As it turns out, Syracuse is a pretty remarkable city. Full of confident and fearless men and women, it's a harsh city knee-deep in snow and below-zero temperatures, with huge Victorian houses everywhere, neglected and in varying states of disrepair. When I first arrived, I was lost and out of my element, and a little dismayed when a cab driver told me I shouldn't be walking around in the neighborhood where I was staying. But I felt more at home after finding a budding craft beer scene and people who were willing to share a beer with a stranger from Portland, Oregon. So, in the end, maybe I really was there for the beer.
What brought me to Syracuse initially, though, was that my husband and I had bought a house in the Near Westside when the real estate market collapsed, when houses were so cheap you could buy them in cash. We thought that if we could rent it out, we'd have income for life – the only realistic chance we would have to retire. The well-funded Syracuse University wanted to turn the Near Westside – still considered the ghetto - into an arts district and the city and the school were pumping money into the neighborhood, building sustainable housing, a coffee shop and a community garden, and at the same time, putting provisions in place that would limit property tax increases for current long-time residents. Say what you will about gentrification – from an investment standpoint, this was a golden opportunity for two people who had been poor most of their lives to finally get ahead. At some point, we would be able to charge significantly higher rent, or sell the house at a huge profit, or maybe live in it ourselves one day. The truth is, I pushed to buy the house because I was in love with it – a four-bedroom house built in 1890, with stained glass and gorgeous woodwork. I could never afford to buy such a house in Portland, let alone in cash.
When we split, my husband took the Portland house we were living in and I inherited the one across the country, along with all of its problems. But he loved the Portland house, and I loved the house in Syracuse (plus I needed the extra rental income), so it made sense even if it really didn't work out in my favor. And this is why I flew to Syracuse, New York, in the dead of winter: to take care of business and make sure it got done right. But it didn't take that long to do the business part, which left a several days to try to find some other craft beer-lovers in this cold, gritty little town that I'd grown an unlikely fondness for.
And for the record, I have since walked all over Syracuse - both during the day and at night - in the neighborhood where I was staying and in far worse neighborhoods, like the Near Westside. People said hello to me on the street. It was fine.
Craft beer discoveries along the way...
120 Walton Street
I'd been to Empire before, when I was in town visiting my husband's family, and it still remains my favorite brewery in town. This time, arriving alone in Syracuse for the first time, it was good to see a familiar place, and I only had to go there two days in a row before the bartender, Anna, made me feel like a regular. It was through Anna that I learned that Central New York was a major hop-growing capital before prohibition – a fact I didn't know (or had perhaps forgotten).
Located in the Armory Square area of downtown in a historic building with exposed brick walls and archways and a long wooden bar, there is just enough light and sound to create a relaxed mood while at the same time allowing one to read the menu or have a conversation. Behind the bar is a window into the brewery, where one can see gleaming copper tanks. The person who designed the space managed to create an incredible sense of balance – a synthesis of enough elegance without being pretentious, a splash of industrial and a dash of eclectic kitsch.
This impeccable sense of balance also shines through in Empire's beers which are always flavorful but never dominating. I'm very picky when it comes to barley wines these days and I find a lot of them either awkwardly unbalanced or trying to strike a balance somehow between sickly sweet and intensely bitter – without integration, it's like drinking two beers at once. Apprehensive as I was, I found Empire's barleywine to be one of the most perfectly balanced I've ever had, and with a striking ruby color. Their Winter Warmer also had a perfect malt-hop balance but with a lot of allspice, giving it a unique spicy character without the heavy sweetness of many winter warmers. One of my favorites, though, is their White Aphro, a Belgian-style witbier brewed with lavender and ginger – which illustrates well the brewer's mastery of balancing flavor with subtlety.
Empire also has a huge selection of very good food, including vegetarian options like the truffle flat bread pizza with wild mushrooms that I always get. They make an effort to support local farmers, ranchers and bakers for all of their food and beer ingredients – including hops, but pretty soon they'll be growing their own.
For years, the only way you could get Empire's beer was to visit their brewpub in Syracuse, but that's about to change with a plan to start bottling and distributing throughout the Northeast and a few select places overseas (sadly, no plans in the near future to distribute to the West coast).
Empire is in the process of building a new sixty-barrel Farmstead Brewery on twenty-two acres of pristine land in Cazenovia, about twenty miles outside of Syracuse, where they plan to grow their own hops, barley, lavender and food for the brewpub. The new brewery will act as the primary center for production, bottling, and distribution while the original seven-barrel system in the brewpub will be used for experimentation and small batches.
