When America’s better-beer rebellion launched four decades ago, innovative ales were easy to ID. They were anything but the lakes of light lager bubbling across the country’s bars and grocery stores, a Bud for you and all your buds.
Toasty brown ales, caramel-rich red ales and chocolaty stouts colored outside the industry’s seemingly indelible lines, creating new mosaics of flavor and taste. The tasteful revolution was a resounding triumph, and what was once radical is now the everyday reality. Good beer has become ubiquitous.
In New York State, the Southern Finger Lakes are famed for their pioneering wineries, but the region’s breweries and cideries are the ones making left-field moves. They’re meddling with wild yeast, infusing beers with edible glitter, barrel-aging sour ales flavored with grapes from their vineyards and creating traditional British cask ales, a taste of the U.K. near the banks of Seneca Lake.
Ring Around the Lake
This scenic lake, 38 miles long, more than 600 feet deep and stocked with plentiful trout, is circled by some of the region’s most deliciously surprising breweries. Start on the eastern side of Seneca at Lucky Hare Brewing Company (6085 Beckhorn Road, Hector; 607-546-2036), which you’ll spot by the old green truck parked near New York State Route 414.
Former marine biologist Ian Conboy and his mother and stepfather, Sue and Richard Thiel, opened the brewery in May 2016. They converted a century-old barn that once contained cattle and farming equipment into a three-barrel brewhouse, serving beers such as Fruit Salad, a zingy sour ale made with seasonal local produce, and a farmhouse ale flavored with local linden flowers.
“I want to make some real wacky stuff,” says Lucky Hare brewer and project manager Tony Cordova, sitting inside the brewery’s original taproom in a converted farmhouse. (Lucky Hare operates a satellite location in Ithaca and has moved beer production to a larger facility.) “We don’t really chase trends.”
We’ll say. On our visit to the snug and warm taproom, we sipped a refreshing cream ale swirling with glitter as well an IPA smoothed out with oat milk and the magenta-hued Beeting a Dead Horse saison—brimming with organic beets. Lucky Hare complements its experimental beers with crowd-pleasers such as the sunny and citrusy Falcon Punch IPA, partly made with New York State hops, and an all-American corn lager suited for sipping outside, lake shimmering in the near distance. “We stand out by having high-quality beer and a lot of personality.”
After drinking your fill, prepare yourself for the arduous, long-haul journey to Pantomime Mixtures (3839 Ball Diamond Road, Hector; 607-378-9601), which is located… three minutes away by car. Look for the wooden barrels stacked by the side of the road, then pull into the parking lot and prep your palate for a flavor journey. Pantomime Mixtures is just a two person operation, but they’re surrounded by billions of microscopic buddies.
Jesse Perlmutter and Matt Lull run the 40-acre former vineyard as a barrel-aging facility and blendery. They source the sugar-rich grain broth called wort, the precursor to beer, then ferment it with carefully selected wild yeasts and souring bacteria, letting the microbes slowly transform the beer inside oak barrels. Weeks pass, then months. It takes time for the beers to find their voices, tingly and as delicately acid-edged as summer lemonade, fizziness fit for a Champagne flute.
“It’s our yeast doing most of the talking and producing most of the flavor of our beer,” says brewer Perlmutter. Perlmutter founded Pantomime Mixtures with Lull, friends since their freshman year at the University of Colorado, Boulder, united by a love of Phish. Out there, Perlmutter fell under the spell of sour ales and tried homebrewing them.
“I brewed three sours before actually brewing a clean beer,” he says. “I was like, ‘I should probably find out if I’m doing any of this right.’” He volunteered at breweries such as Boulder’s Upslope, an eye toward opening his own operation with Lull. Colorado, though, proved too crowded and expensive. Instead, the East Coast natives looked toward the Southern Finger Lakes, where they could own and hone their niche. “Nobody has yet been completely dedicated to barrel aging in the Finger Lakes,” Perlmutter says.
