“Both my parents come from Germany,” says Heiko Giesberg, co-founder with his brother Jeffrey of Pfalzerbrau: the New Paltz Brewing Company. “I learned about German beer from our parents. In the early ’90s there wasn’t such a big selection of beers, but my parents were fond of bringing German beers home. We always had it around the house. I had a fascination for the pilsners and the hefeweizens. But as I got into homebrewing, I learned about other rare styles – like kellerbier, for example: an extremely rare early Franconian recipe with overtones of citrus, with fresh taste and amber in color. And after taking trips to Bamburg, where they make smoked rauch beers, I was interested in bringing these styles here and teaching our customers about them.”
The brothers started brewing beers commercially in Ulster Park as a small farmstand brewery, doing 12-gallon batches. They looked at a larger property in New Paltz (“That’s how we got our name”), but the zoning regulations there did not work out for their operation. After a couple of years, they opened shop in the current facility in Wawarsing, where the Giesbergs can produce up to ten 31-gallon barrels every week. “That’s why we’re closed Monday through Wednesday. We brew on our closed days; we’re here all the time. Last Wednesday, brewing started at 4 in the morning.”
Now in operation for the second year, the New Paltz Brewing Company remains a small family-run business. Heiko is on the job full-time, and so far they haven’t hired another hand to help with the brewing, which takes place in the garage-sized space behind the tasting room. There is outdoor seating, with a side patio where grilling and food prep takes place. Along with some tables inside, customers can sit at a counter and watch Heiko’s expert pouring methods as he pulls from a selection of a half-dozen handcrafted beers. It’s an art, he explains, tapping just the right amount of foam to give a cup a nice head while making sure customers aren’t waiting too long.
“Traditionally, we like to leverage off the carbonation of the yeast. When customers are standing in line as we fill up growlers, they don’t have the patience that they do in Germany to wait for a glass as it fills up with foam. We’ll ask, ‘Do you want it traditional-style pour with foam on top?’ For some, that’s why they come here.”
I ask about the distinction between a brewery – which is what the Giesbergs call their business – and a brewpub. “The distinction is: Where is our focus? We’re not focused on making the perfect burger. It’s really the beer. We want our people to have that experience. We have outsourced the food: gives us more time to focus only on the beermaking.
“I went to Germany to learn commercial brewing. I spent time working at a few breweries, one small pub-sized and one commercial. At one they used firewood to make their beer. I use propane, but it’s all handcrafted, using no preservatives. Beer is dynamic. Through time the taste becomes more defined. It can change. When you drink a beer that is fresh, one that hasn’t sat on a boat in different temperatures to get here, it has a fresh, distinct taste.”
Heiko serves a few customers as he elaborates on what makes New Paltz Brewing Company beer so special. “I try to go back to Germany at least every two years and keep up with things. Our beer list, in comparison with other breweries…we don’t have an IPA on tap. We typically do run a pale ale. We have bock, which is an amber lager beer: the German version of a stout. When you ferment a lager, you need to keep it in cold storage – gives it a nice, clean, crisp taste. The bock doesn’t have the fruity tones of the English stouts. They are different, and they have an attraction for different tastes.”
When asked if he recommends pairings to his customers, he talks about the subtle flavors and how they combine with a variety of foods. “For example, our kölsch can be paired with fish, smoked barbecue, pizza, salads. Our smoked beer – a rauchweitzen is one of three that we make intermittently – we’ve won gold medals. Recently I’ve been working on a smoked wheat beer. It would go excellent with manchego cheese, fish, pizza. But I’d stay away from smoked foods, barbecued foods. When you add smoke and smoke, you cancel the taste out.”
He says that the grains are smoked for these recipes, and he mentions an oak-smoked beer that they’d put in a Jack Daniels barrel that won a bronze medal from TAPS New York. “We’re in the market for more used barrels for beers we want to work on, such as one that has been filled with maple syrup. When brewers put out a ‘cherry kölsch’ or a ‘honey wheat hefeweizen’ – what I’d like to see is that they first demonstrate they can make a good beer. Show your customers you can do it before you go to the boundaries. Hefeweizen is a sensitive beer. If you don’t have your sanitation and process in line, your customers might not appreciate the flavor. It’s minimally hopped. Hops can hide irregularities, as can flavorings. We don’t put a lemon in our beer to hide anything.”
Importing grains from Germany and using New York’s famously clean water, the Giesbergs strive to replicate the Old-World recipes of their ancestors. But they experiment, too, always keeping to traditional methods. “One of our rare styles is a sauerkraut beer. In Germany we’d get hung for doing that! It goes against all their purity laws of Reinheitsgebot, adding a sauerkraut to a beer! Ours is not a beer for everyone, but we definitely have an audience who drive far and wide to enjoy it. I have travelers that come from Long Island; they hear about it, because you can’t just go to a brewery at the end of the block to find sauerkraut beer. That’s our fun side.”
Heiko talks about the correlation of the French Huguenots who settled in the area, naming the New Paltz region after the Pfalz region of Mannheim in Germany. The brothers chose the name Pfälzerbräu, meaning Brewery of the Pfalz, to pay tribute to our rich local history. “Those European settlers helped develop the area. We feel our European-style beers are best enjoyed here and work very well in complementing the area.”
Revitalizing some styles that are rare or even extinct, the Giesbergs are passionate about beers brewed as far back as the 1400s. “We are at a scale that can take more time and show our passion in our product to recreating the styles that deserve a chance to continue. We bring our spent grains to a local farmer. The cows are happy; the farmer is happy; we move it out right away.”
I asked if he and Jeffrey spoke German in their home as kids. “Yeah, growing up and getting yelled at in German: That’s how I know the language.”
The New Paltz Brewing Company will be opening the back brewing-room doors and throwing a party this weekend. Come by on Saturday from 2 to 9 p.m. for a lamb roast and special summer ale release: Summer Fun in collaboration with Cousins Ale Works, live music with Dennis Jacobs (from 6 p.m. on), foosball, cornhole, raffles and prizes for the coolest/craziest summer gear… Why wait for Oktoberfest to party?
New Paltz Brewing Company/Pfälzerbräu, Thursday/Friday, 3-8 p.m., Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., 7174 State Route 209, Wawarsing; (845) 419-3040, www.newpaltzbrewing.com, http://pfalzerbrau.com.