A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

A Refreshing Renaissance: Beer and cider flooding locavore scene with locally grown ingredients

by Anne Pyburn Craig   

May brings with it the beginning of the season for refreshing cold drinks consumed outdoors. If you like yours loaded with flavor and packing a bit of a kick, you’re living in the right place and in glorious times. The ancient delights of handmade beer and hard cider are bubbling up all around the region, fresh notes in the harmony of locavorism and culinary wizardry that’s increasingly known as a trademark of the Hudson Valley and Catskills.

The final weekend in April saw the 2014 edition of the TAP New York Festival take over Hunter Mountain. Like so many delicious regional doings, TAP got its start at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, drawing a few brewers and a couple of hundred serious beer people; by the turn of the century, the “Hudson Valley Beer and Food Festival” was ready for a bigger venue and a more inclusive name. This year’s TAP New York welcomed well over seventy brewers and thousands of eager connoisseurs and brewing hobbyists; one Huffington Post writer has proclaimed brew-fests to be the New Rock Concert.

Cider, meanwhile, is the carefully chosen focus of the Apple Project, a branding initiative undertaken by Glynwood, the nonprofit farm-and-more based in Cold Spring. The Apple Project, envisioned as probably the best hope for stopping the loss of the Hudson Valley’s orchard lands, includes an educational relationship with a French cider region, a Cider Route to quite literally put local producers on the map, and Cider Week, a late October celebration that brings together crafters and aficionados from New York and beyond in (fittingly enough) the Big Apple.

Both libations go way back in the mists of time. Using fermentation to make bread and beer is thought to be one of the factors that wrought stable settlements from roving bands, and cider was around when the Normans came to Britain. Both were also staples in the Medieval European and Colonial American diet. When water was unsafe, a tankard of cider or ale could start your day off right and quench any thirsts that arose as the working day wore on—not practical with distilled spirits. Even the prissier Founding Fathers were cider fans.

When Prohibition arrived, these mellower intoxicants were easier to suppress than their more potent cousins. Cider in particular fell right off the gastronomic map; cider apple trees were torched by prohibitionists, and strict limits were placed on the amount of sweet cider that could be produced. So much for all of Johnny Appleseed’s hard work.

Cider Rebounds
It was left to folks like Jason Grizzanti of the Warwick Valley Winery to resurrect “hard” cider as an all-American staple, dancing on the line where farmer meets foodie meets gourmet beverage. Warwick’s products have been favorably compared to the best Europe has to offer. “The pear and raspberry are to die for and are absolutely unique!” raves Carlo De Vito, author of Wineries of the East Coast. “These two ciders rate with the great Belgian ale house, Lindemann’s, whose fruit ales are among the best in the world.”

“We started growing apples and making apple juice, then moved into hard cider and wine; one thing led to another and we became the first distillery in the Hudson Valley making fruit brandies,” says Grizzanti. “It’s been twenty years this year since we began with cider. It’s one of our flagship products.”

Doc’s Draft Hard Cider was developed at Warwick through trial and error and has been instrumental in putting New York cider back on America’s drinking map. “It’s really taken off over the last few years,” Grizzanti says. “People didn’t know what it was, weren’t seriously interested in drinking it. Then came the craft beer revolution. It took a little longer for cider people to get on board, but they have.” One hundred fifty thousand gallons a year are now distributed in 22 states.

Notorious cider-snarfer John Adams might weep for joy at Warwick’s selection. A beverage must be primarily apple-based to be labeled “cider”; that doesn’t stop the crafty Warwick folks from experimenting. “Plum, raspberry, sour cherry, black currant, pear, hopped cider—to pick a favorite, that’s like asking me to pick my favorite child,” says Grizzanti. “We invent recipes based on things we like and hopefully other people like them. We’re working on some novel, bizarre things right now, but I wouldn’t want to say what before we’re ready…Glynwood’s  Apple Project is great. There are getting to be more people interested all the time.”

For the last quarter-century, Elizabeth Ryan, fruit grower and local entrepreneur extraordinaire, has owned and operated Breezy Hill Orchard and Cider Mill in Staatsburg, Dutchess County. This property produces over a hundred varieties of apples and other fruit as well as dozens of artisan food products and, of course, cider. 

