NY Brewers Roar in Albany
Prison City celebrates winning the Governor’s Excelsior Cup with their Wham Whams barrel-aged imperial stout.
by Tony Forder
The mother of all Craft Brewers Conferences will take place in Denver April 8-11. But for brewers and breweries that maybe can’t take the time or afford the cost of travel and attendance at the national CBC, the Mother has spawned Craft Brewing Conferences sponsored by state associations all over the country.
One such just wrapped up in Albany, NY. It was the 2nd Annual NY Craft Brewers Conference held at the Desmond Hotel.
Organized by New York State Craft Brewers Association (NYSBA), it hosted almost 500 registrants, a big jump from its first conference a year ago. Executive Director Paul Leone makes no bones about the fact that they totally copied the template of the national CBC including – Welcome Reception, Trade Exhibitors, Seminars, and Awards Ceremony, “because they do it so good.” And just as at the CBC, the beer flowed freely.
“We want all the brewers to be here,” Leone said. “We want them to learn, we want them to network – camaraderie is a big part of it, the exhibit hall is a big part of it. If they can’t afford to go the main CBC then this is an alternative.”
Some industry veterans participating on a Legacy panel talked about how far craft beer has come in a short time. Nick Matt, Chairman and CEO of Matt Brewing Co. remembers tough times when there were only four breweries operating in Upstate New York – “Us, Genesee in Rochester and one Anheuser-Busch plant and one Miller near Syracuse.” He said when they entered a new beer, Saranac, in the Great American Beer Festival and it won, the brewery changed its focus and their fortunes changed. His nephew, outgoing NYCBA President Fred Matt put it this way. “We have seen the NYS brewery community thrive, shrink and now thrive again.”
Keynote speaker Steve Hindy, Co-Founder and Chairman of Brooklyn Brewery, alluded to the first CBC conferences he attended 30 years ago with only 300 participants “with the same crazy idea we had.”
David Katleski, Empire Brewing Co. Founder and President, and Founder of the NYSBA remembered when he ran the fledgling state organization “it seemed like we had about $80 in the budget for years.” Now the organization has about 65% membership among the state’s 424 registered brewers. And most are relative newcomers. A show of hands saw the majority less than 10 years old, and a good many less than five.
Curtis Johnson, who just celebrated the first year of his Long Lot Farm Brewery in Chester, NY, was attending his first conference. “It’s fantastic,” he said. “The vendors are great, the seminars are great – all around awesome.”
There is no doubt the state is flourishing in terms of brewery openings. But even with an agriculture and beverage friendly Governor – Andrew Cuomo instigated Taste NY to help promote craft wineries, distilleries, cideries and breweries – there are still plenty of challenges.
One of the biggest appears to be that New Yorkers in general are slow to support their new local brews. Both outgoing association President Fred Matt and incoming President Chris Ericson bemoaned figures that show that NY craft breweries have only 5 to 6% of the state’s beer market. Other highly developed craft beer states like Vermont and Oregon are in the 30-40% range. (Although it must be said that the cosmopolitan nature of New York City may skew the stats a little). The flip side is that there appears to be plenty of opportunity for growth.
Nick Matt made the point that if a NY IPA had preempted a New England IPA, “that could have been huge. New York State is not getting the notoriety.” On the positive side he said, “One of the things that doesn’t get brought up enough is…think of how many jobs we’ve created. And these are good jobs – for people to work in a brewery.”
Another concern voiced by Fred Matt was tasting rooms. “He warned pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered” and he suggested limiting hours so as not to hurt other retail establishments. Ericson also warned of the sheen coming off the tasting room craze.
Keynote speaker Hindy brought a national perspective from the BA where he has been a long time board member. He stressed the importance of unity, noting that some states have seen a split in their guilds between large and small craft brewers. “In unity, there is strength,” he said. “We are small business at its best.”
He cited recent BA successes such as the rollback of the excise tax as a big benefit for small brewers, but noted that the tax change is thus far only temporary. He said he supported the BA’s creation of a PAC to represent small brewers. He also told an entertaining story about a visit from the mob in NYC when building Brooklyn Brewery.
Sixty-five vendors offering supplies, equipment and business services were spread throughout the hotel’s colonial-style courtyards. Seminars covered two dozen different topics ranging from brewhouse related topics like water chemistry, yeast management and dry hopping to business – financial planning, accounting, legislative updates, labor laws, packaging, distribution – to operations – farm brewing, tasting room design, restaurant operations and employee management.
On the topic of farm brewing, it was mentioned there are some efforts to renegotiate the 60% NY State ingredient requirement that went into effect this year. One such beer was included in the keynote toast – a 16-oz can of Brew York Pale Ale from Ithaca Brewing Co. It features 100% New York hops (Chinook, Cascade and Centennial) and 67% New York malt.
The conference got off to a contemporary start at the Welcome Reception with an acoustic performance by the 2015 winner of The Voice, Sawyer Fredericks. (Note: I saw this young phenom perform on the streets on Saratoga Springs five years ago at the age of 15).
Following the conference, the hotel’s floor space – outdoor covered courtyards and indoor ballrooms – were converted to a beer festival featuring 75 breweries from all over New York State and 1600 attendees.
The highlights of the 3rd annual New York State Craft Beer Competition announced in an enthusiastic, if not raucous award ceremony included:
- Governor’s Craft Beer Cup was awarded to Prison City Pub & Brewery (Auburn) for their Wham Whams in the experimental beer category.
Brewery of the Year was awarded to the Brewery at the CIA for the brewery with the highest cumulative of all beers entered.
Most Medals Won:
- (3) medals were won by Prison City Pub & Brewery, Auburn NY, Lunkenheimer Craft Brewing, Weedsport NY, and Threes Brewing Brooklyn, NY
- Two (2) medals were won by 11 breweries
This year the most-entered category was Hazy IPA with 82 entries. The top five entered categories were:
- Hazy IPA (82 entries)
- Fruit and Spice Beer – non-sour (68 entries)
- Light Lagers (66 entries)
- American IPA (52 entries)
- Barrel Aged (non-Sour) (42 entries)
- 420 Breweries in New York State
- 813 beers entered
- 53 medal-winning breweries
- 74 total medals awarded
- 25 style categories judged, plus Governor’s Excelsior Cup
- 56 judges from across NYS
- Out of the 813 entries, 353 entries qualified as NYS labeled beer under the 2018 law of at least 20% NYS hops and 20% NYS malt