On a balmy Wednesday in late spring, I'm sitting on a barstool washing down a Dinosaur Bar-B-Que sandwich with a crisp cream ale.
There's a Buffalo Bills sticker on the mini-fridge in the corner of the room, and a framed map of New York State dotted with pins on the wall. The bartender, Jason Sahler, is telling me about the different Rochester-area hops farms he uses (there are way more than you might think) and how the amber ale on tap is named after one of his favorite parks in Mendon (Devil's Bathtub). "You're a real New York State guy, huh?" someone at the other end of the bar says to Jason after studying the menu, which notes the local farms where each brew's ingredients come from.
But I'm not in Rochester.
I'm in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn at Strong Rope Brewery, a small, locally minded taproom turning out some excellent beers. Jason doesn't just tend bar – he's also the owner, operator, head brewer, and yes - a real New York State guy. "I'm from Rochester," he says. "Went to Harley, left Rochester, went to school in Virginia, came back to Rochester, left Rochester… and then finally ended up [in Brooklyn] in 2005."
"Is that a Genesee kind of thing?" the guy at the end of the bar asks when he notices the cream ale, named Young Lion of the West, on the menu. "It was my homage to the hometown beer," Jason tells me. "Young Lion of the West is an old nickname for Rochester, back when it was a boomtown as the Erie Canal opened up. I saw that at the Eastman House – they had all these nicknames from throughout the years – and the name was my way to pay respect."
Strong Rope entered the increasingly crowded New York City beer scene just over five months ago. Before that, Jason worked in online advertising and home brewed pretty seriously on the side (beginning in 2003). "I had been entering some competitions and people were recognizing that I was making good beer," he says. "I was enjoying it and decided to take the leap."
It's a New York State farm brewery, taking advantage of an amendment to the state's beverage regulations passed in 2012 – the idea being that breweries would primarily use home-grown ingredients and sell their wares to local customers, in exchange for tax breaks and more lax sale regulations. That lowers the barrier to entry for brewers, drives up demand for area hops and malt, gives us New York state residents more local options, and grows the regional beverage industry as a whole. The roots lie in a 1976 "Farm Winery Act" that accomplished much the same thing for vineyards, tripling the number of wineries that stretch out along the Finger Lakes and beyond.
The requirements are small but staged to grow exponentially, allowing time for regional farms to scale up their productions. From the law's inception until the end of 2018, places like Strong Rope only need to use 20 percent each of hops and malts in their yearly output to be considered a farm brewery. That'll eventually go up to 90 percent by 2024, but for now, there's isn't enough agriculture. "There are a lot of farms in number, but not in overall quantity," Jason says.
For him, that's not much of a problem - Strong Rope's brewing setup is a two-barrel system, only about one order of magnitude greater than a typical home brew batch. It's big enough to keep the taproom awash with 10 constantly rotating taps, but small enough that he can focus almost entirely on state-grown ingredients.
"That's what I was always trying to go for," he says. "Being from Western New York, I grew up out in the farm country in Victor, and I just really love seeing local farms do well. I want to do what I can to push that." That's why he barrels past the minimum requirements, using close to 100 percent New York State hops and malts. Keeping those numbers will be a struggle as the brewery grows, but Jason is committed.
And while that's a noble cause, there's something more important to note: his beers taste really, really damn good.
The Young Lion of the West is like Genny Cream Ale's more refined cousin: smooth, mildly sweet, and rounded, without that cloying, sweet corn flavor you'd expect from the style. The Wolf Blossom double IPA has a unique kind of peppery kick, with a citrus sweetness and a sharply bitter back end. The one-of-a-kind Frayed Knot packs roast-y coffee flavor into a crisp, pale, lightly creamy, caramel-colored English mild.
Eventually, Jason wants to max out the capacity of their space (they've got a little room to grow, but not much), start some light distribution, get a few barrels for aging, maybe partner with a food truck. If things really take off, he'll consider a secondary brewing location – somewhere upstate in the Hudson Valley or the Finger Lakes, potentially. For now, he seems pretty content with taking it slow and doing things right, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed for an expansion.
Brooklyn needs more cream ale.