With its rolling hills, lush foliage and sparkling river views, New York’s Hudson Valley is certainly a tourist destination. Apple orchards, artists’ communities and even a culinary school dot the region. In the past few years, the area along the Hudson River south of Albany to the tip of Manhattan has become a cradle of beer—and cider—in the Empire State.
In the Hudson Valley, brewers “have come together as a group, to really make themselves known as a destination for great beer,” says Paul Leone, executive director of the New York State Brewers Association.
Brewpubs churning out classic styles were the places to go for beer in the region until Keegan Ales arrived in Kingston in 2003, followed by Captain Lawrence Brewing Co., first in Pleasantville and now in Elmsford, and Defiant Brewing Co. in Pearl River, both in 2006.
Captain Lawrence was started by Scott Vaccaro, who trained at the University of California, Davis, brewing school. His brewery maintains a sharp focus on quality control and precision with its Freshchester Pale Ale, IPA, Kölsch and Liquid Gold Belgian Style Ale. At the same time, Captain Lawrence, with its beer, pushes the boundaries with unusual styles and ingredients, and a barrel-aging program. Just two examples are Cuvee de Castleton, which was made with muscat grapes and aged in French oak wine barrels, and Nor’Easter, a winter warmer brewed with elderberries and aged in bourbon barrels. The brewery’s influence has trickled out to newer operations in the area.
“We do not have a regular West Coast American IPA. When someone asks us why, we say because Captain Lawrence makes an amazing IPA, so try that one,” says Paul Halayko, president and COO of Newburgh Brewing Co., in Newburgh, which he opened in 2012 with brewmaster Christopher Basso.
Beers in Newburgh’s lineup include a Chile Lime Stout, Black Oyster Cult gose, Baltic spruce porter and C.A.F.E Sour, which is made using cold brewed Ethiopian coffee. Though its aroma is all-coffee, the taste is distinctly tart. “We thought the acidity from the coffee might go really well with a beer being acidic, a sour beer of some kind,” Halayko says.
Newburgh recently joined forces with Plan Bee Farm Brewery, founded in Fishkill in 2013 by husband-and-wife team Evan and Emily Watson. Evan had previously brewed at Captain Lawrence. In 2015 Plan Bee began construction on a 25-acre farm and brewery in Poughkeepsie. While waiting for the new location to be built, the two relied on bottled collaboration beers, offered at the Beacon Farmers Market.
The Newburgh/Plan Bee joint venture was dubbed Cross-Pollination, a New York sour ale. The brewers produced the wort together and divided it into two batches for fermentation. One half was fermented with Newburgh’s house yeast, the other with a yeast unique to Plan Bee. Bottles were sold by the pair.
“We culture yeast from our spring and fall honey harvests every year,” Evan Watson explains. “Every year it’s slightly different. … It’s romantic, haphazard chemistry. I’ve learned by experience and research.”
He strives to use as many local ingredients as possible. “All our recipes are dictated by agriculture … what’s in bloom or not, what we can pick,” he says. “The Hudson Valley is one of most biodiverse areas in the country.”
If you’re talking Hudson Valley agriculture, you’ve got to mention apples. “We have near-perfect climate, soil and topography,” says Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Cidery, who looks to his crops when creating cider. He sources apples from the hundreds of trees on his nine-acre farm on the border of the Hudson Valley and Catskill regions.
Brennan plants the trees himself. After pressing the apples for cider, seeds remain in the leftover pomace. He scatters the seeds over a hillside, almost a million by his estimation, out of which about 100 trees will grow.
“When they reproduce on their own, apple trees don’t produce the same variety as their parents. There are five seeds in a McIntosh apple. All five generate different varieties,” he explains. “[Humans] reproduce individuals which are unique and never existed before, and so do apple trees.”
Because of this, each batch of Aaron Burr Cider is unique. “We focus our batches by where they’re foraged from. The idea there is that the apples in each region [of the farm] will express the soils and climates that are unique to that area. We don’t want to blend those different experiences the trees have.”
Farther up the river is a combination apple orchard/brewery. Sloop Brewing Co. leases a barn from Vosburgh Orchards in Elizaville, a 134-acre apple farm run by the Vosburgh family for six generations. The brewery and taproom share space with a farmer’s market, offering apples, cider doughnuts and other local eats and handmade wares.
“Every once in a while we’ll do a beer that’s close to 100 percent local ingredients,” says co-founder and sales director Adam Watson, even incorporating Vosburgh apples. Beers have included a Belgian farmhouse ale dry-hopped with Galaxy hops, a black sour ale brewed with raspberries and an American pale ale brewed less than 24 hours after its hops have been harvested.
Another brewer making his mark on the area is Jeff O’Neil, who came to the Hudson Valley as brewmaster of Peekskill Brewing in 2011 after almost a decade at Ithaca Brewing Co. in New York’s Finger Lakes region. While at Peekskill, he made waves by using a coolship for open fermentation and producing hop-heavy beers like Amazeballs and Eastern Standard. In 2015 he started his own venture, Industrial Arts Brewing Co., where he will hone his hop-forward approach.
“I think there’s a sort of maverick spirit that’s expressed by the wide variety of approaches that you see from the breweries in the valley,” O’Neil says. “For instance, we intend to do something that’s so different from a place like Plan Bee that we almost could be seen as completely different types of beverage businesses.” O’Neil adds that Captain Lawrence paved the way for other local breweries, with the focus on quality and consistency.
“There’s a great appreciation for food in the area due to the wonderful resource that is the Culinary Institute,” he continues. “I’ll say that the concept of beer as food is embraced here more willingly than I’ve seen elsewhere.”
That’s thanks to Douglass Miller, a professor at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park who started a “Beer Appreciation” class four years ago. “I want to change the conversation the hospitality industry has with beer,” Miller says. “By training students that are future chefs, once they get out in the industry they’ll have a better understanding of beer. Now we have a fully operating brewery on campus.”
Recently, the Brooklyn Brewery teamed up with the CIA to open the facility and brought on Hutch Kugeman as head brewer. Kugeman previously brewed at Crossroads Brewing, also in the Hudson Valley. For a second beer class, “Art and Science of Brewing,” students are in lecture with Miller, then get hands-on experience making beer
“There’s a great agricultural moment throughout the Hudson Valley. … What that’s also doing is spawning tourism. People are coming up from New York City, for day trips. They could do a brewery, winery, restaurant, farm, apple picking,” Miller explains.
For Kugeman, “it’s an exciting time in a sense that there are lots of new breweries doing new things. They’re taking risks and developing their own identities. It raises the bar for everybody.” In Kugeman’s class, students work on brewing three beers: Cleaver IPA and Mise en Place Belgian Wit—recipes he developed alongside Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery—and a class project beer, a stout during the inaugural semester.
“It certainly puts the ideas of beer as a learning tool on the map nationally,” says Kugeman. “It brings together the energy and resources of New York City with the agricultural community. I’ve moved around the country quite a bit. There aren’t that many places where, an hour in either direction, you have a major metropolitan center and farmland.”