By Julia Burke, Beer Editor
BeerAdvocate, perhaps the most respected voice in the craft beer world, publishes a list of the “Top 50 American Breweries” as chosen out of 1,400 breweries and brewpubs across the United States. In 2007, a small Western New York brewery appeared on the list amidst the Russian Rivers and Stones of the world -- Southern Tier Brewing Company in Lakewood, New York.
Exciting as it was, the listing came as no surprise to the devoted band of followers Southern Tier has earned over the years -- fans who will drink whatever Southern Tier brew is on tap at the local bar, who love the original lineup (especially the classic IPA) but also enjoy the brewery’s long list of creative, innovative and sometimes downright insane specialty beers.
Word travels fast, and as Southern Tier has made a name for itself in bigger, more offbeat brews, demand has increased in New York and nationwide. To meet this demand Southern Tier has just completed an expanded brewery facility. Considering its pre-expansion popularity, extra production could put this off-the-wall, no-holds-barred producer in the running to surpass Brooklyn as New York State’s most beloved and critically acclaimed brewery.
I toured the new brewhouse last week and was blown away by the seamless, spotless production facility and the sheer volume brewed. Southern Tier is now up to 30 turns through the brewhouse -- which yields about 8,000 gallons -- per week, making it one of the largest craft breweries in the state. On a brewing system that is “almost entirely people-powered” rather than automated, says brewmaster Paul Cain, four brewers supervise a brewing cycle that runs 24 hours a day Monday through Saturday.
A threefold increase in output is a tremendous expansion, but Cain is confident that his brewery is maintaining its integrity. “We’re completely quality-driven, and no matter how much we expand this place, that will always be the case,” he says as he checks on a whirlpool tank of Simcoe and Cascade hops for a batch of the new Double IPA. “We’ll plateau here pretty soon and not produce any more beer, just focus on quality. We’re not at that point now though. We’re installing a new bottling line in a month or two.”
The new bottling system will double bottling speed to 130 bottles per minute.
These developments in the brewhouse are impressive, but Cain is most excited about his new storage area. Pictured at right, this cooler represents two weeks of production. At these staggering levels, keeping the finished beer cool and in top shape before shipping is crucial. “We built this building and spent millions and millions of dollars, but this cooler is going to do more for our beer than anything else,” says Cain. “These bottles used to sit on the floor until they’d ship. To spend all this time and money in the production area being meticulous and then to let it sit [in poor conditions] -- it was kind of futile.”
Increasing volume of beer ensures that more people will get a chance to try Southern Tier, but Cain says the Southern Tier grassroots philosophy hasn’t changed. “We’re not going to push our beer. If people want it, they’ll find us. We do have a sales staff but it’s bare-bones: we count on the product and word of mouth. Frankly, we can’t make enough beer, so we’re not really trying to push.” Distribution will increase, however. Now in 60-70% of the United States, Southern Tier is opening up in the southern states and sending more beer to Europe.
With over 30 beers currently in production and new seasonals, specialty beers and local-only brews, Southern Tier will never be accused of boring its fan base. “We make a lot of beers, and that’s one thing that sets us apart,” says Cain. Longtime standbys such as porters and pales have a devoted local following, but it’s more unique offerings such as the Crème Brulee Stout and the beloved Unearthly Double IPA that have won over more adventurous craft beer drinkers around the country. I ask Cain where he and his colleagues get the idea for such beers. He replies, “We have a meeting of the minds, usually over a few pints, and say, ‘What are we going to do next that’s going to knock everyone’s socks off?’”
You might expect a brewer associated with high-gravity, intensely flavorful brews like Iniquity Black Ale, Back Burner Barleywine and Oak-Aged Unearthly Double IPA to be drinking such beers on a regular basis. But when I ask Cain what he drinks for fun, he quips, “I drank my weight in Busch Lite last night!” He adds, “I like the consistency of macro beer. I think it’s really, really impressive that every can of Busch Lite that I’ve ever drank tastes exactly like the last…I didn’t always have that opinion. I developed it over the years in making beer myself and striving for consistency.”
Of course, Cain (pictured right) also drinks non-macro beers. “I love Belgian beer and I love all the quirky stuff that surrounds it, the wild yeast, the bottle fermentation -- I visited Cantillon Brewery and it was like a dream come true, they were actually brewing when I was there! I like that mystique surrounding Belgian beer and how it’s so similar to wine. They just happen to make beer in that part of Europe instead of wine, but they treat it the same way.”
Clean brewing and balance are keys to Southern Tier’s success in the world of high-gravity brews with Plato and IBU digits off the charts. When I asked him the secret to a good IPA, Cain suggested, “Understanding what hops do, especially the dry hop; keeping a good balance of sweetness and bitterness; knowing your varieties.” Southern Tier uses a versatile house yeast that can withstand those high-gravity fermentations, and employs a full-time biologist to keep problems such as bacteria and microorganisms in check.
As the brewery grows, Southern Tier will continue its philosophy of innovation and variety, rather than zeroing in on a single ubiquitous “flagship” beer. “A lot of brewers are paying the bills with one beer, like New Belgium with Fat Tire,” says Cain. “We haven’t found that. IPA is what we make the most of, but we don’t have that workhorse that we’re just constantly making.”
I point out that when a bar has Southern Tier on tap, it could be anything from Gemini to Hop Sun to Raspberry Wheat. Cain nodded. “Yeah, and I like that.”
Keeping fans on their toes and winning the hearts of craft beer connoisseurs from San Diego to Amsterdam, Southern Tier has become one of New York’s craft beer superstars. Now with the tools to reach even more beer lovers and the potential for unlimited success, this acclaimed brewery can continue doing what it does best: defying gravity.