risky. I get it. 

Still, why is it starting to seem like every startup brewery's lineup has to look like some slight variation of this?

Not that there's anything wrong with those beers on their own, or even as a majority. For many, the appeal of craft beer is four things: creativity, variety, quality and local-ness. There are plenty of breweries bringing the 'local' angle, but frankly, 'local' can't be the only selling point of a sustainable brewery. I don't want to get into the quality debate today, just the variety and creativity stuff. For a state that's largely farms, and an industry being heavily pushed toward support of farms, it's jarring to me that there's such a lack of sours and mixed culture, farmhouse beers. There's a lot of other stuff missing too, but I'm cherry-picking one type of beer to stand in for brewery innovation (granting that just a well-brewed English mild on cask pump would seem almost as unique and exciting to me). I think it's a useful example. Wild ales strike me as a marker for a certain kind of mindset, an eagerness to break from the Same Six Styles Syndrome. And because playing with Brett & Bugs scares off a lot of brewers, a dedication to producing them regularly seems to also offer at least a slight indication that a brewer has their shit together. (Though tapping just one random batch of a sour, let's say barleywine may just be an indication that, whoops, let's not dump this one batch of infected beer if people will pay money for it?)

Maybe, I'm just really bothered by the seemingly inescapable mindset that every brewery needs to have a few styles we've silently designated as "The Beers Everyone Has to Make to Keep Average Drinkers Happy." It seems presumptuous. Is a fruity, yeasty Brett saison going to be that harder for the average person to swallow than a fruity, yeasty hefeweizen?

I have complained about this for years, loudly and often (to my friends' great delight), but never thought to put it in cold, hard statistical terms. I got curious — is anyone in New York actually regularly producing wild ales? How many brewers in New York actually have some kind of barrel program? From a quick check on Beer Advocate, the state has about as many breweries as neighbouring Pennsylvania. Off the top of my head, without even digging around, I can name at least half a dozen PA breweries regularly releasing wild ales in bottles (which signifies some level of commitment, in my opinion.) In New York, I could think of just one, Captain Lawrence, plus a few "kind-ofs" in various stages of development, or going through expansions and shifts in focus (Ithaca, who has released lots of incredible sours previously, but seems to be shifting their attention elsewhere lately.) But maybe I'm ignorant. Maybe I'm being curmudgeonly and I'm just not looking hard enough. So it's time for some crude statistical analysis.

One recent Friday night, being the hip, socially-ambitious person I am, I spent a few hours clicking through the New York brewery list on Beer Advocate, analyzing every beer brewed in New York... at least that's made it onto the site. (What, like you have something better to do on a Friday night?) Obviously, this isn't perfect methodology, but it was the only realistic and consistent methodology for the moment. We're seeking the NY-equivalent of Almanac, Ale Apothecary, Allagash, The Bruery, Cascade, Crooked Stave, Hill Farmstead, Jester King, Jolly Pumpkin, Forest & Main, Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, Lost Abbey, Night Shift, the Rare Barrel, Prairie, Russian River, Tired Hands, Yazoo, etc etc etc, where the wild-side is obvious and the doors to the farmhouse are wide open. Some very small start-ups might not have all their beers listed on Beer Advocate yet, which leads to some fuzzy categorizing, but for the sake of this article, I'm looking to broadly define "regular producers of sour / wild / farmhouse beer in NY." A beer with only two ratings and no details, that seems to have been released only once, is obviously not something that was a big push.

In addition, there are a number of breweries I'll mention that look to be branching out into these sorts of brews, which is awesome. I don't want this article to come across as overly critical, simply... observational. Even as the market becomes saturated and the Bubble stretches, it is my opinion that there is still a lot of opportunity out there. If in two years this article is completely irrelevant and seems stupid, that's a very good thing. Sound fair?

So after those hours of research, what did I end up with? Not much that I wasn't aware of before I started. The similarity of offerings by small start-up nanobreweries is seriously jarring when you start looking at page after page of them in a row.

Let's phrase it this way: say you have a friend in California and you want to show them what's going on in New York. You want to send them some beer. [How many breweries make a draft-only geuze, anyway?] In bottles, your options for funky and farmhouse fare is... still not much. There's Captain Lawrence, of course. They've had a really good barrel program for years, releasing one or two world-class wild ales a year, on average. So hopefully you can find one of those, because there are only a handful of other breweries in New York putting sours / wilds in bottles, and most of the rest are tiny, or don't seem too committed to the genre. Shmaltz releases He'Brew Funky Jewbelation annually; a blend of different barrels, Funky Jewbelation sounds like it's at least on the sour spectrum, though it's listed as a strong ale. I'm not even sure about that one, as I haven't had it myself. Scaling down considerably from there, if you're one of my neighbors, you can stop at the farmer's market to pick up one of Evan's Plan Bee Brewery creations, which are very small releases, mostly wild yeast and farmhouse-inspired stuff. Evan does a little bit of everything, but I love his mindset, and I love his "hyper-local, self-sourced" model. You've got two more options if you live in NYC, where the very very tiny brewery Big Alice seems to have bottled a few experiments, and Transmitter Brewing opened its doors literally as I was writing this article. Of all the breweries mentioned in this article, Transmitter seems most likely to have the dedication to funk that I'm looking for. But with these small guys, to re-iterate, we're kind of looking into the future: they're just getting started, and can't make enough beer to supply their own neighborhoods right now.

