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The New Primitives: In the Hudson Valley, Young Brewers Envision a Simple Future for New York Beer

Feature by | Dec 2015 | Issue #107
Dan and Tay Suarez of Suarez Family Brewery. | Photos by Matt Coats

Evan Watson has a thing for bees. For years, the 30-year-old brewer kept an apiary of two hives on his one-acre farmstead in Fishkill, N.Y., about 70 miles northeast of New York City. His brewery, called Plan Bee, which he recently relocated to Poughkeepsie, makes farmhouse-style ales that all contain some form of local fruits or vegetables along with a dose of a bee-derived ingredient that is occasionally honey but more often a wild yeast strain that Watson himself extracted from one of the hives.

“Before I was using yeast from the skins of fruits that we grew on the farm,” says Watson, whose beers contain 100 percent New York State-grown ingredients. “It worked okay. But I figured, since bees have about a three or four mile foraging radius, the stuff they’re picking up is overall more representative of the region’s local flora than what I was getting from a single fruit.”

Watson, a former professional musician with the ruddy complexion, broad shoulders and thick, work-worn hands of a seasoned farmer, says the new honey strain is a mixed culture that has some flavor elements that can also be detected in Belgian yeast. “It’s got fruity esters and spicy phenols like a Belgian yeast. The mixed culture provides extreme dryness and acidity upon aging.”

Since Watson and his wife Emily began their business in 2013, Plan Bee’s beers have become highly sought-after by those willing to trek to the couple’s farm stand releases at their home in Fishkill. “Everything sold out almost immediately,” says Watson, whose new, not yet operational spot is on a 25-acre farmstead where he hopes to begin brewing pilot batches soon.

With its local-only ethos and a pastoral, provincial setting, Plan Bee is creating beers with a sense of time and place. In doing so, they’re leading a small but growing contingent of Hudson Valley brewers whose beers you’re much more likely to find at the source or at a Saturday farmers market than in an urban beer shop or bar.

In August, Waston, along with Dan Suarez of the forthcoming Suarez Family Brewery in Livingston, Mike Renganeschi of the Brewery at Bacchus in New Paltz and Jakob Cirell of From the Ground Brewery in Red Hook, appeared on an episode of Beer Sessions Radio (a show broadcast online by the Heritage Radio Network; I am the producer) during which host Jimmy Carbone coined the term the “New Primitives” to describe them.

“As they were talking about their beers during the show, they reminded me of this group of winemakers in California in the late ’80s or early ’90s who called themselves the Rhone Rangers,” Carbone remembers. “These guys decided to grow and make Rhone-style wines when no one had thought of doing that before [in the US], and suddenly there was an entire movement in California, that was unprecedented.”

Plan Bee Farm Brewery's Evan Watson.

Plan Bee Farm Brewery’s Evan Watson.

Carbone says the group reminded him of the Rangers “because they’ve really come up with their own kind of aesthetic, basically out of nowhere, but definitely straight out of the Hudson Valley. These guys are all working with the local microflora [yeast from bee hives and fruits; beers based on locally farmed ingredients] and in doing so, they’ve created their own flavor profiles that, like terroir, are evocative of a time and place.”

Carbone, who also owns the bar Jimmy’s No. 43 in Manhattan’s East Village, thinks they’re very different than breweries he sees in New York City that constantly struggle with more mundane issues like finding suitable real estate, receiving malt deliveries, or even disposing of spent grain.

“So meeting Dan, Evan, Mike, and Jakob was a revelation,” he says. “I called them ‘The New Primitives,’ as in a new generation of flavor makers, guys who are reversing years of advancement in brewing technology to make primitive, highly visceral beer.”

Watson admits his focus on fruit- and botanical-based, wild-fermented beers came about out of necessity, because other styles made with all-local ingredients simply weren’t working out. “We tried making a good IPA with all local hops and malt but the results just weren’t there.”

And his approach may not be entirely representative of the Hudson Valley, where brewpubs with standard American Pale Ales, Ambers and Stouts can still be found. But it does reflect a growing shift in the approach to brewing in the region, especially among young, forward-thinking brewers like Watson, Suarez, Renganeschi and Cirell. “Maybe it’s okay that we can’t make great IPAs with local ingredients,” says Watson. “It forces me to listen to the land and focus on what farmhouse brewing truly means.”

Compare this with the first wave of Hudson Valley brewers like Keegan Ales, opened in 2003, or Captain Lawrence Brewing, which began brewing three years later. They established themselves as consistently regional microbreweries that, while making solid, tasty beer, gave little thought to using locally sourced malt or hops. (Captain Lawrence does make several barrel-soured beers with native yeast.) But New York State’s introduction of the Farm Brewery License in 2013, paired with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration’s pro-brewery stance, have encouraged small and nano-scale farm breweries like Honey Hollow, Sloop and Arrowood Farms to open in the Hudson Valley, dotting the hillsides from the Catskills east to the Berkshires.

