Imagine New York City is a head. The Taconic State Parkway would be one of the body’s legs, lazily extending north through the Hudson Valley as the arms relax over Long Island and the New Jersey suburbs. The Taconic starts south at the Kenisco Dam in Westchester County and stretches more than 104 miles north to Chatham, a small town with the same name village at the top of rural Columbia County.
Westchester to Chatham
Down in Westchester, where the Taconic collects traffic from every which way, it’s a cacophonous highway with merging hatchbacks and county police cruisers faintly hiding behind bushes. But as the legs travel north into Putnam, Dutchess and, finally, Columbia counties, they smoothly twist past state parks and open space. Clouds vanish. As springtime trees enter early stage puberty, their negative space leaves picturesque vistas headlined by the booming Catskill Mountains.
I’ve interviewed thousands of people about the draw of the Hudson Valley. Unscientifically, 95 percent of these people lived in New York City at one time but—overstressed—went north and were amazed to breathe in the fresh air of Pleasantville, Beacon or Hudson. Once here, they found one thing: Balance. Weekends don’t mean work, but rather visiting the local farm to purchase ramps and make small talk about school board votes while the kids pet alpacas.
For me, since it’s my wife and a 6-month-old daughter at my side, weekends still mean breweries. We’ve been to many Hudson Valley breweries, but I wanted to crawl the Taconic to visit places I hadn’t yet seen. If I drove the length of the highway, started north and traveled south, what would I learn about the Hudson Valley and beer that I hadn’t yet known? What new delicious offerings could I imbibe? And which town would I then be able to christen “the new Brooklyn?”
No, seriously, don’t do that last thing.
Chatham to Hudson
After 104 miles up the Taconic, I pull into Chatham with a waking baby and patient wife. Chatham smells like the northern terminus of the Hudson Valley, like Carhartt and John Deere, like a renovated furniture store, which is what the Chatham Brewing resembles from outside.
Inside, as we sip the flagship Farmer’s Daughter Rye IPA, the co-owners say hello. Tom Crowell wears a hat and a flannel shirt. James Cunningham wears a Patagonia jacket and looks as if he just finished unloading tanks. This is exactly Chatham.
“We make beers we love to drink,” says Crowell. These guys, with brewmaster and co-owner Matt Berry, have been Chatham for 10 years, which feels like 35 in Hudson Valley years. The local drinkers are older couples, no-nonsense types kicking back for Saturday lunch. Chatham is full of these folks—them and the wealthy, sometimes famous, who retreated the city for the simpler life by the Berkshires. “Mink and manure,” Cunningham calls it.
Farmer’s Daughter is no deception, a straight, drier IPA without haze, citra nor brett. “We’re not trying to make sours or outrageously bitter IPAs,” says Cunningham. That’s definitely true. This is old-school Hudson Valley brewing—local, native, mink and manure to its core. Cunningham mentions Old Klaverack Brewery, a nano 15 minutes down the road, so we take the Taconic to a dirt road, park the car by a garage and stretch the legs. That’s when Mom pops out from the big house up the hill.
“Hi! How ya doin’!” shouts Marily Bell, stomping down to the garage with a crock pot full of sauerkraut. Zoey, the brew dog, greets us at the car. Steven Bell, also Dad and bassist with the band Rick Surrano’s 145, sets up the grill for bratwurst. Sitting in one of the several patio chairs by the garage door is Rick Gurlach, or Uncle Rick.
Missing is Erik Bell, the son, nephew, owner and brewmaster of Old Klaverack Brewery. He shows up later with inventory and ingredients. The most important ingredient in this equation is the 280-count hop farm next to the garage at Old Klaverack, living proof that New York positioned itself smartly. In 2012, the state passed legislation permitting farmers and brewers alike to sell beer on site as farm breweries, long as they used a percentage of ingredients and crop local to New York. Small-time brewers responded by growing their own hops, spurring an influx of small brewing operations across the state.
Bell’s hops are bold, bringing strong flavors and surprises, like his imperial red Shut This Shit Down. He’s putting in a fermenting room, doubling down on a product drinkers travel on dirt roads to the outskirts of Hudson to taste. In fact, standing in his modest production facility, Bell says he wants Old Klaverack to become similar to Tree House Brewing Company.
This won’t be last time I hear “Tree House.”
