From cult classics to new arrivals, Adirondack breweries are tapping into the national obsession with craft beer
by Lisa Bramen
Adirondack beer lovers, your mug is about to runneth over. All three established microbreweries within the Blue Line are thriving—even expanding—and by summer they could be joined by at least ﬁve newcomers, nearly tripling the number of breweries in the Adirondack Park.
They are opening in a former car wash in Saranac Lake, a garage in Tupper Lake, a renovated building in Schroon Lake, a farm near Keeseville. Some will have tasting rooms. Others hope their brew will be stocked on local store shelves and restaurant and bar taps. And if one Ticonderoga man gets his wish, this is all just the beginning of the Adirondacks’ transformation into the “Beervana of the East.”
The sudden influx of similar businesses is especially notable during this still-shaky economy. You have to wonder if these guys are on to something, or if they’re seeing through beer goggles.
But it’s more than coincidence. For one thing, the old chestnut about alcohol being recession proof is based in truth: a 2011 article in Forbes reported that alcohol-related industries were among the few to see growth during the economic downturn. Craft beer, in particular, is selling like crazy, with a 14 percent increase in the ﬁrst half of 2012 over the previous year. Beer lovers are willing to pay more for quality, and they want to try the local brew when they travel. Add the Adirondacks’ abundance of clean, soft water (the main ingredient in beer), and you may question why more people didn’t think of brewing in the park years ago.
As a matter of fact, they did. The ﬁrst microbrew boom arrived in the North Country in the mid-1990s. In June 1997, Bill McKibben wrote in this magazine, “Since the beginning of 1996 it’s as if someone shook a bottle and then popped the top: beer is flooding out of these mountains, with small bottlers and local brew pubs springing up in most major cities and several minor ones.”
A couple of the upstarts he mentioned have stood the test of time. Rob Kane had just launched Lake City Brewing (now Great Adirondack) to supply beer for his restaurants in Lake Placid and Plattsburgh (the latter is now closed). A few months later, Chris Ericson bought P. J. O’Neill’s, a bar on Mirror Lake, and opened a brewpub on the building’s second floor; it would become Lake Placid Pub & Brewery.
But others didn’t make it. Lake Titus Brewery, on Route 30 between Paul Smiths and Malone, was the ﬁrst microbrewery in the North Country, open from 1995 to 1999. Adirondack Trail Brewing Company, south of Old Forge in Forestport, had an even briefer run.
Since then, several developments have made New York more brewery-friendly. In June 2012 Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that gave tax breaks to small craft brewers. The bill also introduced a farm brewery license, meant to promote the use of New York ingredients and create tourism opportunities.
Only time will tell how the latest crop of breweries will fare, but all express optimism that this park is big enough for the lot of them. The consensus among newbies and oldtimers alike is the more the merrier, because, as Rob Kane Jr., head brewer at Great Adirondack, says, “Beer geeks travel.” And if they’ll go out of their way to visit one microbrewery, they’ll be even more likely to come for a handful.
Great Adirondack Brewery
Until Blue Line Brewery opened in Saranac Lake in December 2012, Great Adirondack was the micro-est of the microbreweries in the park. Its seven-barrel brew system is right behind the Kanes’ popular Lake Placid restaurant, Great Adirondack Steak & Seafood, and beers are piped directly into the cozy, wood-paneled bar. Flavors such as John Brown Ale, Adirondack Abbey Ale and Whiteface Stout are available on tap at the restaurant and a few other local establishments.
Twenty-eight-year-old Rob Kane Jr. took over the brewery last year (his dad, Rob Sr., still runs the restaurant), after returning from ﬁve years in the Marines and two tours in Iraq. He was 12 in 1996, when his father decided to add microbrews to the menu.
As Rob Sr. tells it, the restaurant, a Main Street mainstay since 1987, was doing well, but when he saw hundreds of people paying good money for craft beers at Burlington’s Vermont Pub and Brewery, he had an epiphany. “We’ve got to get into this business,” he recalls thinking, “because, basically, beer is water.”
