Beercraft print column: Empire strikes back

IMG_20141218_154806by Mark Tichenor

The craft beer revolution’s early days came with their share of turmoil. Everyone could see the potential, but it was still difficult to determine what the industry would look like. It was a period of crazy growth followed by instability. About a decade ago, Syracuse’s Empire Brewing Company boldly opened a stunning brewpub in Rochester’s High Falls district, across from the headquarters of Eastman Kodak. Market forces dictated a contraction, however, and the brewery retreated to focus on its main brewpub location in Armory Square, their beer being lost to Rochester consumers.

During the following years, however, Empire maintained a passion for their beer and the vision that New York would be a great brewing state again. In addition to shouldering the burden of growing his business Owner Dave Katleski also became president of the New York State Brewers’ Association, and in that capacity tirelessly lobbied the government of New York to ease antiquated regulations–some dating all the way back to prohibition.

The Brewers’ Association was instrumental in crafting the New York State Farm Brewery act, which lowers barriers to entry and taxes on breweries that primarily use New York State-sourced ingredients in their beer. This legislation enabled dozens of new breweries to move forward with their plans to open. Currently, Empire is poised to take advantage of the new benefits; This March, they are breaking ground on a new 22-acre farm brewery in Cazenovia, New York. In preparation for this, Empire beer is flowing through Rochester taps once more.

“We’re starting off draft-only, with four different beers,” says Dem Jones, Empires Rochester-area representative. “In the last two weeks, we’ve wound up in 50 places in Rochester alone. It’s exploding, faster than we imagined, and we’re very thankful.”

If the Empire IPA is any indication the warm reception is deserved. It’s well thought-out, skillfully balanced, and unpretentious; a beer that nestles comfortably into the glass without needing to proclaim itself the hoppiest or most outrageous.

In fact, it’s really rather bang-on to the textbook style guideline of an American IPA, which leads one to believe Empire is embracing the philosophy that, in order to make great specialty beers, it’s necessary to make great everyday beers. It’s really rather difficult to restrain oneself from ordering a second glass, I know I failed.

“I love it when I go to a place that has the Empire Cream Ale on,” Jones says. “That’s a bit of a challenge because it requires a nitro line to pour. It’s a true cream ale, sweet in a biscuity way, not a cloying way, and that’s usually the first beer I have when I walk into the brewpub in Syracuse.”

Jones is hustling to regain Empire’s recognition in the market, running special events all over Rochester. He’ll even be running a tasting booth at the fourth annual Homegrown festival, this January at Lovin’ Cup.

Empire’s staff remains small, and their growth plans still center on bringing their beer to Western New York and the Finger Lakes. As such, they truly represent our region, and should be a welcome addition to the Rochester Beer scene, and a pub near you, once again.

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to


Beercraft print column: …And in with the new


by Mark Tichenor

It’s the night before Thanksgiving and the room is packed. The seats are all taken, the echoing conversation and laughter so loud it borders on uncomfortable. The beer is flowing from these taps for the first time, and it flows in a torrent. It’s the first day of business for the Lost Borough Brewery and there’s a line out the door.

Five years ago, Rochester was a three-brewery town. Genesee was the big brewing icon, while The Rohrbach Brewing Company and Custom Brewcrafters handled the small-batch side of things. That’s how it’s been since the early 1990s, and that was fine with Rochester.

It’s not fine anymore. Rochester is going brewery-crazy. Seriously, new breweries are sprouting up everywhere.

Naked Dove Brewing, Three Heads Brewing, and Roc Brewing jimmied the floodgates open a couple of years back, proving Rochester to be a thirsty town with a keen interest in supporting local. Now, a new batch of entrepreneurs- homebrewers and craft beer lovers alike- could follow their dreams and make a go of it in this city’s craft beer scene.

Lost Borough is the first of a new crop to successfully navigate the byzantine State, Federal and local licensing maze and open for business. Knucklehead Brewery, in the former Seitz’s Market in Webster, is hot on their heels, with a projected December 20th opening. Over on the river near the Ford Street Bridge, shiny new tanks are visible through the window of the soon-to-open Swiftwater Brewing.

This tally doesn’t even consider the breweries opening around the Region. Nedloh Brewing started up a couple of months ago, and The Stoneyard Pub is pumping brew out of a 2-barrel kettle in Brockport.