About an hour north of Poughkeepsie in Livingston, Suarez is busy converting a 10,000 square-foot warehouse into the Suarez Family Brewery. “The idea is to operate half like a winery and half like a classic production brewery,” says Suarez. “That means half of our production will be mixed fermentation, well-ripened, tart and funky farmhouse styles that have been given enough time to mature in stainless or oak barrels, and then bottle- or keg-conditioned. And the other half will be pretty simple, unfiltered workaday beers many of which will be lagers—Kellerbier, Pilsner, hoppy Pils and a Steam Beer.”

The aged beers will give Suarez the opportunity to work with local farmers and producers, some of whom he’s already reached out to in anticipation of spring. “I know Evan [Watson] is doing the crazy everything-local, which is awesome, but I’m not really beating the super-local drum, simply because we’ll be making some beers that have no local ingredients at all,” he says. “But I will be doing a decent amount of beer that’ll be very local and very special.”

For instance, Suarez has partnered with a nearby farmer to grow a particular variety of lemongrass. “It’s a special Indonesian variety that’s super heady and perfumey and intoxicating. So we’ll do a fresh lemongrass beer that showcases that ingredient,” he explains. And he’s working with other farms to grow heirloom grains that he’ll use for some of his batches. “I want to support the farms around here that are growing great things, and kind of look to the grower to get turned on to new, cool ingredients.”

Suarez, who intends to open in early 2016, is already collaborating with other breweries around the state too, including Renganeschi at the Brewery at Bacchus as well as Other Half Brewing and Threes Brewing, both in Brooklyn. “We made a sumac beer at Other Half that’s fermented in oak and oak-aged,” he says. “I foraged the sumac myself and brought down just bags of it, and what we did was a pretty simple beer with a large sumac addition.” (It will be released next summer.) Yet as interested as he is in locally-grown hops, Suarez doesn’t expect to source much from the region, at least not anytime soon. “There are a few guys up here growing some decent hops,” he says, “but on any kind of large scale it’s just hard to do because the quality and volume isn’t there.”

Jakob Cirell of From the Ground Brewing

Jakob Cirell of From the Ground Brewing.

This approach contrasts with Cirell’s philosophy at From the Ground, which he established last year on Migliorelli Farm in Red Hook. “I wanted to show that you don’t have to do something so esoteric or out there, that you can make a decent Pale Ale or Stout from local ingredients,” he says. “What I’m trying to do now is not choose the beers I want to make,” Cirell said on Beer Sessions, “but let the ingredients available dictate.”

Cirell’s first brewing job was at Greenpoint Beer Works in Brooklyn, where he landed while transitioning from a career as a mechanical engineer, helping small businesses become more energy efficient. “I spent most of the day behind a desk, though, writing reports,” he says. “I was interested in brewing so I got a job at Greenpoint where I could make something with my hands.”

Cirell, who grew up off-the-grid in Maine and learned to cook on a wood stove, says farm life suits him fine. He loves the brewer lifestyle, and had intended to set up a facility in Brooklyn, but didn’t have the money to get it done. “[My wife and I] had just had a daughter and we decided to move upstate, first up to Schenectady, and then to Rhinebeck. I started emailing farmers to see if anyone would be interested in working together on a brewery, and I got a call the next day from Ken [Migliorelli],” the owner of Migliorelli Farm. “They were growing barley as a cover crop and we decided that was a good starting place for a beer.”

Cirell quickly found a nearby malthouse, Germantown Beer Farm, that was also growing and processing hops. And within a matter of days—not to mention a three mile-radius—he had secured nearly all the ingredients he would need to begin brewing his flagship Pale Ale.

From the Ground currently has three year-round beers including the Pale Ale, a red farmhouse ale, and a Stout, all brewed with ingredients from Migliorelli and Germantown Beer Farm. And now, perhaps inspired by his fellow Primitives, Cirell is experimenting with propagating a wild yeast strain that he isolated from cider apples grown on the property. Plus, he will soon release four new farmhouse ales, each spiked with fruit grown on his host’s farm: Hudson cherries, Shiro plums, Santa Rosa plums and Early Glow peaches. “One of the best things about being on a farm,” says Cirell, “is having direct access to all this fruit.”

“I put in some labor sorting the ugly fruit from the pretty stuff,” he says. “And at the end of the day, I get to save a bunch of the ugly stuff from ending up in the compost pile. That’s pretty cool.”

For Watson, Cirell and Suarez, the idea of selling directly to their customers informs their distribution models. Cirell says he plans to stay small and continue selling at farmers markets and other local outlets. He hopes to add a taproom in 2016. Meanwhile Suarez—who worked at Hill Farmstead in Vermont, perhaps the quintessential sense-of-place American brewery—says that while he also plans to stay primarily local, his distribution strategy includes New York City and maybe eventually other metropolitan areas in the northeast.