Changes in legislation, consumer taste help spur growth in craft brewing

Dec 26, 2012

New York state’s craft beer industry received a boost earlier this year when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that will benefit craft and farm breweries throughout the state.

Craft brewing has deep roots in New York, reaching back to colonial days when English and Dutch settlers brewed their own beer. And now it’s seeing a resurgence.

If you stop for a drink at the Nail Creek Pub and Brewery in Utica, you'll have a choice of beers that you may have never heard of. There's Nail Creek's own brew, plus other central New York beers like Ithaca and Southern Tier. These are all craft beers produced by small, independent breweries which brew less than six million barrels a year and focus on traditional ingredients.

Just hops, malt and yeast make up these brews, and Manager Ted Heburn says the freshness of the ingredients makes all the difference.

"Saranac does a wet-hop IPA and they use all the hops from a hop farm in Bridgewater. It's small batches... freshness comes into play," Heburn said.

As Heburn says, "Why not craft beer?"

More consumers are choosing distinctive craft brews as an alternative to larger mass-produced national brands.

David Katleski, of the New York State Brewers Association, says craft brewing has tripled its market share in New York state and will continue to grow. This is partly because consumer tastes are changing.

"Demand for craft beer has increased dramatically, more so over the last ten years than anything else and I think it's been driven by really a changing consumer pallet," Katleski said. "People are just drinking differently."

With 75 craft breweries now operating statewide, beer drinkers have no shortage of options.

Brewery Ommegang, in Cooperstown, opened in 1997 and has seen a growth spurt in the past few years. They specialize in innovative Belgian beer, which uses various types of yeast to produce different (sometimes fruity) flavors.

The beer at Ommegang recently won four medals at the European Beer Star competition in Germany. The Belgian style is something that brewmaster Phil Leinhart says came naturally to Ommegang.

"Our DNA and our inspiration was always kind of traditional Belgian styles. We don't make lagers or American ales," Leinhart said. "Some of our core beers are very traditional Belgian styles with a little bit of an Ommegang twist."

The F.X. Matt Brewing Company brews and bottles several beers under the Saranac brand as well as more traditional lagers. They've been brewing since 1888 and CEO Nick Matt says the craft brewing philosophy is still the same.

"Saranac is clearly perceived as a craft beer by the consumer," Matt said. "It isn't seen as far-out as some others but that's very conscious too. We make the beer to be distinctive but drinkable- that's the brewing philosophy."

New York state is doing a lot to help keep these breweries around. Last summer Cuomo signed legislation that included three bills to help grow and expand the craft beer industry in New York state. The bills will protect an important tax benefit for small breweries in New York, allow craft breweries to expand their operations by opening restaurants or selling their product at events (like farmers markets) without any red tape. It will also exempt breweries that produce small batches of beer from paying an annual fee to the state liquor authority.

Nick Matt is happy with the attention from the state.

"The production credit is a great help," Matt said. "The governor really stepped up and did a good job in terms of leading the effort to get a production credit."

New York state currently ranks fourth in the country in beer production and the state is well-suited for craft brewing. As craft brewing grows, so do the job rolls. Twenty-two hundred people are currently employed in the New York state brewing industry, many of them in craft breweries.

According to Pat Hooker, craft brewing has grown 70 to 80 percent in just the past 10 years. Hooker is a senior director of industry development for New York. He says the state is excited about craft beer. If someone asked him about starting a brewery, his answer would be simple.

"Do it!" Hooker said. "One of the greatest assets we have is abundant land, well suited to produce this stuff. There is an incredible demand for local food products, local beverages among our consumers, so I think you'll find a ready audience if you start."

You don't have to brew in your basement to enjoy a distinctive craft beer. New York's locally produced beers are increasingly available at supermarkets and pubs and if you don't find one you like, don't worry. There won't be a shortage of new brews in New York any time soon.

Luke Tubia reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's stories at their website, nyrp-uc.org.