His son has plans to expand the brewery, possibly with a larger offsite production facility that would allow them to increase their restaurant and bar accounts and start bottling or—his preference—canning their beer for retail sales. Despite their low-brow reputation, cans have come into favor with some craft brewers, in part because they keep beer fresher longer.
Kane Jr. was also involved in organizing the village’s ﬁrst brewfest, which drew 600-plus visitors to the Olympic Center last October. They sampled wares from more than 20 breweries from the park and beyond and enjoyed distinctly Adirondack touches like an indoor campﬁre with s’mores.
Lake Placid Pub & Brewery
In 1996 Chris Ericson went looking for somewhere to open his business—in a mountain town with a good vibe that “should have had a brewpub but didn’t,” he says. He found a three-story building on Lake Placid’s Mirror Lake, with a popular bar, P. J. O’Neill’s, in the basement and space for a brewpub upstairs. It was perfect—the established business meant there was already a customer base and tax records that would help him and his business partner get loans, and the vacant floor meant they could start their brewpub with a blank slate.
Ericson was 24 and ambitious. In a few years he had worked his way up from washing kegs at Kennebunkport Brewing Company to brewing beer there and in Portland, Maine, to becoming head brewer at The Shed, a brewpub in Stowe, Vermont. Three years after opening Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, he bought out his partner. In 17 years, he says, the company has grown every year, and this year it’s ﬁnally expanded to the third floor, where there’s additional seating, room for private parties and a larger-capacity brewery.
These days, head brewer Kevin Litchﬁeld crafts most of the new recipes. Lake Placid Brewery’s most popular beer is Ubu, an English-style strong ale that Ericson says deﬁes comparison. The potent brew—it’s seven-percent alcohol—was named for an 120-pound chocolate Lab that belonged to a P. J.’s regular. When First Lady Hillary Clinton was campaigning for the Senate in New York in 1999, White House staffers came to the pub. They bought the Clintons an Ubu T-shirt and a growler in honor of First Dog Buddy, who was the same breed as the beer’s namesake. The president apparently liked it because, soon after, Ericson received a phone call from the White House asking for three cases to be shipped there for a party.
All of the beer served in the brewpub is made on site, but the rest—bottles and kegs distributed for retail, restaurant and bar sales—is now brewed by F. X. Matt, in Utica, and Otter Creek, in Vermont. Until 2010 Ericson operated his own production brewery in Plattsburgh, but “I couldn’t nearly keep up with the demand,” he says, and scaling up didn’t make economic sense. Besides, he adds, he prefers focusing on the heart of his business, interacting with patrons.
It’s the reason he opened a brewpub rather than a brewery. “I had an inkling from my experiences elsewhere that we needed to put a lot of stock into spending time with customers,” he says. When he went from working in a brewpub in Maine to working in a production brewery, “the coolness stopped,” he says. “The brewery was a factory that happened to make beer.”
Adirondack Pub & Brewery
Before John Carr opened Adirondack Pub & Brewery in Lake George, in 1999, he says, “three banks turned us down because craft beer was ‘a passing trend.’ True story.” Nearly 14 years later, business is so good that Carr recently completed an expanded brewing facility that allows him to bottle enough beer to supply shelves from Kingston to the Canadian border. It was important to him to keep production local so that he could maintain ﬁner control, guarantee the freshest product and provide year-round jobs in a seasonal town where they’re rare.
Carr got his taste for good beer when he spent a few years living in Europe. “I grew to like drinkable, balanced, European-style beers,” he says. “Once I came home, I couldn’t ﬁnd or afford them, so I wanted to try to brew them myself.”
After a decade of home brewing and a stint volunteering at a Salt Lake City microbrewery, he decided to open his own brewpub. He and his girlfriend (now wife) were living in Vermont but thought her hometown, Lake George, was a good place to start his business. “I really liked Lake George and it did not have a brewery,” he says. “Towns with lakes and mountains are great places for brewpubs.”
Carr describes the beers Adirondack Brewery produces as drinkable and balanced like European beers, but hop-forward like American ones. The brewery’s most popular is Bear Naked Ale, an American amber ale that he calls “an out-on-the-lake kind of beer.”