The friends spent 13 months living in a trailer, planting fruits and building their barrel-aging facility and taproom, which evokes a tiny wooden cabin, lights glowing from suspended glass bottles. Bend elbows at the bar and taste through a distinct sense of place, sour ales seasoned with the farmstead’s own grapes; the local peaches, apricots and plums that flavor And It Stoned Me; or Transitive Nightfall, a dark and brooding wild ale aged in an old port barrel from nearby Leidenfrost Vineyards. “Being able to do pretty complex and nuanced oak-aged beer is something that this area is primed for,” Lull says.
What’s Old Is Freshly Brewed
Sometimes innovation is less about looking to the future than celebrating the past. Steer south around Seneca Lake to its western shores and you’ll find Seneca Lake Brewing Company (4520 State Route 14, Rock Stream; 607-216-8369), where the house specialty is classic British-style cask ales, gently carbonated via living yeast and hand-pumped into proper pint glasses at cool cellar temperatures somewhere around 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
That’s the way the beer is meant to be served, not ice-cold and as gassed up as seltzer. “The hardest thing is when people come in and have no idea what cask ale is,” says Bradley Gillett, the principled British ex-pat. He grew up some 50 miles southwest of London, punching the clock at pubs, before a tech job took him to Texas and then New York City. With the ability to work remotely, he settled in the scenic Southern Finger Lakes, his job making it “achievable for someone like me to open a brewery,” he says.
He bought a 20-acre spread from his girlfriend’s aunt and outfitted the lakefront property with a brewery, an upscale campground with comfy canvas tents, and a Tudor-style British pub dubbed the Beerocracy. It’s decked out with dark wood, dartboards and a policy prohibiting cell phone usage, save for snapping pictures. Make a call and you’ll pay a $10 fine. “Most people obey the law,” Gillett says. “We’ve only collected $20.” (The fines went to charity.)
So pocket your phone and raise a pint of Baker Street, an agreeably malty British pale ale, or the floral Dunmore extra special bitter, flavored with New York State hops. The beers go well with the conversation and Gillett’s weekend Cornish pasties, maybe filled with Stilton cheese and stout-simmered steak, or perhaps slow-cooked leg of lamb, the baked hand pies as British as the beer. “If you’re going to do cask ale, do it properly because there’s a story behind it,” he says. “It’s too near and dear to my heart to go against my heritage.”
Put down a couple pasties before the winding, one-hour journey southwest to Cider Creek Hard Cider (6459 Cunningham Creek Road, Canisteo; 607-301-3244), part of a 2,500-acre farmstead where cattle roam, hunters can bag turkeys and deer, and Kevin Collins is putting a fresh shine on an all-American fermentation. Slowly navigate twisty, rocky Cunningham Creek Road until you reach a spacious, scratch-built building that’s by turns a tasting room and production facility, apple juice evolving into unusually elegant cider. (The company also has a second taproom in Hammondsport.)
“I wanted to start a family business that would sustain the farm,” says Collins, whose father founded the property. Collins, who began making hard cider as a hobby, uses pressed New York State apples as a template for experimentation. He ferments Saison Reserve with Belgian brewing yeast, lending an earthy underpinning and tinge of tartness, while another version is finished with cranberry and mango juices for a sharply tropical twist. Beer also meets cider in Dreams of Charlotte, flavored with strawberries, guava and honey and fermented with the same wild yeast used to produce Belgian lambics.
There’s a ton to try, so we recommend settling into a seat in the spacious taproom, ideally with one of the cidery’s pizzas and some smoked wings. When the weather is agreeable, you can sip cider on the porch in a rocking chair while kids play in the grassy field, tall trees swaying above, musicians soundtracking every afternoon. At the end of the day, a visit to Cider Creek might be the apple of everyone’s eyes, a crowd-pleasing finale for an innovative adventure.
Written by Joshua Bernstein in partnership with Finger Lakes Wine Country