The first time I went to Ausable Chasm in Keeseville, New York, I was maybe eight years old and saw little more than the parking lot and the gift shop. My family was not particularly outdoorsy, though we liked the idea of being out in nature. Even though I only caught a glimpse of what is known as “The Grand Canyon of the East,” from the parking lot’s overlook spot, the place left an impression on me.
Since the pandemic has made travel outside of New York State irresponsible if not impossible, I planned a road trip through the Adirondacks for my 32nd birthday. A visit to Ausable Chasm was at the top of my list—and this time, I wanted to see it from the inside. So we pitched a tent at the adjoining campground and stocked up on bread, cheese, and cider donuts at Rulf’s Orchard down the road. My husband had wanted to pick up beer to drink by the campfire, but the orchard didn’t have any, so I scanned Google Maps and saw a little dot near the campground labeled Ausable Brewing Company.
Keeseville, New York is a tiny hamlet inside of Adirondack Park with a population of under 2,000. It’s also the only place where you can try Ausible’s brew. Founders Dan and Dylan Bager don’t ship or distribute their beers. For a long time, they didn’t even bottle them.
The Badgers moved to Keeseville from Vermont, which sits just across Lake Champlain and where Dan had been working as a brewer at Long Trail Brewing while Dylan studied hop production at the University of Vermont. The brothers knew they wanted to eventually open their own brewery, but from the very beginning, they knew they didn’t want to do it on a large scale.
“We wanted to help create a movement, instead of simply jumping into an already existing one,” Dylan said, and that is exactly what the brothers have done.
Whether you live just across the border in Canada, downstate in New York City, or somewhere else entirely, Ausable is worth the trip. One of the appeals of visiting is the feeling that you are truly escaping the modern world. Cell service is spotty if there’s any at all. It’s not the kind of town that’s full of shops selling neon-hued ADK sweatshirts; in fact, it’s hardly a town at all. But the drive down Mace Chasm Road, which takes you to Ausable, shows a slice of what’s possible in this type of environment.
On a three-mile stretch of road, you drive past the pastures that feed the animals that are later sold at Mace Chasm Farm & Butcher Shop, the cows that make the milk that becomes cheese and yogurt at North Country Creamery. The folks at North Country run the Clovermead Cafe & Farm Store, a 24-hour self-service farmstand that sells fresh breads, veggies, meat, dairy products, and other goods from local businesses.
The businesses along Mace Chasm Road all work hard to support one another, with the brewery serving as a focal point and community center. Dylan’s wife, Marla Gilman, operates Northern Feast Catering, a food truck that serves a rotating menu based on local ingredients designed to compliment the brewery’s offerings. It features sage from Fledgling Crow Vegetables, where Dylan worked for two years while they got the brewery up and running, in one of their beers every year.
“We work closest with Mace Chasm Farm. They graze cows on our fields, and they take our spent brewing grain for pig feed and/or compost,” Dylan said.
I visited Keeseville a second time in September, on a trip to take in the technicolor spectacle that is Adirondack Park in early autumn. They have socially distanced tables spread out across the property, some in the shelter of a big, open barn structure. There’s a food truck parked near the entrance, and an orderly tap line where you can pick up beers to drink on-site, or to take with you. I sat at a table overlooking the cow pastures, sipping a Rauchbier that tasted of maple syrup and campfire smoke. There is something to be said for drinking this kind of beer in-situ, surrounded by the landscape that made it possible.
The American craft beer market is saturated with microbreweries who seem to be in a constant competition to one-up each other by making the wildest sours, the dankest IPAs, and the most decadent pastry stouts. The Badgers aren’t playing that game. They brew eminently drinkable classics with a twist, but they’re never boring. They’re also consistent, which is something you don’t always get from small, off-the-beaten-path outfits, a quality that Dylan attributes to his brother Dan’s experience working at larger operations.
“He was able to learn some really good techniques that bigger breweries use, and we've been able to use some of those large-scale techniques on our tiny brew system, giving us more consistency than most nanobreweries,” Dan said.
They change their list often, so every brew from Ausable feels like a captured moment in time. Both times I visited, there was a Hefeweizen on tap that tasted as much like late-summer in the Adirondacks as it did of banana bread and pine sap. For late fall, they’re featuring a Saison Noire on their list that’s brewed with chocolate malt and soured in a barrel. Knowing what I do about Ausable’s beers, it makes me want to drive the five hours from Brooklyn just to try it.
Before they even opened, Ausable Brewing Company developed a cult following. Now, people in-the-know drive from all over the country to try their beer, and tourists to the Ausable area, like me, have a tendency to stumble upon the brewery, but the real lifeblood of the business is the local community.
“People here have been waiting for a movement like this to occur,” Dylan said, referencing the burgeoning economic revival of Keeseville. “The locals want to see more happen in this area. They know the potential here. When our brewery was in planning I was working at Fledging Crow Vegetables, so I was well connected to a bunch of CSA members. We knew those were our clientele—local food and craft beer go hand in hand. So it was easy for me to get the word out, and the word spread fast through the community.”
In many ways, the Badger brothers seem to have found the sweet spot when it comes to a brewer’s lifestyle. They’re not concerned with advertising or publicity efforts, and they don’t enter their beers in competitions. If you show up at Ausable, it’s more likely than not that one of them will be manning the tap line while the other runs around talking with customers and sanitizing tables. Because they never want to be a big, world-famous brewery, they can focus on the actual process of making the best beer they can. Because they’re brewers and not managers, they have control over every aspect of the life cycle of their beers, from coming up with a new idea to the moment a freshly-poured glass gets handed to a customer.
But running a brewery in a rural location where not much else is going on has its drawbacks. While business booms in the summer months, it drops off significantly in October, when tourist traffic to the area dies down.
“Our hope is that more businesses pop up, and we can all build off of each other. The more small shops there are, the more enticing this community becomes, both as a tourist destination and as a community to live in. Getting a lot of people here in the summer is great, but for us to truly do well in this town, we need to get more year round residents shopping locally. So we're hoping to see more people move here, and more businesses start up, so that we can create a really sustainable community,” Dylan said.
At a time when more and more young people are choosing to move out of big cities and experiment with living rurally, there has never been a better chance of that dream becoming a reality.