Is Farm-to-Table the Future of New York Brewing?
A commitment to local ingredients is creating distinct New York State flavors
When you settle onto your counter stool by the window at Sing Sing Kill Brewery (SSKB), your foot may kick one of the large sacks of locally grown grains the cozy craft brewery in Ossining, New York, stores underneath.
Decorated with logos of area malthouses, these sacks demonstrate the goals of owners Eric Gearity and Matt Curtin: to brew beer that reflects New York State’s terroir — using high-quality ingredients, sourced as locally as possible.
The pair opened their brewery, named for the stream that runs through the Hudson Valley river village they call home, as a community space and part of an effort to revitalize the downtown two and half years ago, committing to using 100 percent New York State ingredients in nearly all of the beers they brew. While 2013’s New York State Farm Brewery law required 60 percent local grains, only a handful of breweries use 100 percent. Using totally state-grown ingredients poses creative challenges, says brewer Curtin, such as finding the English malt used in a porter. He cites the efforts on a recent collaboration with a local hop farm and malt house to design a classic West Coast Pale Ale using local Cascade, Nugget and Chinook hops. “You need to have that passion,” Curtin tells InsideHook. “You need to really want to do it.”
The grain freshness and small-batch malting, says Gearity, accentuates the beer’s unique flavor profiles. He and Curtin willingly pay a premium compared to Canadian and Midwestern maltsters for New York State grain, which Gearity raves is “world-class,” and which Curtin says comes through in a “clean flavor profile.” The partners knew they were on to something when Curtin chose the two-row barley they already used as the base of their beers during a blind taste panel of five varieties at a New York State Brewers Association event four years ago.
The combination of that grain and what Curtin calls the “amazing” water from the Hudson Valley’s Croton Reservoir creates a standard-style New York State beer the pair hopes others will emulate. Their most popular brew, a cream ale, was created as a gateway for new craft beer drinkers. It tastes bright, light and fresh, with a creamy mouthfeel.
Using local grains underpins Gearity and Curtin’s values: creating and feeling connections to the land, keeping a small footprint and supporting local businesses. The avowed anti-frackers buy grains from in-state farmers to ensure the land remains agricultural, and because ones grown to the state’s brewer and distiller standards earn a premium price for farmers. Gearity praises the farm brewery bill for enabling them to incorporate their environmental activism into opening a community-focused business.
The menu at SSKB includes a breakdown of where the grains and hops come from to educate customers on the flavor profiles, what to look for and why the beer is important to drink. “The better we can tell the story about why we do what we do and the meaningfulness of it beyond trying to turn a profit,” says Gearity, “the more people will really buy into it.”
Brewing New York beer is not just a trend; it’s a throwback. The state’s rich brewing history began when the first brewery opened in Manhattan in the early 1600s. Between 1840 and 1900, New York State’s hospitable climate grew more hops than anywhere in the country and was home to one of the country’s largest brewing industries for much of the 19th century, demonstrating the possibilities for SSKB and its peers.
At Plan Bee Brewery, situated on a 25-acre farm in Poughkeepsie, “the agriculture dictates the beer, not the other way around,” says Emily Watson, who owns the establishment with her husband, Evan. “We have to wait and see what’s available.” They brew with entirely local ingredients including cherries and hot peppers, much of which is grown on the farm. Their goal is to produce all elements on premises, including barley and hops.
Watson, who attributes consumer interest to the popularity of the locavore movement, says their aptly named barn beer exemplifies what’s special about brewing local. “It tastes like our barn,” she says. “People come to our brewery and farm, see our oak fermenters, stand in our barn that was built in 1830s and smell the hives, which have a very distinct smell and also are attributed to the taste of our beer. And they say, ‘Oh my gosh, your beer tastes like this place.’” She adds, “We’ve been very successful to the point that people can identify that when they’re not here.”
Inspired by California’s estate wines while living in Sonoma County, “I thought, ‘I can make an estate beer,’” explains Marty Mattrazzo, brewer and owner of The FarmHouse Brewery in Owego. “It’d be cool to have a brew with all New York State ingredients.” Originally a homebrewer, he began malting for nearby breweries and distilleries. Now he malts locally purchased grain for FarmHouse’s 16 to 18 small-batch beers, enjoying the challenges and opportunity for originality depending on the variety, batch and season.
Right now, six of those brews contain 100 percent local ingredients, including a Belgian tripel and a cream ale flavored with carrots, vanilla and cinnamon. Mattrazzo notes that when the brewery opened in 2014, local beer was beer made locally with world-class ingredients sourced around the world. “This is true local beer,” he enthuses. “Our malts and our hops all are grown here. Cascade hops grown on the west coast is going to taste differently than one grown in New York, so the product tastes like New York-grown beer,” he explains. Clearly, he’s struck a chord with customers — he opened a second location in Victor earlier this year, and just closed on a larger production facility.
“Yeah, the beer should be great,” says SSKB’s Curtin, “but it’s got to be about all the ingredients and how you lead up to it.” The elements in these growlers of beer tell a story. “It’s not just what’s in your glass, it’s so much more than that.”
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