JOHNSTOWN - Thanks to a broadening of beer drinkers' tastes, craft beers are seeing a surge in popularity in upstate New York.
Here in Fulton County, beer enthusiasts with refined palettes have more and more options to choose from, both at the bar and the beverage store.
Marc Hughes, owner of Midtown Discount Beverage, on Townsend Avenue in Johnstown, says he stocks more than 250 varieties of premium beers, including imports from Europe and craft beers from all over the United States.
Bartender Brody Stewart pours a Magic Hat No. 9 for a customer Monday night at O’Connor’s Pub in Johnstown. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
"I always like to have the best selection in town, like a one-stop shop," he said. While craft beers make up only about 15 percent of his overall beer sales, he sees more and more customers who like to try new varieties. Beers by Sam Adams and Saranac Brewing are strong sellers, he says, and many people are interested in the Belgian-style ales produced by Brewery Ommegang of Cooperstown.
"Even the German section is starting to pick up," Hughes said, pointing toward an area along his store's wall dedicated to high-end brews.
"A lot of people come in asking for recommendations, and I just steer them toward the wall and tell them to pick out what they want," he said.
Aaron Voght of Johnstown says he often goes to Midtown Discount Beverage to talk with Hughes about new varieties.
"I like to try new beers whenever I can," Voght said. "If I see something new, I'll ask him how it is."
Voght said his beer purchases are influenced by quality, not quantity.
"As long as it's good and it has flavor," he said. "One thing I've never been cheap about is beer. That's one thing I will not skimp on."
Voght says he's partial to Harp, a lager brewed in Ireland by Guinness, and in the winter he often enjoys various IPAs - short for India Pale Ale, a craft beer style known for its intense, dry hop flavor.
One craft beer he particularly favors is Elder Betty, a weiss-style summer ale with a subtle elderberry flavor. It's produced by Magic Hat Brewing Company of South Burlington, Vt.
Discount beverage stores like Hughes' aren't the only retailers responding to the growing demand for quality regional brews.
For the Schenectady-based Price Chopper supermarket chain, sales of premium beers have increased 15 percent per year for the past four years, according to Kevin Schulke, the company's senior category manager in charge of alcoholic beverages and salty snacks.
"We're in a long-term cycle where people are gravitating toward what I would call good beer, craft beer," Schulke said. "We've devoted more space to the high-end craft beers."
Demand for craft beers has increased even in blue-collar neighborhoods, Schulke said, even though craft brews can cost twice as much as many mass-produced beers.
Price Chopper recently expanded its beer selection at its Johnstown store, where a new "Pick Six" display invites shoppers to mix and match six-packs of craft beers. One mixed six-pack costs about $10.
Many beers from New York state breweries are represented in the display, including ales from Brown's Brewing Co. of Troy, Lake Placid Craft Brewing, Olde Saratoga Brewing and Southern Tier Brewing Co. of Lakewood, near Jamestown.
"It's been hugely successful," Schulke said of the Pick Six promotion. "It's a week-by-week treat that people can enjoy."
A growing selection
Jordan Spritzer of Johnstown recently picked up a "Pick Six" six-pack at the Johnstown store.
"If having craft brews in large retail stores is a fad, it is an awfully long-lived one," he said. "The small beverage stores I patronize have continually gotten in different and better beers for the 15 years I've been going to them. Even the larger retailers like Rite-Aid and Price Chopper now carry a nominal selection of microbrews and the latter of those selections isn't so nominal."
Spritzer, who is in his 30s, said he started homebrewing in his early 20s, and he mainly brewed darker beers.
"I drank a lot of my own beer and found it was easier to brew a consistent porter than it was to brew a consistent pilsner," he said. "As I grew older, the number of microbreweries increased and the number of good lagers and even better IPAs that were readily available also increased. IPAs and some flavorful lagers are what I drink almost exclusively today."
Of the New York beers he's tried, Spritzer said, those made by Davidson Brothers and Southern Tier are "exceptional and easily compete with the best beers in the world."
"I find that most of the craft brews I really enjoy happen to be from California," Spritzer said. "The offerings from Stone Brewing, Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada are all very well made. These companies all offer beers with very strong flavors - Lagunitas' Hop Stoopid and Stone Ruination IPA come to mind - yet no matter how potent the beer may be, they are always balanced. The hop flavor never overpowers the flavor of the malt and vice versa."
'The darker stuff'
Mike Sitts of Gloversville, like many local craft beer aficionados, says he regrets that more taverns and restaurants in the Glove Cities area don't have strong selections of craft beers on tap.
He's pleased that the Raindancer Restaurant, on Route 30 in Perth, has expanded its offerings - it carries the complete line of beers made by Davidson Brothers of Glens Falls.
Sitts said Saratoga Springs remains a popular destination for local craft-beer lovers, as it is home to several establishments that offer huge selections of brews, including many produced right on the premises.
"I like something that has a little flavor - a little something more to offer," Sitts said. "I tend to like the darker stuff - the porter and stout."
