From Farm to Glass in the Finger Lakes of New York
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

Wine is just the start of the local hooch buffet in Upstate New York, where adventurous alchemists are turning local crops into elixirs for our mugs and goblets.

farm fresh craft beer in the Finger Lakes at Woodland

As I visit my fifth brewery in four days in the Finger Lakes region of New York, the pattern is becoming crystal clear. In the flight glasses in front of me will be beers that clearly demonstrate an artisan's pride, but with some kind of local twist. I will be drinking a product that started its journey in the fields of a nearby farmer.

beer hops grown in New York State

We get the full back story at the Farmer's Museum outside Cooperstown, where the restored barns and period-dressed musicians are accompanied by a building that housed a 1795 tavern. When famous writer James Fenimore Cooper took it over in the early 1800s, he hired some brewers from Europe and started making beer that could be transported on the Erie Canal. On the farm here were facilities to malt barley and dry locally grown hops.

Hop fields proliferated and by the mid-1800s, the state of New York supplied some 80% of the hops used in the United States, three million pounds a year harvested at the peak. Hop farmers would have to bring in hundreds of workers by the trainload in harvest season to supply a domestic beer industry that was growing as fast as the U.S. population. In the early 20th century though, the double-whammy of a plant fungus and prohibition sent the industry into a tailspin. Now most American hops come from Washington, a state that didn't even exist back when the East Coast and Midwest were producing all the beer.

Because of local demand, some New York State farms are starting to grow acres of hops again, getting some help from local universities in finding the types that will thrive over the long term in this climate. If they can ramp up production enough, the current crop of 100% local beers might grow from a few specialty brews to the overall norm.

Finger Lakes on Tap local beer

While prohibition also dealt a blow to the cider makers in a state full of apples, there was not much of a wine industry to speak of until well after the failed prohibition experiment ended. Now New York is the third-largest wine state by volume after California and Washington, but that's a rather recent phenomenon. Nobody was really planting grapes suited to the cool climate and local terroir until a Ukrainian immigrant and a French Champagne maker teamed up in the 1970s to produce Riesling, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer. Word spread across the 11 Finger Lakes about how to make the right wines for the region and now there are more than 100 wineries in the area, most open to the public.

While staying in Corning and then touring around the area, I find a few good red wines, including some Ukrainian varieties, fittingly, and a whole lot of great white ones. I start to get a clue that this area might be special when I find out there are four craft breweries in tiny Corning alone, population 10,709. After touring plenty of stuffy wineries around the world, I admire the sense of creative freedom and the blank slate the makers have inherited here in the Finger Lakes. I try some interesting Vignoles at Keuka Spring Vineyard, drink a few complex cask ales from Beerocracy and Seneca Lake Brewing Company, and try 20 different Rieslings that all taste different.

Meeting the Makers in the Finger Lakes

The winner in our tasting at Americana Vineyards, in a flight dominated by table wines on the sweet side, is Lemberger, a German varietal, which ends up being one of the most complex reds I find in this area. This blue-collar winery by Cayuga Lake wouldn't be out of place in Missouri or Texas and it's a local social hub, with a restaurant, regular outdoor concerts, and a gift shop with fudge. The tasting room is active and at times feels more like a party room than any fussy swirl and spit stop.

Joe Gober Americana Winery Finger Lakes

While most Finger Lakes wineries close at 6:00, Americana is open until 8:00. "We're the fun last stop," says owner Joe Gober, who bought the place in 1997 after a career in computer networking. "I wanted an unpretentious winery where people could come together and have a drink, to attend a party with some music." Along with the fun atmosphere and a restaurant, Gober took the winery from 2,000 gallons of production 20 years ago to 35,000 today. It seems natural that they're now brewing beer as well, offering a wide variety on tap at their Bacchus pub.

We have an especially inspiring stop at Finger Lakes Cider House in Interlaken. Melissa Madden started the organic farm when she and her partner Garnett were in their early 20s, more than a decade ago. They were doing everything completely off the grid, living in a yurt. The former cornfield of 69 acres now produces apples, peaches, asparagus, and strawberries, with more than 130 turkeys and geese running loose at opportune times to eat some pesky bugs and fertilize the fields.