Some of Adirondack Brewery’s most unusual beers result from being aged in bourbon, applejack, New York red wine or lightly toasted oak barrels, which gives them a distinctive flavor. A good time to try these specialty brews is during its annual Barrel Fest in January, with tastings and bonﬁres on Lake George’s Canada Street.
Carr’s local focus extends to some ingredients. He uses cider from Hick’s Orchard, in Granville, in a seasonal beer called App-Ale, and New York State honey in his Moose Wizz root beer. A stout is made with coffee beans roasted at nearby Caffé Vero. But hops and grains are another story. Though New York was once the country’s largest producer of hops, the combination of blight, aphids, price fluctuations and Prohibition meant they all but disappeared here by the mid-20th century. With the new farm brewery legislation and other statewide efforts, Carr and the other Adirondack brewers hope that will change soon. “I can envision a day when New York State farmers are producing speciﬁc New York State hops for New York State beers,” he says.
No one is more excited about the region’s brewing potential than Ken Tucker, of Ticonderoga, who has made it his life’s ambition to “turn the Adirondacks into Bavaria. Or the Czech Republic”—a place where every village, no matter how small, has its own brewery.
Tucker, 61, ﬁgures he is in his “last quarter”; he’d like his legacy to be a thriving Adirondack industry built on one of our greatest resources: abundant, constitutionally protected clean water with few of the minerals that can alter a beer’s flavor. He points out that beer production is also a good ﬁt for this park because it’s gentle on the environment and could provide good jobs that would allow families to make a living here.
Not that he has immediate plans to be a brewer himself. Instead, he is some combination of salesman, consultant, booster and entrepreneur. He hopes to lure international investors to Adirondack beer enterprises through the federal EB-5 program, which gives green cards to foreign nationals who help create American jobs, as Jay Peak, in Vermont, has done successfully. Through his Adirondack Brewers’ Coalition, Tucker wants to set up a distribution company that would help small brewers get their products out regionally. He also envisions a regional contract brewery just outside the Blue Line that could help small brewers scale up their production beyond what might be viable on their own.
A Bevy of Brewers
Interestingly, none of the newcomers are following the beer-plus-food model that’s proven successful for the established brands. Paul Mrocka, one of the founders of Paradox Brewing, set to open soon in Schroon Lake, says, “I don’t want to be in the restaurant business,” a sentiment echoed by several of the other fledgling brewers.
What they do want, for the most part, is to turn their hobby—only one has professional brewing experience, though most are home brewers—into a business that allows them to live and work in the Adirondacks while doing something they enjoy. “You have to do what you love,” says Mark Gillis, of Saranac Lake’s Blue Line Brewery. With a smirk, he adds, “Now, when my wife says, ‘You smell like a brewery,’ I can say, ‘Of course!’”
Gillis moved his family from Westchester County to Saranac Lake in 2011 to give his kids the same kind of small-town upbringing he had in southeastern Massachusetts. When he ﬁrst visited, he says he was surprised to learn that Saranac beer wasn’t brewed here—a common misconception—but in Utica, by F. X. Matt Brewing, and that the village didn’t have its own microbrewery. He had dabbled in home brewing and thought a craft brewery might be a good sideline to, and eventual replacement for, the ﬁnancial-management ﬁrm he co-owned. As it turned out, he made the transition more quickly than planned, after he was sanctioned by the industry oversight board in November 2012.
Weeks later he opened Blue Line Brewery in the former Carcuzzi car wash on a busy commercial stretch of Route 86. His tasting room is open four days a week, with a rotating selection that includes his Winter Ginger and a black lager made with local honey, Forest Home Black. For now he’s selling mostly by the growler, though he drummed up his ﬁrst bar account in a local watering hole in Champlain, where his half-keg of pale ale sold out in a few days.
Paradox Brewery, in Schroon Lake, is the brainchild of Paul Mrocka, a seasonal resident of Paradox Lake whose home brews were so popular with friends and neighbors he ﬁnally decided to go pro. He and his business partners, David Bruce and Vaughn Clark, plan to open this spring in a renovated building Clark owns on Route 9. Paradox’s labels are designed to look like Adirondack trail markers and carry names such as Beaver Bite IPA and Black Fly Porter. Though they hope the business will grow, for now, Mrocka says, “we’re doing this for the fun.”