So we’re awash in small-batch, independent beer. What does that mean to you, the drinker?

In a sense, these are challenging times to get into the craft brewing business. Beer distribution companies have been busy bringing premium stuff to the area. West Coast craft heavyweights are opening huge new breweries on the Eastern Seaboard. Space on retail shelves is finite; there are only so many taps to go around. And our breweries’ beers need to coexist bottleneck-to-bottleneck with some of the finest from around the country and the world.

Gone are the days when “local” is enough; beer also has to be awesome. It is to be hoped that each of our new breweries share this opinion, learning from those that trod this path, helping each other find the right niche, and at the same time challenging every other producer in town to step their game up, scrutinize the beverages they produce, improve with each batch and commit, not just to being Rochester breweries, but to making Rochester the incredible craft beer town we all very much want it to become.

One thing that’s evident when you look around these new breweries, with their gleaming metal and meticulously-appointed decor: you see passion, and that bodes well for the beer and for the joy of discovering what’s next on tap.

The only way any of our new crop of brewery owners can make their dreams to come true is to do their best to follow them. And it’s up to us beer lovers to toast them every step of the way.

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to

Abandon Brewing brings Belgium to Keuka Lake

by Mark Tichenor


It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to become a brewer, unless you’re Abandon Brewing Company’s Jeff Hildebrandt, who got his degree in astrophysics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, only to discover he hated the corporate sector. Instead of slaving away on defense research projects, what he really wanted to do was make beer.


“I worked in that environment for four years. It was miserable,” Hildebrandt says. “I was homebrewing constantly, homebrewing more than I did in grad school. When they laid me off in 2010, I realized half my waking hours had been spent researching brewing schools and starting breweries. I figured it was time for a career change.”


Hildebrandt inquired with Custom Brewcrafters about doing an internship, signed on, and changed his life for the better. “I did that for six months. After the first couple of months there, I realized ‘this is it. This is what I want to do.’ Then I enrolled at Siebel Institute’s brewing school. It was the best three months of my life.” The Siebel program took Hildebrandt to Munich, Germany, where he learned from the masters who make classic German Helles, Dunkel and Oktoberfest styles.


A chance meeting with the brewing staff of Brewery Ommegang took Hildebrant to their facility in Cooperstown, NY, where he worked for a year, learning how to utilize the yeast strains and the various bacteria used to give Belgian beer such distinctive variety of character. This knowledge would serve him well in helping to found the Abandon Brewing Company, which occupies an old barn on a hill overlooking Keuka Lake, about an hour southeast of Rochester.


“Starting the brewery was extremely stressful, “ Hildebrandt says, “but it’s a good kind of stress because you’re working toward a dream.” He recounts the snafus and catch-22s inherent in obtaining a valid commercial brewery license, as well as preparing the facility for operation. “I remember looking at the property,” Hildebrant laughs. “The barn was half off the foundation, and there were huge gaps in the walls. I took one look and I thought ‘Belgian Beers.’”


A scant one year after its opening, Abandon Brewing built a reputation for carrying on Belgian farmhouse brewing tradition, and its excellent beers are on tap throughout Rochester and the Finger Lakes. Hildebrandt found himself pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm with which local residents took to his beer, and the brewery’s small tasting room hums with activity every day it is open. They feature live entertainment on weekends, and wine tourers pour in, sometimes by the busload, to get a change of pace from the typical vineyard fare.


Abandon’s standout is Harvest Porter, which melds the classic deep hearty flavor of porter with a peppery Belgian sass. Instead of clashing, these attributes intertwine nicely with each other, resulting in a roasty, deeply satisfying brew that somehow sits lightly on the palate. It’s unnervingly gulpable in its elegance.


The brewery already finds itself in a position where expansion is necessary, and they will shoehorn more tanks into the building in the near future. Longer-range plans also call for bottling. At this point, Abandon self-distributes their beer in kegs only, which means they haul it up to Rochester in their own van. As such, you may have to hunt a bit to find it. Johnny’s Irish Pub on Culver Road and J.B. Quimby’s on Jefferson Road reliably carry Abandon beers on draft. Even so, some beers are just worth hunting down. As their presence grows in the Rochester area, one thing lovers of Finger Lakes beer won’t have to abandon is their hope of finding some.


Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to