Finger Lakes Cider House Kite and String

Their Kite & String cider brand is now five years old and their Pioneer Pippin cider recently won a Governor's Award from the premier state competition. They make 3,000 gallons of cider each year produced by the labor-intensive Champagne method and specialize in dry sparkling sipping cider made from regional apples. At 12% alcohol or more, this is not your mass-market cider with dubious ingredients. Rather it is something made with care that you buy to accompany good food or share with friends like a fine bottle of wine. "We have to deal with market expectations," says Melissa, "but these $18 bottles should really be $25 considering what goes into them." As we go through a tasting of Geneva Russet, Cazenovia, and Honeycrisp Ice Cider, I have a completely different view of what hard cider can be when it grows up.

Outside of Ithaca we meet another couple who took a leap of faith to follow their passions on their own terms. Leah (the brewer) and Amelia (the baker) walked away from their cocktail lounge in Ithaca and moved to the small town of Trumansburg 10 miles away, opening New York's only combination brewery and bakery: Felicia's Atomic Brewhouse. In a fitting "time to scale back" move, they are only open four days a week and they had already planned to close for a month around the Christmas/New Year's holidays. I know I'm going to like the place before we even sit down while looking at the beer board. On tap are Daydrinker Wheat, Fall Down Brown, Cry-P-A, Don't Be Bitter ESB, Atomic Blonde, and Stouty McStoutface. Leah hands us a sample of the latest she's brewing, a Reap What You Sow farmhouse ale made with local hops.

Felicia's Atomic Brewhouse and Bakery Trumansburg

We sit down for a tasting that pairs the Daydrinker Wheat with a lavender lemon cupcake, the bitter with a chocolate cupcake, and the brown ale with a salted caramel one. The brews and the pairings are both divine. Amelia tells us halfway through that the cupcakes are gluten free and dairy free. I've had some bad experiences with both those phrases before when it comes to baked goods, so these are a pleasant surprise. Their café serves mostly vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free items, but with meats from a local farm thrown in so three-generation families from this small town can be happy with the menu options.

Farm-fed in Ithaca

After this appetizer of mini cupcakes, we head into the city for a tasting tour with Ithaca is Foodies. In a typically eclectic upstate New York fashion that I'm starting to accept as normal, our first stop combines Ethiopian food with a bottle of mouth-watering pear cider from Eve's Cidery. Tour company founder Sarah Barden then takes us around downtown Ithaca by way of several cafes, an ice cream shop, an oil and vinegar shop, and the famous Moosewood Restaurant of vegetarian cookbooks fame.

Moosewood Restaurant pasta salad on Ithaca is Foodies tour

Moosewood cooperative was one of the original proponents of "farm to table," cooking in the USA. That mantle is now a standard in this area, thanks also to Coltivare Culinary Center, where nearly everything they serve is produced in the region. That includes all the beers on tap and the wines by the glass. I go about as local as you can get by ordering a Cascazilla IPA from Ithaca Beer Company. While Coltivare is a great restaurant, the "culinary center" part refers to a training center for aspiring chefs and hospitality workers.

On the tour we learn about Ithaca's history, including the possible invention of the ice cream sundae, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Carl Sagan, and the Erie Canal. Every good tour comes with some surprising factoids and here's the one I took away: there are 100 waterfalls within 10 miles of Ithaca. Don't tell the Instagrammers or they'll start flooding the place with selfie sticks.

Spoiled for Choice in Cooperstown

I expected to drink well in the university city of Ithaca. I am not expecting much though in the small town best known for the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Cooperstown. We get a good sign of things to come 10 minutes away, however, at Fly Creek Cider Mill. The gourmet gift shop is an overwhelming display of delectables that has me wishing for a $500 gift certificate and a bigger suitcase. Apparently they sell 10,000 pounds of fudge alone each year. After rows of dips, cheeses, and sausages we get to the massive cider press, in operation since 1889. It's going strong when we're there during harvest season. Each year they end up storing 5,000 frozen gallons so they can keep fermenting other months of the year. The hard cider here sold in 12-ounce bottles is sweeter and simpler than what we had at Finger Lakes Cider House, but it's still far better than anything I've ever gotten from a supermarket shelf.

The real surprise comes at Cooperstown Distillery, run by Gene Marra, a former restauranteur who clearly has a knack for producing fine spirits. If given the time, he could talk for hours about how the gin and tonic came about, the uneasy relationship between rum and the slave trade, or the evolution of American whiskey from charred barrels. He talks about his stills and distillation methods with a craftsman's pride when he goes over his small-batch, artisanal methods that the big producers abandoned long ago.

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