When it comes to being a beer snob, I fall somewhere in the low midrange: I’d sooner drink seltzer than Bud, and my ears twitch with interest whenever I overhear the word “microbrew.” But I couldn’t, by a long shot, sip an unidentified sample and tell you what varieties of hops were used in it. This puts me in the enviable position of treating each new tasting as an educational experience. It also heightens my appreciation for the proliferation of new farm breweries and brewpubs in the Hudson Valley (and other regions of New York State) over the past few years. The possibilities for new discoveries in the beer world seem nearly endless these days.
So, with warm weather coming on soon, and with it an onslaught of outdoor festivals, I figured that it was high time to check out the mass brewfest experience. For breweries, the season launches at Hunter Mountain at the end of April with the TAP New York Craft Beer & Food Festival. The 2018 gathering that I attended last weekend was the 21st year running, making TAP NY itself old enough, technically speaking, to drink legally.
Originally a brainchild of the Culinary Institute of America, the event is New York State’s largest craft beer festival, the largest single-state craft beer festival in the nation and was voted the Fifth Best Beer Festival in the country by USA Today readers. It’s supposedly limited to breweries headquartered within the state, although I did spot one New Jersey-based outlier that had somehow sneaked in. The main lodge at Hunter was surrounded by a maze of tents, providing pouring room for 127 craft breweries, along with craft, souvenir and packaged gourmet food vendors and a variety of places to grab a free snack to slow down your absorption of alcohol from all those enticing beer samples.
Live rock music emitted from an outdoor bandstand in the intervals when it wasn’t raining, and the less-than-ideal weather did nothing to deter the crowds. Thousands of beer-fanciers were on hand – some genially inebriated by late afternoon, others more focused on the serious business of educating their palates. Most everyone seemed to be having a good time. Traveling to the festival in a group that dresses in some peculiar way so that they can find each other easily – such as a Rockland County party of seven I met, four of whom were wearing Viking helmets – seems to be a “thing.” Bringing one’s own necklace of pretzels to nibble between beer samples to clear one’s palate, rather than shell out five bucks to buy one from the pretzel-necklace vendor, is another traditional trick to be learned from veteran festivalgoers.
Wandering about in quest of medium-weight ales, wheat beers, porters and stouts, I sampled a couple of this weekend’s medal-winners, purely by accident: Rip Van Winkle Brewing’s Silver-winning Kiskatom Brown Ale and Hudson Brewing Co.’s Gold-winning Tainted Señorita Stout (in the Irish-Style Stout category – go figure). Of the top prizes for 2018, the F. X. Matt Memorial Cup for Best Craft Beer Brewery in New York State went to the District 96 Beer Factory in New City; the Matthew Vassar Brewers’ Cup for Best Craft Beer Brewery in the Hudson Valley to the Mad Jack Brewing Co. of Schenectady; the Governors’ Brewers’ Cup for Best Craft Beer in New York State for There and Back Again Sour Cherry from Equilibrium in Middletown; and the John Calen Memorial Award for Best Strong Ale in New York State to Oak Strong Ale from the Woodland Brewing Co. of Utica.
With so many brews to choose from, some things I selected simply on account of their fanciful names. God Complex, an Imperial stout from North Brewery in Endicott, was remarkably hot and spicy. An excellent oatmeal stout called Portly Gentleman came from the Steelbound Brewery, just opening its doors officially this week in Ellicottville. Triskaidekaphobia, a tasty English-style strong ale named for its 13 varieties of hops, came from my candidate for the catchiest company name in the bunch: the Brewery of Broken Dreams, located in Hammondsport. Even its logo, a weeping loon, is pretty cool. It’s one of many newish breweries in the Finger Lakes, formerly known “merely” as wine country; nowadays one could spend a busy vacation week doing a beer-focused pub crawl there.
Mostly I concentrated on brands that are hard to find in Hudson Valley tasting rooms, brewpubs and beer stores. But in passing by the Ommegang booth (Cooperstown), I couldn’t resist asking if they had brewed up any limited-edition batches especially for the occasion. I’m glad I did: Their Bourbon Barrel-Aged Vanilla Smoked Porter was one of the most delightful things I tasted at TAP NY. Smoked beers, in fact, seem to be a hot new trend, along with aging beers in retired liquor barrels. Eldred-based Shrewd Fox Brewery actually ages its Single-Malt Scotch Barrel-Aged Amber Ale in Laphraoig barrels, and you can taste the Isle of Islay in every sip.
Am I beginning to wax lyrical? I guess so – and I haven’t had a brew all day. Something tells me my TAP NY experience is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. See you there in 2019 – or at some other Hudson Valley brewfest this very summer.