Elsewhere, it's not too hard to find breweries that occasionally do Berliner Weisse and Gose, which are part of a genre I'm calling 'quick sours', beers that employ the sour mash method (or something like it.) Especially if you're just looking for it on draft at the brewery — that's way more do-able. Notably, Peekskill Brewery's Simple Sour is one of the few beers that's always on tap there, and makes appearances at bars throughout the Hudson Valley and NYC. Of the dozen or so other breweries that have done quick sours in New York state, there's still hardly anyone packaging  — Poughkeepsie-area Sloop Brewing are some of the only guys regularly bottling a Berliner-ish beer that I could dig up. So your bottle hunt hasn't gotten much easier, and you'll have to be in the right place at the right time to even to fill up a growler.

What about Brett beers and not-quite sours? You don't always need the acid; maybe you just want some breezy light funk. In bottles, Ithaca and Brooklyn, two of the largest breweries in the state, just released Brett-aged beers of the Belgian bent. Ithaca is an interesting case: the new Luminous seems to be a reinvention of the retired sour ale Brute, though it's unclear how Ithaca will handle their sour program now. Since expanding the brewery, it's been difficult to tell whether they'll keep the same focus on the former barrel program; most attention seems to be on new seasonals. I've also heard that Luminous is not a full sour, but a tart Brett beer, so keep that in mind when looking to drop some acid. (Lactic and acetic acid, I mean.) For now, I'll file Ithaca tentatively under the "irregular sour producer" folder. Another big guy, Ommengang, recently released Wild at Heart, a rich, malty 100% Brett beer that most would mistake for simply another Belgian. One more wild ale option in bottles, though not very wild in the general scheme of things.

All existing brews considered, we're looking at a handful of options, and only a few breweries giving such beers regular attention. As far as my general complaint about variety, yes, there are certainly breweries experimenting and innovating in other ways, and a couple existing breweries have shown interest in embracing the funk as soon as they can. Peekskill, for one, already has a coolship and some wild ale fermenting that's likely to be incredible. Jeff O'Neil will be giving us more than a few delicious sours down the road, so you've gotta (patiently) factor that in. As will a few of the newbies. I have high hopes for Transmitter Brewing, which looks to be perhaps the first NY brewery focused mostly on farmhouse / wild ales. Also in Queens, newly-opened Finback looks to be dabbling in the realm too. I must also mention that their borough-neighbors Kelso of Brooklyn have done limited draft releases of some incredible sours in the past, though they're very hard to find, and I haven't seen any in a while.

Picking out breweries doing sour beer as an indicator of larger trends is slightly arbitrary, and again, I don't want to make it sound like I think wild ales are the only way left to innovate in beer. Even if this is largely just an article about the lack of a certain kind of beer in the New York market, I think maybe it says a bit more than that. If you work at a brewery, you're probably yelling at the screen at me: "Of course none of these small start-up breweries are doing sours, you diptube, they're the most expensive, unreliable, and time-consuming type of beer to produce!" Yes, absolutely fair. And let's be reasonable, in another few years, when some of these breweries have gotten their footing, I suspect we'll have another dozen or so beers to add to this list. You've got half a dozen options and then some pending maybes and beyond that, a lot of pale ales and ambers and flavored stouts and fruit beers with wheat. New York has the resources, the farms, the scenery; it deserves to have the ingenuity too. Right now, I can go to Bacchus or Peekskill and enjoy some world-class, truly creative beer while appreciating the gorgeous surroundings. As we try to change our beer scene from the farm on up, I want to see that sense of terroir and fermentive curiosity expand across the state, and see local flavor come to mean more than just Cascade hops from a vine in the backyard. Are farm brewers really embracing 'local' if they're putting out the same six beers as basically every suburban brewpub in the country?

The notion of the modern farm brewery is a fascinating and exciting vision, to me. I can't believe it's a coincidence that some of the most lauded and sought-out breweries in the world right now have close ties to the farmhouse model. And I can't wait to see it explored further, in New York, and elsewhere. Seeing the local harvest reflected in the ingredients and structure of a beer is awesome. Seeing it reflected in the weird and wild microbial world from which those crops spring — at least some of the time, in some beers — is even better.


  1. These new breweries opening up may have a business model that states "give them what they want". In other words, in order to grab a piece of the market share, you have to provide the public what they know of; the list you provide in your article. It's the law of supply and demand. People love IPAs, give them IPAs. I think there is a learning curve for craft beer drinkers, especially new craft beer drinkers. From my own experience from just a few years ago, craft beer only meant IPAs, browns, and porters. My have my eyes been opened since then! Just the other night I had the opportunity to sample 5 different Brett beers and have been craving that funky flavor ever since! I would have never been exposed to that style on my own. So I think what needs to happen here is exactly what you are doing. Get the word out on these, not so much new, but new to the new craft beer drinker, delicious alternatives to your standard beer list. If you build it (the demand for wild ales), they will come (and drink the crap out of it).

  2. Beyond Kombucha brews an appreciably tart gluten free sour ale from fermented rooibos tea. It clocks in at 6% ABV (it's a full on beer, not a kombucha tea). The teas is fermented in super funky oak barrels before being sparged into a straight up sorghum based ale recipe.

    The newest batch is ready to hit taps in NYC.

    1. Great point. I actually reviewed that on here the other year; I'm a big fan of what Beyond Kombucha is doing with their hybrids and experiments and everything. Unfortunately not everything gets the same attention as beer... as evidenced by the fact that I also forgot to mention them in here!

  3. "... and see local flavor come to mean more than just Cascade hops from a vine in the backyard."

    Well. You've got me pegged. How embarrassing.

    1. There's nothing wrong with that! It's something I love to see too, and I can't wait for more NY local hops to come onto the market. I just hope to start seeing more of both! : )


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