On April 28, Ryan expanded her fruit dominion considerably when she purchased Stone Ridge Orchard from Dan Hauspurg. The property is a 200-year-old working farm, one of the last great orchards in the Rondout Valley. It has long been a favorite spot for family outings, casual dates, and school outings, frequented by locals and tourists alike. However, in the last decade it has been under threat of development. Ryan’s purchase of the scenic 114-acre property will allow the orchard to continue as a working farm. 

Ryan has her hands in a multitude of farm and food enterprises including farm stands, u-pick operations, a bakery, and a thriving hard cider business, many of which she expects to continue to develop on the Stone Ridge Property.

Brewing Success
The resurgence of craft beer, as Grizzanti notes, has been under way for a while and shows no sign of slowing down. As long ago as 1612, New York (then New Amsterdam) was home to three breweries, one owned by its governor. Industrialization and mass production were unkind to the American brewing industry, and—as with cider—Prohibition dealt what looked like a death blow. 

But for some years now, craft brewing has been emerging from your crazy uncle’s basement into a well-deserved limelight, and every season sees the debut of new microbrews and brewpubs. As of March 2014, there were 75 breweries in New York. And TAP New York is only one of many celebrations of the beloved quaff. In March, Keegan Ales in Kingston hosted the third annual Hudson Valley Beer and Cheese Week; this September, some 30-plus breweries will bring their wares to Beacon’s waterfront for the first Hudson River Craft Beer Festival. Longstanding favorite pubs like Bacchus in New Paltz are even beginning to brew their own. 

A crucial piece of the craft brewing puzzle will be falling into place this year as Justin Riccobono, farm manager for Eastern View Nursery, readies the first full harvest of Dutchess Hops—the first commercial harvest in New York since Prohibition.

“I live in Beacon,” says Riccobono, “and this terrific new pub, The Hop, opened up offering craft beer. I like beer. I love hanging out there. There were these cool pictures of old hop farms on the wall. I’m a botanist; I wanted to go see a farm, but I found out there weren’t any—even though New York used to be second only to Germany in hop production.”

That was in 2012. “At the time there were maybe five or six breweries around, but more were starting to open up, and I thought what a great crop this could be to grow,” says Riccobono, “and a couple of months later I heard that Carmine Istvan was buying a run-down garden center with six acres of growing land out back. I called and asked him if he needed a farm manager.” 

Not only did Istvan need a grower, he was extremely receptive to Riccobono’s idea of reintroducing hops to Hudson Valley agriculture. “He wanted to do something new and create a destination; I suggested hops and he said, ‘Tell me more,’” says Riccobono. “Then in June of 2012, the farm brewery bill passed, and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

“Hops take three to four years to mature, and getting set up takes fifteen to twenty thousand dollars an acre initially—there are a lot of variables and specialty items needed. But once you’re under way, hops can yield a return of ten to fifteen thousand dollars an acre, as opposed to $1,500-2,000 for hay or corn.” Dutchess Hops will harvest 3,800 hop plants from four acres this year.

 “We’re looking to help save farms and help breweries and good beer bars thrive,” says Riccobono. “I have brewers calling from all over New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. A few other growers have started small plots, and we’re going to be working cooperatively on marketing and packaging. Hops can be pelletized, like wood stove pellets, making it much easier to handle and ship.”

Fine distilled spirits, of course, are another emerging force in the local scene. But let’s pause for a toast to their mellower cousins and to responsible bliss, passed down through the ages. “Beer,” said no less a mensch than Benjamin Franklin, “is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

In the bigger picture, fermented beverages may be part of the key to post-industrial regional prosperity, the emergence of the “new Tuscany” that Riccobono envisions. In 2013, the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation (HVEDC) hosted the first Hudson Valley Beer, Wine, and Spirits Summit. 

“Over the past several years, we have seen some incredible growth in our region’s beer, wine, spirits and hard cider industry, but this year’s bumper crop is particularly special,” HVEDC president and CEO Lawrence Gottlieb said of the summit. “The Hudson Valley—while always a great location for breweries, distilleries, vineyards and apple orchards—is rapidly escalating into a hub for producing high-quality beverage products, not only for consumption in New York state, but nationwide as well.”

Land preservation, new jobs, and delicious beverage? We’ll drink to that.