He said he loves Davidson Brothers' Oatmeal Stout.
"It's got a nice flavor and aroma - a nice coffee taste," he said.
With winter weather coming, Sitts said, he's looking forward to beers geared toward the season, including Samuel Adams' Old Fezziwig Ale, a spice-infused brown ale named after a character in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
Alex Mabbett, a non-fictional character from London - who now lives with his wife in her hometown of Bleecker - says some Americans are surprised to learn an Englishman doesn't mind drinking the occasional ice-cold American macrobrew.
"I drink Bud Light in the right context," he says. "It's okay in the summertime, if you're at a barbecue."
He says beers that have more body and flavor, however, taste best when they've had a chance to warm up after coming out of the refrigerator or keg. Indeed, many beer connoisseurs say darker beers - including brown ales, stouts and porters - should be served cool but not cold.
"That's when it tastes like beer," Mabbett says.
Mabbett says he's impressed with the quality of many American craft beers, some of which remind him of some regional brews available at neighborhood pubs in his home country.
"At a pub in London, you'll always find lagers like Stella, Heineken ... but there's always a regional ale. There's a certain pride in the local brew."
Mabbett says he's acquired a taste for some beers produced in New York, including Utica-based Saranac Brewery's Black Forest, a Bavarian-style black beer, and he's especially fond of the Toasted Lager produced by Blue Point Brewing of Patchogue, Long Island.
These breweries and others in the Empire State stand to gain from a new promotional effort by New York state, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Earlier this fall, Cuomo conducted a "Wine, Beer and Spirits Summit" in Albany, where he met with farmers, breweries, vintners and distillers from across the state. He said state government will push the promotion of beer, wine and liquor made in New York to create jobs and help the growing industries.
The effort will include a new investment of state tourism funds and promoting New York-made beverages at the State Fair in Syracuse, according to a report by the Associated Press.
"However we can do it big, we're in," Cuomo said.
Region offers day trips for serious sippers
Unfortunately for craft-beer lovers in Fulton and Montgomery counties, the local area doesn't have a single pub that brews its own beer right on the premises.
Perhaps the closest alternative is the Raindancer Restaurant, on Route 30 in Perth, which carries the full line of beers produced by the Davidson Brothers microbrewery of Glens Falls. In addition to its draft options, the Raindancer offers growlers - refillable 64-ounce bottles that allow customers to take their draft beer home. The cost is $5 for the bottle and $17.99 for a fill-up with a premium beer.
For more information, call the Raindancer at 842-2606 or see its website, www.raindancerrestaurant.com.
Connoisseurs who are up for a road trip have more options. Here's a sampling of some of the many brew pubs and breweries that welcome visitors within about 100 miles of Fulton County:
- Adirondack Pub and Brewery, 33 Canada St., Lake George. (518) 668-0002; www.adkpub.com.
- Lake Placid Pub and Brewery, 14 Mirror Lake Drive, Lake Placid. (518) 523-3813; www.ubuale.com.
- Brewery Ommegang, 656 County Highway 33, Cooperstown. (800) 544-1809; www.ommegang.com.
- Brown's Brewing Co., 417 River St., Troy. (518) 273-2337; www.brownsbrewing.com.
- Cave Mountain Brewing Co., 5359 Main St., Windham. (518) 734-9222; www.cavemountainbrewing.com.
- CH Evans Brewing Co/Albany Pump Station, 19 Quackenbush Square, Albany. (518) 447-9000; www.evansale.com.
- Coopers Cave Ale Co., 2 Sagamore St., Glens Falls. (518) 792-0007; www.cooperscaveale.com.
- Council Rock Brewery, 4861 Route 28, Cooperstown. (607) 435-343; www.councilrockbrewery.com.
- Davidson Brothers Restaurant and Brewery, 184 Glen St. (Route 9), Glens Falls. (518) 743-9026; www.davidsonbrothers.com.
- Druthers Brewing, 381 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. (518) 306-5275; www.druthersbrewing.com.
- Empire Brewing Co., 120 Walton St., Syracuse. (315) 475-4400; www.empirebrew.com.
- Good Nature Brewing, 37 Milford St., Hamilton. (518) 524-5183; www.goodnaturebrewing.com.
- Nail Creek Pub & Brewery, 720 Varick St., Utica. (315) 793-7593; www.nailcreekpub.com.
- Olde Saratoga/Kingfisher Brewing Co., 131 Excelsior Ave., Saratoga Springs. 581-0492; www.oldesaratogabrew.com.
- The Van Dyck Restaurant & Lounge/Mad Jack Brewing Co., 237 Union St., Schenectady. 348-7999; www.vandycklounge.com.
- Saranac Brewery Shop & Tour Center, 830 Varick St., Utica. (315) 732-0022; www.saranac.com.
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached by email at email@example.com. For more information about craft beer, see the Brewers Association website:www.craftbeer.com. For more information about beer brewed in New York state, see the New York State Brewers Association website: www.thinknydrinkny.com.