Craft beer is back in a big way. It all began back in the 1980s when they changed the public health laws to allow the sale of unpasteurized beer. A beer industry that had been strangled by Prohibition in the 1920s and ‘30s had never really bounced back to recover its previous diversity. After the 1960s, regional breweries began to struggle and close probably because of the growing emphasis on advertising by major brewers, particularly during the radio and television broadcasts of sporting events. By the 1980s interest in regional breweries had already begun to revive. Yuppie culture was eschewing the mass produced insipidity of Budweiser, Miller, Coors, and seeking out esoteric labels like Rolling Rock and Stroh’s.
In 1976 New York State passed the Farm Winery Act. It allowed grape growers to bottle wine and sell it directly to the public in tasting rooms at their vineyards. Some winemaker/grapegrowers, like the Wagner family, began making beer and selling it on the farm as well. But in 2012 Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Farm Brewing law, opening up the proverbial floodgates. Until the end of 2018, at least 20 percent of the hops and 20 percent of all other ingredients must be grown or produced in New York State. From January 1, 2018 to December 31, 2023, no less than 60 percent of the hops and 60 percent of all other ingredients must be grown or produced in New York State. From January 1, 2024, no less than 90 percent of the hops and 90 percent of all other ingredients must be grown or produced in New York State.
In his new book Central New York Beer: A History of Brewing in the Heart of the Empire State, beer enthusiast Daniel Shumway shows that we have in effect gone back to the future. Shumway’s book is not a synoptic history; you won’t get a summary of what the brewing industry was like in the 19th century. Instead he goes through history, brewery by brewery. In his first book he examined the breweries of Utica. In his second book he draws a circle with a 50-mile radius around Utica and discusses breweries in 18 towns and cities. In his brief introduction he notes that they’re or have been 62 beermakers over the last 200 years in this area. For Ithaca readers his sweep passes closest at Norwich and Oneonta, but certainly towns like Cooperstown, Cazenovia, and Hamilton are hardly out of reach.
Since the passage of the farm brewery law, 14 new businesses have started, according to Shumway. Some of the local examples include Rogue’s Harbor in Lansing, Hopshire and Bacchus farm breweries out in Dryden and one on the way in the old Ovid firehouse.
Some of these new breweries seem to have anticipated the passage of the law. Empire Farmstead Brewery in Cazenovia got underway in 2011. Owner David Katleski raises pumpkins and makes a pumpkin ale. He also raises his own hops and his beef cattle find their way into the restaurant at his brewery. Katleski is already making plans to expand both his production and his footprint, building a storefront in downtown Cazenovia. The village actually modified their zoning law to accommodate the new facility. That Shumway brings in technical details that reach into the rest of the economy and local government is one of the strengths of this book. That is, it is not a book-long screed about the size and density of the head on a pint of beer.
Cooperstown is a vacation spot for the wealthy (the Busch family of St. Louis summered there), and a tourist destination because of the Baseball Hall of Fame. It doesn’t necessarily need the boost to its economy that breweries provide (compared to, say, Cazenovia), but it has had breweries since 1816 and was once at the epicenter of hops growing in the state. Shumway introduces you to some bygone breweries before giving you a thumbnail sketch of Ommegang. Established in 1997, it very much predated the current explosion in the regional industry. The Council Rock Brewery in Cooperstown, however, was established in 2012 and is very much part of the wave.
Take this book along on your next trip north and east. But drive carefully. •