Trent Trulock quit his job this year as executive director of the St. Lawrence County Historical Association so he could work in a brewery in the Thousand Islands.
Derek Domingue is part of a team of beer-lovers at an eco-friendly brewery in the Louisiana Bayou, a place where they use cherry wood to give some of their brews a smoky flavor.
And Joe and Lauren Grimm are “gypsy brewers” from Brooklyn who travel the Northeastern craft brew circuit making small batch beers that tend to sell swiftly in pubs that include the Blue Monk in the Elmwood Village.
These are some of the small business people changing the face of the brewing industry across America – and among the reasons that any Western New Yorker with a passion for craft beer must make a trek to the tri-annual New York City Craft Beer Festival.
“It’s a great way to try beers,” said Domingue, sales manager for Bayou Teche Brewing in Arnaudville, La., a two-hour drive northwest of New Orleans. “It’s easier to find what you like than going out and buying a six pack of craft beer. And it’s great for us. We meet a lot of retailers, a lot of bar owners.”
Buffalo has a few fine beer festivals each year – including Buffalo Brewfest Aug. 8 at First Niagara Center – but the tug of the Big Apple provides the benefit of being able to drink a broader range of craft brews from the far corners of the U.S., including dozens of varieties from across our state.
“It’s a great craft beer market with a lot going on,” Domingue said. “The craft movement in New York has been unbelievable so we figured why not come to the festival? If we can make it here, we can make it anywhere.”
My oldest daughter, Kelsey, who worked the festival last fall while attending school on Long Island, got me tickets for Christmas to the last festival, which took place in early March and featured late winter and spring brews. The summer festival runs the weekend of June 20 in the same spot: the Lexington Armory in Manhattan, a sprawling building where the main floor space is sliced roughly in thirds to make way for 75 brewers, each offering a pair of their finest seasonal samples. (To buy tickets, which run $55 for general admission and twice that for top specialty beers in the Connoisseur Lounge, visit nyccraftbeerfest.com).
Mad Dog Presents, a music promotions company, started the festival two years ago, after Hurricane Sandy wiped out two days of what was to be a three-day Dave Matthews Band mega-show on Governors Island.
“We had to reinvent what we did as something we could do under a roof to protect us from the weather. Then somebody in the office said, ‘There’s a lot of craft beer at these rock ‘n’ roll shows.’ From that point on, we reached out to our beer contacts,” said Robert Howell, a producer with Mad Dog and its new beer arm, Handcrafted Tasting Co. “The first festival went really, really well, and everybody had a great time.”
Howell took me downstairs to the Connoisseur Lounge during the latest festival. Wall frescoes of Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers greeted me, and Willy Gantrim played bluegrass while I sipped 2-year-old Founder’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout. Bob Dylan would have felt at home in the moment.
“We like to do that style of music,” Howell said, “because we feature American craft beer.”
The festival took place during New York City Beer Week, and some of the craft brew marketing folks had seven or eight special events around the city, including the gig at Lexington Avenue and East 25th Street.
“I’ve got brewer reps out there going, ‘Oh, my liver hurts,’ ” Howell said.
The armory is so cavernous, the beer selection so vast, and the crowd so sizable that beer drinkers from any level can feel fairly comfortable here. Many visitors to the March show were yuppies, including several who wore strings of pretzels around their necks, but the age groups varied and the music spanned from the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen to Dave Matthews.
I took my weekend craft beer trip with my brother, Todd, who, like me, lives in the Northtowns. He enjoys a good scotch or vodka. I enjoy wine and beer, and have had the good fortune in recent years to get to know several of the wine and beer makers on both sides of the Western New York-Southern Ontario border.
Todd and I are frequent travelers to New York but felt a bit out of our element at a beer show in Manhattan. We were determined to try plenty of beers, but knew that 150 samples were going to be a few too many, even if we were drinking out of 2-ounce glasses.
That’s why Giancarlo and Sarah Annese were a godsend.
She grew up on Long Island, has family in Buffalo, and was a reporter at Brooklyn Eagle when she started a beer blog that is now the couple’s website, beerunion.com. He is a medievalist scholar who works as a student accounts manager at Fordham University. The couple, in their late 20s, make home brew in their Brooklyn flat. They traveled more than 4,000 miles across the state, tried 1,000 craft beers and rated their favorites in a new book, “Beer Lovers New York,” which is available on their website.
