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 beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.