By: Joshua M. Bernstein

Breweries use native hops, grains, and fruit to create authentic farm-to-pint experiences

“Drink local” might be American craft brewing’s most confusing rally cry. For all of the boosterism, breweries regularly source raw materials from multiple continents, spinning British grains, New Zealand hops, and Florida oranges into “local” beers with a Bigfoot-sized carbon footprint.

Across the fertile Southern Finger Lakes, however, local beer often offers truth in its advertising. Breweries are digging into the region’s agricultural assets to create beers that, just like wines made with native grapes, speak with a distinct accent. You could call it terroir, but Marty Mattrazzo prefers “farm fresh from ground to glass.”

It’s his motto for The FarmHouse Brewery (17 Lake Street, Owego; 607-227-2676), which specializes in beers starring New York State grains, hops, and produce, including beets, tomatoes, basil, and acorn squash. “We’re not just like the next brewery down the road,” Mattrazzo says.

Beers The FarmHouse Brewery
Beers courtesy The FarmHouse Brewery

His commitment to using native ingredients for beer started soon after he moved to the region in 2008, purchasing a 43-acre farm with his wife, Natalie. “The first winter I was like, ‘I need something to do on Saturdays,’” he says. “So I brewed every weekend for the first winter. The second winter, I was like, ‘What’s the next level of difficulty?’”

He began malting his own grain, the process of transforming barley into sugar-rich malt, a.k.a. beer’s foundational ingredient. In 2012, Mattarazzo opened a malthouse—the state’s first since Prohibition—to meet regional breweries’ burgeoning need for New York State malt. A state legislature law incentivized breweries to use indigenous ingredients the following year, rewarding producers with a farm brewery license. (Holders can open up to five locations and also serve New York State wine and spirits.)

Mattarazzo opened the FarmHouse Brewery in 2014, using his own grain to buck convention. The family-friendly Owego taproom (and the second location southeast of Rochester, in Victor) features a fast-changing range of produce-spiked beers such as a saison seasoned with ginger, an easy-drinking cream ale brewed with carrots, and the rhubarb-strawberry Rhub Hollar, made for Owego’s annual Strawberry Festival. Each beer is listed on the menu with the percentage of New York State ingredients it contains, likely something in season. “We have a good relationship with farmers,” Mattarazzo says, “and they’ll call and say, ‘We’ve got too much of this. What do you want to do with it?’”

Local Hops The FarmHouse Brewery
Local Hops courtesy The FarmHouse Brewery

Next, buckle up for a 60-mile ride northeast, swinging around the western side of Seneca Lake, till you’re planted at Climbing Bines Hop Farm and Craft Ale Company (511 Hansen Point Road, Penn Yan; 607-745-0221). New York State was once America’s epicenter of hops, the flowering cones that make IPAs smell and taste so great. The twin forces of plant disease and Prohibition sent production packing to the Pacific Northwest, but newer farm breweries such as Climbing Bines are helping revive the historic regional tradition.

Here, Chris Hansen teamed with friends Brian Karweck and Matt Klehamer to turn his great-grandfather’s farm into a must-stop destination for hop connoisseurs. The scenic property features nearly two acres of hop fields growing aroma-focused cultivars including Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook, many of which are used in the farmstead’s homegrown pale ales and IPAs. It’s pretty peaceful to sip a few hoppy brews while playing nine holes on the disc-golf course, before switching to a tart cherry beer featuring fruit grown just north at Red Jacket Orchards.

Climbing Bines
Cagwin Photography

After that, put those hops and Seneca Lake in the rearview mirror and drive about 10 miles to a road flanked with lush vineyards that leads to the big red barn housing the geothermal-powered Abandon Brewing Company (2994 Merritt Hill Road, Penn Yan; 585-704-7989). Inside the 19th century barn, carefully restored by skilled local Mennonite carpenters, you’ll find soaring ceilings, live music, and crowd pleasing beers ranging from an English dark mild to an imperial stout aged in former rye whiskey barrels, each one offering a distinct taste of place. “We use almost 100 percent New York State ingredients,” says A.J. Noto, an owner. (The brewery also has a farmhouse AirBnB for visitors wishing to overnight.)

Head brewer Jeffrey Hillebrandt previously worked at Brewery Ommegang, and you’ll note that Belgian influence in his dark, rich dubbel and low-alcohol Session Saison, given rustic complexity with Brettanomyces yeast. Hillebrandt also does well by double IPAs such as Reckless Abandon, which features native hops; fruited sours; and elegant ciders pressed from locally grown apples—no concentrate here. “We don’t use any purées,” Noto says. “Our fruits and vegetables are fresh.”

Outdoors Tasting Abandon Brewing Company
Cagwin Photography

Work through a tasting flight while on the deck, drinking up panoramic views of Keuka Lake, before driving 20 minutes southwest to Steuben Brewing Company (10286 Judson Road, Hammondsport; 607-332-3000). The eight-acre spread, also overlooking the lake, sits on Chad Zimar’s former family vineyard. Its trellises have been gone for several decades now, replaced by fermentation tanks that head brewer Zimar, a former chef and teacher, fills with his brewing vision.

Outdoors Tasting Steuben Brewing
Evan Williams

“I became interested in finding [out] if there is terroir in beer just like there is in wine,” says Zimar, whose dad is a retired winemaker. The brewery’s Local Liquid series of beers, including IPAs, stouts, and lagers, are exclusively made with Empire State hops and grains, and the names of growers such as Pedersen Farms and Crooked Creek Hops Farm are prominently featured on can labels. It’s all part of Zimar’s mission to show drinkers that beer comes from farmers toiling to grow the ingredients. “We embrace the variation of the crops,” he says.

Crooked Creek Hops Farm
Crooked Creek Hops Farm

This means that harvests will yield slight differences annually, providing unique opportunities for visitors to return, year after year, and taste Mother Nature’s minute changes in each beer. “We’ve got world-class grain grown right here,” Zimar says. Drink it up.

Written by Joshua Bernstein in partnership with Finger Lakes Wine Country