They had vending space at the festival. Among their tasting recommendations: Hot-Jala Heim, a jalapeno-flavored beer from Horseheads Brewing Co., “which goes great with a bag of chips,” Sarah said; Great South Bay Blood Orange Pale Ale, a subtly flavored beer from Great South Bay Brewery on Long Island; and I.P.W., an India Pale Ale from Upstate Brewing Co. in Elmira.
The couple also recommended we try samples from out-of-state brewers that included Bell’s, Rogue, Victor and Founders.
I focused on those stops but have to say the Bayou Teche LA 31 Boucanne was my favorite. The French-style ale is made with spalt hops and pilsner, Vienna and wheat malts, the latter of which is smoked with cherry wood shaved off trees on Louisiana farmland. The dark, smooth brew pairs well with chicken, sausage gumbo and barbecue.
Domingue called Bayou Teche, which opened on St. Patrick’s Day 2009, a “culture brewery” where the ownership likes to stay close to home for many of its ingredients.
“We’re one of the only breweries in the nation that recycles our wastewater,” he said. “Our wastewater goes into two manmade swamps built by the LSU agriculture department,” then into a crawfish pond. The brewery also gives its spent grains to cattle farmers and the crawfish, Domingue said, “so if you come out to our brewery you can see a swamp, a bayou and a crawfish pond all in one.”
Cajun music is common at the brewery and Bayou Teche has become a growing force during Mardi Gras and across the Southeast. As the brewery started to grow into other markets, it targeted New York City as its next big thing.
That tug is what makes the New York festival such a solid taste-testing ground – including for in-state craft beermakers.
That’s why St. Lawrence Brewing Co., from Canton, was at the March festival, and plans to offer samples at upcoming fests, as well, said Trulock, an investor in the brewery and a member of the sales team. He quit his old job as executive director of the St. Lawrence County Historical Association in late January.
The small North Country start-up began brewing last summer. It has six employees and in full production will be able to brew 3,500 barrels – roughly 110,000 gallons – of beer annually.
“We’re just part of that craft brew explosion in the United States,” Trulock said. “People have found out they don’t need just Bud Light, that there are other things available.”
The brewery makes four beers year-round: Maple Porter, Trulock’s favorite; Skinny Dipper, a lightly hopped IPA; Barnstormer Bohemian Pilsner; and Ruby Canoe Bock. The first two were the festival samplings. The brewery’s beer so far is available in draft and four-pack cans in Northern New York and along the eastern end of Lake Ontario. Plans are to push next into New York City and later “build out slowly” toward Buffalo and its growing craft beer market.
“There’s a groundswell in the craft beer movement,” Trulock said. “Before Prohibition, every town and city had breweries.”
Our New York City beer drinking trip didn’t stop at the festival. During our three-day visit to Manhattan, we got a $175 nightly rate – great for New York – at a mystery hotel online which turned out to be the Waldorf Astoria, and found a few Irish pubs between Park Avenue and Times Square during the first night of our visit. Was it just us, or does every bartender in those pubs speak in brogue and claim to hail from Dublin?
We also stopped after the beer festival at what I consider a top gastric haven in Manhattan: Eataly. Founded by Oscar Farinetti and inspired by, among others, Iron Chef Mario Batali, this block-long gourmet building at Fifth Avenue and West 24th Street features several pocket restaurants and stand-up dining posts, topped off by Birreria (eataly.com/nyc-birreria), a rooftop craft brew restaurant that features unfiltered, unpasteurized, casked ales made within feet of happy patrons. Skylights in the 14th-floor dining room offer glimpses of the nearby Empire State Building.
This was indeed a beer-lover’s trip, one I encourage anyone with a penchant for variety and quality when it comes to beer to consider sometime this year.
The upcoming show will focus on summer beers, Howell said, and the next show, likely in November, will feature winter brews.
Each Friday and Saturday tasting session has room for 1,200 beer drinkers. About 50 brewery workers help with the pours, as do about 75 volunteers, each of whom gets to attend a different session free for helping out.
Organizers also are looking for brewers in our neck of the woods to participate.
“As long as they have the papers to sell in New York, we’d like to have them,” Howell said. “We want to feature as many great New York beers as we can.”