Think “great beer towns” and Rochester, NY may not immediately come to mind -- but perhaps it should. I’ve heard whispers of Rochester’s status as a craft beer diamond-in-the-rough for years, from bar customers, tasting room guests, and fellow beer lovers, so a spontaneous trip east seemed like the perfect opportunity to make a stop and find out what all the fuss is about.
Rohrbach Scotch Ale was one of my early “gateway” beers, so I made the brewpub my first stop of the day. Friendly bartender Dana peppered me with samples, the best of which was a malty, sessionable brown ale. She strongly recommended I try the original Spring Lily soup. She was right. The soup contains seven different onions and melted Swiss on top and is phenomenal paired with a Munich-style pretzel dipped in house-made peanut butter mustard, which I washed down with a very smooth, not too sweet, creamy vanilla porter.
Since she hadn’t steered me wrong, I went with Dana’s advice for my next stop: The Old Toad.
Step into this cozy pub and right away you’ll feel like you’ve been beamed up to England. From the décor to the charming Brit students, rotated every year from England, to the World Cup matches on a huge flatscreen TV, the atmosphere exudes European warmth -- and that’s before I cracked open the beer menu.
With over 160 beers on offer and four cask ale offerings, the sheer magnitude of selection is impressive -- but it’s the quality, not the quality, of the menu that is sure to raise eyebrows.
Esoteric Trappist ales, English bitters, a whole section of lambics, an absolutely outstanding selection of Dogfish Head specialty beers, and vintage choices such 1997 Sam Adams Triple Bock and J.W. Lees Harvest Ales from 1998-2008, make this beer list one of the best I’ve experienced in the eastern U.S. Best of all, the bartenders are beside themselves with beer love. “I never knew a lot about beer in England -- I’ve learned so much here and I’ve got a big passion for it now,” says Andy Young, a Nottinghamshire expat who’s nearly finished with his year at the Toad. “I really will miss American beers. They’re huge on flavor. English beers are easy-drinking, not much differentiation in styles, but here you’ve got everything from [Dogfish Head] 120 Minute to a vanilla bean porter.”
The pub truly oozes passion. General Manager Jules Suplicki’s enthusiasm is particularly contagious as she talks hops. “My dream is to have two Randalls going simultaneously, maybe a Festina Peche just to get things running, and then a balls-out IPA,” she grins. Also a foodie, she adds, “I just got through making some sweet bread pudding with Young’s Double Chocolate Stout!” Suplicki describes her dream desserts with graphic hand gestures that overflow with an excitement for good food and great beer.
Though I could’ve spent the day at The Old Toad, I was told no trip to Rochester was complete without a visit to Tap and Mallet. The bartender greeted me by offering a pint of cask-conditioned Ithaca Flower Power (perhaps the best New York State beer on cask). The Tap and Mallet rotates its thirty lines constantly and offers a house beer brewed by Philadelphia brewery Slyfox.
Creative in every way, The Tap and Mallet has iPhone and Droid apps with tap list updates and offers special beer drinks for the World Cup such as a “beer Bloody Mary” called a chelada. With hip artwork on the walls, a fantastic selection, and outstanding service, this place has certainly earned its reputation as a top beer bar.
I finished my evening at The Lovin’ Cup, which is right on the RIT campus.
My eyes lit up when I saw the elusive Dogfish Head Midas Touch on the menu, and decided to pair it with a dish delightfully dubbed “Ooh Baby Olive Your Way.” The name goes with a running theme: menu items are named after rock songs such as “Heavy Metal Drummer,” “Baby Now That I’ve Fondue,” and “The Flaming Strips” (a strip steak sandwich), plus my personal favorite, “Go Ask Alice” – a stuffed mushroom.
With live music every night, an eclectic crowd, and a rockin’ beer list that includes hard-to-find offerings such as Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye, this is a great hangout bar with a casual, friendly feel and delicious food. When the bartender asked me, “Do you prefer a snifter or goblet for your Midas Touch?” I knew I had found my new second beer home.
It’s clear that Rochester has a strong scene of craft beer lovers and a culture of appreciative drinking that supports these outstanding businesses.