Prohibition turned out to have a lasting negative impact too. The cities along the Erie Canal were major brewing centers in the 1800s, with a dozen commercial breweries in Rochester and nine in Syracuse. They all had to shut down or start making something else less popular when a bad idea became law. After Prohibition repeal came in 1933, the celebration was muted. Only five breweries reopened in Rochester and of those it's just Genesee still standing today. The Congress beer you can find on tap in the Syracuse area is made from a pre-Prohibition recipe though, providing a nice nod to the past.
It has taken eight decades for the upstate New York beer scene to get anywhere close to its former volume, but now the hop farms are coming back and this region has become one of the prime brewing areas of the country again. There are great brewpubs in every city, as well as some major brands like Empire, Middle Ages, Ommegang, and Saranac.
It's emblematic of what's happening to the cities themselves. In a way there's an economic reversion to the mean going on. Buildings and commercial land are available at very attractive prices, which is a lure for start-ups. Housing is a bargain, at a time when a home is simply out of reach in hotter markets. With so many leading universities around, there's a good pool of smart people to recruit for companies that relocate or start up here.
Plus there are the farm-to-table and farm-to-glass movements going on. You can trace much of it back to Moosewood, the cooperative restaurant and cookbook company I visited last year in Ithaca when sipping my way across New York. Now it's more common than not to see restaurants using primarily local products. With plenty of room left for farming in this vast state and government incentives to support local agriculture, it doesn't take much effort to eat and drink very well in this region. There's a cornucopia of great local cheese, baked goods from grains grown here, free range meats, and fresh fruit and vegetables picked a day or two ago. It would be possible to stock a whole commercial bar, wine cellar, and beer fridge just with New York products and have most of the bases covered.
There's still a strong "root for the underdog" feel to this region though and will be for a while. It would take a couple hundred new companies to fill all the buildings sitting empty from those manufacturers who closed or departed. It's a common lament that the best and brightest young people are tempted by the siren calls of New York City, Boston, or someplace warmer. Many of the entrepreneurs I met in the area said they got pulled back by family, or more often, the spouse's family. "The winters suck, there's no way around that," one of them complained. "But it's a whole lot cheaper to make mistakes in your business here than it is in New York City."
I stop at one point on my ride to get some lunch, then duck into Lock 32 Brewery when a sprinkle turns into a downpour. Located in the historic town of Pittsford, the brewery sits right beside the canal, with a wall of windows that would normally allow views of boats passing by. I sip a Mule Fuel double IPA and a My Old Pal cream saison while chatting with the bartender about this century's version of the canal. "In the summer this place is full of cyclists," she says. "When the boats are going by and you can sit outside, this is a great place to be."
That's what the Erie Canal zone is now: a big tourist and lifestyle draw. It has injected new life into many towns that went into decline after commercial traffic stopped. The rise in tourism gave local governments a reason to repurpose old buildings instead of tearing them down. There are river cruise ships, wine tasting boat trips, and family barges using the waterway for transportation with a view. It's possible now to bike 360 miles along the canal routes, with spokes leading off to side trails to explore.
On my ride back from the pub after the weather turned back to sprinkles, the path was now much softer and it was getting harder to keep up my speed. I looked at it as a contribution to my blood vessel bank though, a way to slow down my own inevitable decline. I visualized a meter with my blood pressure and cholesterol sitting too high, then every huff and puff from this extra exertion bringing the level down a bit toward the green zone. My original plan was to bike from Rochester to Syracuse, as a warm-up for a possible full-length trip later. Now I've learned my lesson though: biking in upstate New York is clearly a summer affair.
It turns out the canal path doesn't go through Rochester or Syracuse now anyway. The waterway did originally and I go stand in the spots where it ran in both cities. The canal ran over a bridge in Rochester though, which made less and less sense as the boats got bigger and wider. So the route changed course in 1918, moving south of Rochester. In Syracuse it moved north to make use of Lake Onondaga instead.
The Erie Canal Museum is still in downtown Syracuse though, in the spot where the boats used to pull in for weighing. It gives a great rundown of the history and has a full combination cargo and passenger boat on display to board and explore. The impressive stone City Hall is a block over from here, with the tops of imposing bank buildings that went up during the boom years poking up above the trees. I walked to what used to be the canal—now a street and park you can stand in—and tried to imagine the bustle that would have been here then.
After I had my fill of heavy pedaling in the rain, I turned my rental bike back in at RV&E Bike and Skate in Fairport. I walked over to Triphammer Brewery to try something else local before calling for a ride back to my hotel. It and the sister distillery next to it are housed in one section of a massive former canning factory that goes on for several city blocks. As I sat down for a flight of six choices from the board, owner Ed told me, "They're trying to rent out the whole building, but as you can see that's a tough job."
This place gets packed on weekend nights through and they host a four-stage music festival in the parking lot each summer. That gives some small hope that the revitalization boasts from local politicians are for real. "The eds and meds industries are doing great here," a Syracuse University alumna tells me. I see new yuppie condos going up around cool coffee shops and the new Talk in Cursive brewpub in Syracuse. Rochester now has its own full-blown hipster neighborhood that's facing gentrification worries, a sure sign of a comeback.
Unlike our aging bodies that go into steady decline after our physical peak, cities can reincarnate and start fresh again. On a trip on or along the Erie Canal, it is possible to see the 2.0 version still in progress.
If You Go:
The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor includes a vast area of 4,834 square miles and 524 miles of navigable waterways. The waterways are open May 1 through November 15. You can travel by boat or kayak, or bike along hundreds of miles of trails. For more information on the whole system see ErieCanalway.org, canals.ny.gov, or DiscoverTheErieCanal.com. For biking info see CycleTheErieCanal.com. Spend some time in the towns and villages, but for bigger bases and more things to do, check out the tourism websites for Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse.
Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning writer and the author of five travel books, including A Better Life for Half the Price, and Travel Writing 2.0. He has run the Cheapest Destinations Blog since 2003.
From Farm to Glass in the Finger Lakes of New York - Tim Leffel
Unmarked History in New York City - Chris Epting
Exploring My Pilgrim Past at Plymouth - Becky Garrison
In Canada's Forgotten First Capital - Tim Leffel
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