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 beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to beercraft@rochester.rr.com

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