You'll be able to visit the new brewery for a tour, to visit their tasting room, or to try some of their small plates of smoked meats, artisan cheeses and other charcuterie. In addition, they plan to have a full bakery producing breads for their brewpub. Their focus, as always, will be to keep everything as local and sustainable as possible while maintaining a tradition of European farmhouse brewing. They'll also be implementing some sort of barrel-aging program and - while I couldn't get any details about it from them - I'm sure they'll be producing some very special beers in the future. I expect these guys will continue to grow and will hopefully expand their distribution in the future because I truly believe they can compete with the best of them from what I've seen so far. I look forward to visiting again after the opening of the Farmstead Brewery, expected sometime between late summer and fall, 2014, if all goes well.
108 Walter Drive
These guys opened in November, 2013, and in that short time, I'd read enough good things about them to know it would be worth the effort to find the place. And it did require some effort. Set back to the rear of a dark parking lot, up a loading dock and through a brightly-lit hallway, through a heavy door that opens into a small warehouse filled with the smell of grain and the Syracuse team colors - blue and orange - there was something about the space that reminded me of an old feed-and-seed. You feel like you're walking into a small family store, with the volunteer brewing assistant and a barrel-chested regular at the bar, the brewer himself, Pete Kirkgasser, and his wife filling tasters, and their two teenage daughters and a dog helping out. And they're all just about the nicest people you've ever met.
Their tasting room is just that - a room for tasting or taking growlers to go, but only within the narrow period between 4pm and 7pm, seven days a week. The daughters run a small business as well, making Brew Bones, dog biscuits made from spent grain and other simple, natural ingredients. A $2 "tasting fee" will get you a taste of all eight beers on tap – but if they like you they might throw in one or two extra of your favorites “for the cold”.
Kirkgasser has been home-brewing for over twenty years and I've read that he was considered one of the most “prolific and edge-pushing” members of the Salt City Brew Club. Now he runs just a single-barrel system, but they already have plans to expand, and there is no doubt they'll have to in order to keep up with demand. While Kirkgasser brews all styles, his personal favorites are the hoppier beers. He uses all Northwest hops - when he can get his hands on them - lending a lot of complexity and nuance to his beers. My personal favorite, though, was a Belgian-style golden strong ale. Given Kirkgasser's ability to successfully brew such a diverse number of styles, I believe these guys will do very well in the coming years.
120 Wilkinson St
A bit out of the way if walking from downtown in the snow, but certainly worth a visit. Middle Ages produces British-influenced beers, using all English malts, the same yeast strain for all their beers, hand-brewing methods and open fermentation. Because of the way the law works in New York, they can't sell you beer to drink on-premises but you are welcome to taste a sample of each of their taps in the tasting room and take a growler with you to go. My favorite that day was a smoked porter, but I'm particularly interested in trying the version brewed with jalapeno and poblano peppers.
They're good guys, too, and were kind enough to chat beer with me for a while and point me in the right direction to find more excellent beer on my journey. Much thanks to Kevin and Isaac from the tasting room for meeting me for a beer after work and for the lively philosophical debate!
Syracuse Suds Factory - I was warned by multiple people not to bother going here, but I'll likely give them a try the next time I'm in town, just to give them a fair shake. I have to admit, though, their tap list (four beers) is pretty underwhelming.
201 S. Salina St.
Tentatively scheduled to re-open in a new downtown location by the end of February, 2014, Clark's was one of the first and only bars dedicated to craft beer back in 1992 and its opening has been a highly-anticipated event among the Syracuse craft beer-lovers. Originally located in the Landmark Theater building, they were forced to shut down in 2010 for the building's expansion project. This could be a good thing for everyone in the end, as their new location will have twice the space of the old, plus a high-tech draft system with thirty-two taps of great beer. As in their original location, they will not have TVs or loud music - just great beer and conversation...and what more does a person need?
253 E. Water St.
This was a great find for me this time around - recommended to me by the guys at Middle Ages tasting room - and I have the feeling that if I lived in Syracuse, this would be my local haunt. A very casual vibe with some simple bar food, but it attracts a large variety of clientele of all ages and styles – likely because they have sixty-nine great beers on tap, with a selection of flights and a daily $2.50 half-pint or $10 pitcher special. It almost makes me want to move to Syracuse.
The Blue Tusk
165 Walton St.
From what I recall, the Blue Tusk is is a pretty nice space with some good beers. I didn't go there this time around, though, because I'm not exactly fond of paying $8-9 for a pint when Empire is just across the street.
Al's Wine and Whiskey Lounge
321 S Clinton St
This was recommended to me by several people but I didn't make it so I'll have to check it out the next time I'm in town. With rugs and couches everywhere, it looks like a place I would like...and supposedly, they have a great tap list. Unfortunately, they don't list their taps on their website which is a bit disappointing.
World of Beer
10347 Destiny USA Dr
Honestly, I was turned off by the fact that there are multiple locations because I like to support smaller, local businesses. I thought it was a chain, but it's actually a franchise. Either way, looking at their beer list now makes me wish I would have gone - both extensive and comprehensive.