Beer Renaissance in Rochester
By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish
We’re going to go out on a limb with this column’s opening statement. Ready? Ok, here goes:
There has never been a better time to be a beer lover living in Rochester, New York.
By now that sentence has the coveted 65+ age demographic in a tizzy (or it would if any of them read this magazine). And rightly so. After all, Rochester has an extremely rich brewing history. During the second half of the 19th century, the only thing that kept our town from rivaling great American brewing centers like Milwaukee and St. Louis was their population explosion and high-level German immigration at precisely the right time. But Rochester had no trouble attracting brewers of its own, thanks to the area’s secret weapon: the pristine, Alpine quality water of Hemlock Lake.
So yeah, Brewers came, set up shop, competed, and after prohibition were systematically destroyed by the consolidation that wracked the American brewing industry. Topper. Fyfe & Drum. Ballantine. All lost to the history books. By the mid 1970s, only Genesee remained to carry on the brewing tradition.
Fortunately, those days have passed. Three factors have made this time, and this place, an epicenter of beer culture.
The first is the mass distribution of imported brands. We’re not just talking about the mass-market stuff from Canada, nor status-driven Mexican lager. If they have the inclination, your local bar can get their hands on all KINDS of wacky beers from England, Germany, even Estonia or Poland.
Rochester bars and restaurants have responded enthusiastically. Of course the main beer places like MacGregor’s, Monty’s, the Old Toad and the Tap & Mallet are expected to carry import variety, but now suburban joints like Quimby’s in Henrietta, Paddy’s in Greece, The Boulevard on Empire, and Fairport’s Donnelly’s, have paid meticulous attention to their beer offerings. Great beer from around the world is becoming more of a rule than an exception.
This availability has given even casual beer drinkers insight into styles that, ten years ago, one would have to visit their countries of origin to experience. It was precisely that kind of exposure while traveling abroad that compelled the first wave of home brewers to try to replicate those wonderful flavors in their basements, kitchens or self-storage units.
Today, the ability to sample, say, a smoky German Rauchbier, Wee Heavy from Scotland, or Belgian Lambic gives people a firm baseline on how beer is expected to taste in the rest of the beerocentric world. Not only does this give them something against which they can compare the USA’s domestic brews, but it also engenders a desire to expand one’s taste envelope.
The craft beer movement is another factor. Is it even unusual anymore to walk into the supermarket or bar and face a choice between Saranac, Otter Creek and Magic Hat? Think about that. Rochesterians not only have a choice between mainstream brands, but can also choose dozens of beers from local and national small brewers. Not only that, but the beers these small brewers make are so ubiquitous that they almost seem pedestrian, like Kraft brand food products or Gilette shaving cream. We are USED to these brands and they’ve become integral to what and how we drink. And when’s the last time you’ve seen an Otter Creek TV commercial?
Third, and most specific to Rochester, is the way the movers and shakers of the local beer industry are capitalizing on the other two factors. The Old Toad, MacGregor’s and the California Brew Haus have been the longtime stalwarts of our beer scene. Monty’s Korner and Monty’s Krown came later to the game, but have certainly done their part, focusing on US craft offerings and imports to create a strong following. And the brand new Tap & Mallet is currently the “pace bar,” changing their tap selections daily and running certainly the riskiest beer lineup in town.
Faced with a more discerning clientele, other bars have either dived into good beer with enthusiasm, or been dragged kicking and screaming into the realm beyond stereotypical American macrobeer. Even Solera Wine Bar on South Avenue carries a small but excellent selection of craft beer (including one of our favorites, Victory Prima Pils).
Retailers have also embraced American craft and specialty import beer. Beers of the World is the obvious focal point for take-home sales, but Southtown Beverage and Hegedorn’s in Webster also stock impressive beer coolers. Wegmans is catching on, especially in the Pittsford and East Avenue stores. Smaller places within the city have also recognized the value of a wide range of upmarket beer. (Magnolia’s on Park Avenue comes to mind).
Even convenience stores are stocking great beer. The 7-11 on the corner of Clinton and Elmwood in Brighton carries growlers from Custom Brewcrafters and the Rohrbach Brewing Company. Hell, even the Wilson Farms across from the Airport sells Spaten by the six-pack these days.
But perhaps most central to our claim that Rochester is undergoing a beer renaissance, as opposed to a mere retail fad, is the commitment local brewers are making to the growth of their businesses. The Rohrbach Brewing Company is in the middle of their move to a much larger Railroad Street location and Custom Brewcrafters has broken ground on a brand-new, expanded production facility. Meanwhile, High Falls’ J.W. Dundee’s line improves year by year, and continues to bring interesting specialty beers (including their excellent porter) to their home market.
These entrenchments signify that, like in many large cities on the West Coast and in the Northeast, the perception of beer in Rochester has irrevocably changed. Perhaps the wounds caused by prohibition are finally healing. Perhaps a consumer base jaded by avalanche marketing is voting with their taste buds instead of their TV remote.
Or maybe, just maybe, we Rochesterians have found an area of life in which we get the respect we deserve.
Bruce is a certified beer judge and commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at https://beercraft.wordpress.com. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.