Amidst the sea of wine drinkers that accosted me and my fellow vendors (I was pouring for Freedom Run Winery) at the Finger Lakes Wine Festival this weekend, I managed to make my way to my own personal oasis: the Brewers Garden. Purposely tucked away behind the main festival proceedings, the small cluster of beer tents cost a $10 admission fee to both guests and vendors -- irritating, yes, but once I got in I realized that maybe the fee was a good thing.
Lines were short and the drunk “dudes” normally present at beer festivals all seemed to be congregating at the Red Cat tent. After purchasing my ticket and refusing to let the rather snappy Brewers Garden bouncers dampen my spirits, I discovered a small but solid collection of beer vendors serving up friendly attitudes and solid beers.
My $10 got me a beer sample glass and a bracelet with tabs for eight fills. Sierra Nevada, Anchor and Victory represented the non-NY contingent, and macro brands Dundee, Michelob, Kona and Budweiser were present, but I zeroed in on Rooster Fish, Lake Placid, Saranac, and Brooklyn. Ommegang and Southern Tier were on the program but must’ve run out of beer by the time I made it on Sunday afternoon.
These breweries weren’t messing around. Though I spent plenty of time at Watkins Glen’s own Rooster Fish brewpub over the course of the weekend, I stopped at their tent for the excellent Hop Warrior Imperial IPA and Summer Sky Hefeweizen. Lake Placid went big with Honey Rye and the flagship brown ale Ubu, with sister brewery Saranac supplying the fruitier Pomegranate Wheat. Brooklyn poured a refreshing batch of its signature Lager and was bold enough to offer the Black Chocolate Stout as well. Sure, it was 85 degrees out, but that stout was a great pairing for my cocoa-spiced glazed almonds from the Banana/Nut guy.
It was great to see the New York beers showing so well, and with comfortable tables in the Brewers Garden and some great live music throughout the weekend, it was a welcome, low-key break from the chaos of the wine tents.
My favorite beer experience of the weekend, however, wasn’t at the festival. It was at the bar at Seneca Lodge Motel and Restaurant.
The homey, hopping bar (pictured right) serves up its own house beers, and they’re delicious. The Porter is wonderfully roasty with a nice hop kick in the finish, but the Ale is my favorite; a nose of fruity banana esters and a peanut butter/caramel malt explosion on the mouthfeel make it slightly sweet and creamy but refreshing with low carbonation and a nicely balanced finish.
Both are complex yet sessionable and great matches for the ribs, barbecue and burgers being served in the restaurant.
Brett Brubaker has been brewing the house beers for his family’s restaurant only since April of this year, but he’s been homebrewing for years and shows an obvious appreciation for simple, easy-drinking brews made with care and a sense of balance.
He says the response from locals and guests has been great, and he’s interested in expanding the beer selection. “Our next beer will probably be a light ale,” he says. “Something refreshing, not too extreme.”
Ideal for a summer vacation on the lake, the Seneca Lodge beers were a surprising treat and truly hit the spot after a hot day at the festival. If you’re in the area on holiday and need a break from a marathon of wine tasting, don’t forget to seek out some delicious local beer -- Central New York was the original center of the American beer world, and it’s clear that several talented brewers are keeping the tradition alive.