I’m about making beer that anyone can enjoy.”
Hudson to Poughkeepsie
They whisper “Tree House” at Hudson Valley Brewery in Beacon. “Tree House” is written on the growlers set on the tables at Sloop Brewing Co. in Elizaville. Although it’s two hours away from the closest Hudson Valley brewery, the influence of renowned Monson, Massachusetts, brewery looms large. Some brewers strive to invent the cloudiest, most citrus-packed IPAs in existence. Others want the four-hour lines for crowlers, the whispers of mad genius, the admiration from geeks. Whatever the case, Hudson Valley brewers often measure themselves against the legend that is a Tree House. How hazy should it be? How sour should it be? Should we go bold?
“I’m about making beer that anyone can enjoy,” says Dan Suarez of Suarez Family Brewery. Suarez was the first full-time employee at Hill Farmstead Brewery, and he thinks he’s always falling short of Shaun Hill and other idols and influences. But his Palatine Pils does not. Bar none, it’s the best pilsner I’ve ever tasted. It’s arguably the best pilsner in America.
The drinkers in this Hudson haunt seem to agree. Bearded and well-dressed dads share pints with their wives while kids hop around merrily in a beautiful white-walled taproom straight out of an Apartment Therapy shoot. The line at Suarez crawls for a while (Saturday is busy, but apparently Fridays are not as such), but the entire crowd is happy drinking Suarez’s nuanced takes, including a saison, session IPA and dark lager.
Grandma Suarez, who goes by Bonnie, sits with a stroller that holds the newest Suarez, Dan’s kid with wife Taylor, who runs the brewery with him. Grandpa Suarez, Santiago, has salt-and-pepper hair and surveys the scene in a denim shirt. And as the hip kids shuffle out and the local families head back home, the Suarez brood chills considerably. Suarez is twee yet homey, a welcome spot for both the local drinker and the tourist wanting a taste of this mini Vermont.
If you crave the full Vermont experience, Plan Bee Farm Brewery delivers. Off road and up a grass hill, it’s 25 acres harbor yeast, fruits and herbs grown specifically for beer, available primarily in wax-capped bottles. While you can get Plan Bee at DeCicco’s, a local chain grocer with a superb beer selection, it’s a good idea to visit the brewery and buy a bottle from owners Emily and Evan Watson. On this day, Emily stands behind a Lucy van Pelt’s psychiatrist booth to sell the wares. They’d soon upgrade to a more impressive outdoor counter operation.
Brooklynites easily shell out more than $100 to take home a box of Plan Bee bottles. I’ve enjoyed quite a few in the wild, so I want to try the farm beer on tap. The tap kicked. Watson gives me the leftover swill for free.
Sweatshirt-wearing people laugh and chat at a picnic table. They pour from their bottles as the Spotify playlist rolls on. It’s a warm-enough 65 degrees here. Weeds wave off in the distance. Drinkers munch on local jerky. All is well.
Poughkeepsie to Tarrytown
I drive home to Tarrytown as it’s our daughter’s bedtime. The stars begin to sparkle above us as I slide off the Taconic. I can’t stop thinking about the diversity I just tasted, and I declare that beer in the Hudson Valley is shifting to something big.
“It’s definitely becoming a little bit of a beer mecca,” says Joe Friedel, taproom manager at Sloop Brewing Co. Sloop’s hazy IPAs have balanced flavors. Sloop is about to expand with a 26,000-square-foot facility about 45 miles south of Elizaville in Fishkill, but it’s keeping the old barn, too. That’s also, in a way, some balance. That’s the key to the Hudson Valley, what’s been the truth for decades.
You can taste it in the wild marriages happening at the Hudson Valley Brewery in Beacon, where Jason Synan and Mike Renganeschi are going deep on brett, concocting a DIPA called King Wavy that comes in lovingly with citrus and lacks a bitter profile, so you’d never know it kicks at 8 percent. You can taste it in Suarez’s Palatine Pilsner, or Old Klaverack’s Shut This Shit Down, or Sloop’s Juice Bomb. Balance is everywhere, from every field and farm to every glass and growler.
There’s dynamite beer coming out of the Hudson Valley. And just like on the Taconic stretching through its terroir, the traffic still isn’t that heavy. Now’s the time to drive up.