Mark Jessie and Joe Hockey, partners in Raquette River Brewing Company, are the brewing equivalent of a garage band. Once they are licensed, they’ll operate out of a rental property on a dead-end Tupper Lake street. Jessie, a corrections ofﬁcer and dedicated home brewer, plans to retire this summer and devote ﬁve days a week to crafting his signature suds, which they’ll sell in 22-ounce bottles. Hockey will assist with brewing and marketing part-time.
The pair plan to have four core varieties, including an IPA, plus rotating specialty beers, like a strawberry-cilantro wheat beer and a wheat beer made with the herb pineapple sage, using local ingredients whenever possible. “You have to be fresh,” Jessie says. “People want something new all the time.”
The partners say their plan is a go regardless of what happens with the Adirondack Club and Resort (ACR), a huge development approved last year by the Adirondack Park Agency but now stalled by a lawsuit ﬁled by environmental groups. ACR or not, Jessie says, “Things are happening in Tupper Lake—the Wild Center, the observatory.” In December 2012, industrial design students from Syracuse University presented their ideas for creative reuse of Tupper’s former Oval Wood Dish factory; two had to do with beer. “I felt kind of vindicated,” Jessie says.
They’re not the only ones who think Tupper’s ready for its own beer. Partners in Big Tupper Brewing, who include ACR developer Tom Lawson and Jim LaValley, chairman of Tupper-based ARISE (Adirondack Residents Intent on Saving their Economy), are hoping to release their ﬂagship beer once their licensing comes through. In a nod to the town’s French-Canadian inﬂuence, the beer is named IPA “Eh” and its tagline is “Say it like a Frenchman. Drink it like an Adirondacker.” The recipe comes from Tupper home brewer Ricky LaFlamme, but they plan to have it brewed and bottled by one of the park’s established breweries. To begin with the partners are hoping local stores will stock their beer. LaValley says the goal is to have their own facility in Tupper within three to ﬁve years. And if the ACR comes to fruition, a brewpub is a possibility down the line, he says. “The brewpub model is popular in resort towns.”
Brothers Dan and Dylan Badger are the outliers of the bunch, ﬁguratively and literally. The location of their proposed rural brewery Ausable Brewing Company—on 140 acres outside of Keeseville—is hardly one of the park’s tourism hot spots. But 28-year-old Dan completed the University of California at Davis Master Brewer Program and has worked in breweries on both coasts—most recently at Long Trail Brewing Company, in Bridgewater, Vermont—and Dylan, 23, is a farmer. They’re banking on the appeal of a place that grows much of its own hops and grains, as they hope to do, taking advantage of the new farm brewery license. Under the legislation, an eligible brewery must source 20 percent of its non-water ingredients from New York, increasing to 60 percent by 2018.
The Badgers grew up in Potsdam and lived in Vermont until recently. They chose to set up their business on this side of Lake Champlain, though. “The new legislation makes [New York] attractive,” Dan says. “Plus it isn’t already saturated with breweries.”
Not yet, anyway.
Drinking It All In
Adirondack Pub & Brewery
33 Canada Street, Lake George; (518) 668-0002; www.adkbrewery.com
Recent awards: Black Watch IPA, third place best IPA, 2011 Great International Beer & Cider Competition; Dirty Blonde Ale, third-best craft beer in the Hudson Valley, Tap NY 2010
Blue Line Brewery
555 Lake Flower Avenue, Saranac Lake; (518) 354-8114; www.bluelinebrew.com
Great Adirondack Brewery
2442 Main Street, Lake Placid; (518) 523-1629; www.adksteakandseafood.com/brewery
Recent awards: Whiteface Black Diamond Stout, silver medal, Great American Beer Festival (GABF) 2012; Kolsch, silver medal, GABF 2011
Lake Placid Pub & Brewery
813 Mirror Lake Drive, Lake Placid; (518) 523-3813; www.ubuale.com
Recent awards: KB’s Wee Heavy, best beer in the Hudson Valley, Tap NY 2012; Ubu Ale, silver medal, people’s choice, 2012 Lake Placid Brewfest