Brew Biz: Werts and All

Ken Carman is a BJCP judge; homebrewer since 1979, club member at Escambia Bay and Music City Homebrewers, who has been interviewing professional brewers all over the east coast for over 10 years.

Written by Ken Carman



Bandwagon Brew Pub
114 Cayuga Street
Ithaca, NY 14830
607 319 0699

Look! See the awning and the steps leading down; below street level?

That’s Bandwagon Brew Pub down there. Shall we visit?

Bandwagon is the newest addition to brew scene Ithaca. It’s also one of the newest additions to the restaurant scene in Ithaca. Ithaca, NY, sits at the bottom of a New York State finger lake called Cayuga. The hills rise all around, as if Ithaca were set as a valuable jewel… highlighted by gorges and a beautiful lake. “Finger” is quite apt. Back during the last ice age the ice sheets dug deep and long to make finger like lakes in mid-state New York.

Standing on a sidewalk, next to the street of the same name as the lake, we face a delightful task: descending into Bandwagon.

The atmosphere is almost smoky, except of course there is no smoking. The lighting provides tons of atmosphere: perhaps too much… sometimes it’s hard to read the menu. Of course a change in font size might help as well. But tis pleasing. To the right is a fully stocked bar and, of course, the taps: including other brewers… even a local micro; Ithaca Brewing.

The pub was a lot darker than the picture above. This looks like it was taken as the pub was being built. In the cases you see in back they have signs listing and describing their main brews.

Ah, that’s closer to actual the atmosphere, though some of the “smokey” was my camera. The first set of pictures didn’t come out at all. Most of these were taken in the mid-afternoon.

Let me stop here to give credit where credit should be given. I’m always annoyed when a brewpub tries to pretend as if they are they only brew-game in town. Competition from the majors and some of the tactics of said mega-brewers; aided by politicians with lotsa big brewer campaign “donations” in their pockets, are just too harsh to play the “you can only get our beer here” game. Of course such is “legal.” Honest? Fair? Decent? … all another matter. So I’m always impressed when a brewing-based biz adds other taps: especially other local brewer’s taps. This helps the cause of craft beer; including the pub that carries those beers. Not doing so is stupid and self serving. “We only serve our own brew,” is pure ego-based navel gazing. Kudos, Bandwagon. for carrying other craft beers, and even beer from local Ithaca Brewing.

I admit. Long before I became a BJCP judge, I visited many of the worst, and many of the best, brewpubs on the east coast… starting in the late 80s. The Mill in Tallahassee? Adirondack in Alder Creek, NY? Small, straight extract-based… dare we call them “breweries?” I have found they often produced the kind of vile swill only a Bud Lite drinker might tolerate. Extra emphasis on “might” intended. Not just because “extract,” necessarily, or even “small,” but because they either know little of the craft they are attempting to profit off of, or simply don’t care.

Those monstrosities I named in the above para are thankfully gone.

I’m telling you this to explain why I came ready not to be impressed. All I heard previous to my visit indicated to me that Bandwagon may be one of those extract breweries that leaves knowledgeable quaff-ers unimpressed… at best. I heard: small brewery… in the kitchen? The main brewer was new, or inexperienced, or had little training in the art of brewing. Yes, it is an “art,” and that last one might mean the brewer could possibly soar, since coming from less related fields sometimes provides a fresh prospective.  So I admitted to myself, as I descended those stairs, Bandwagon could still be good. But due to all the aforementioned? Often not the best indicators of quality.

So Ken, was it unimpressive? No… I’m glad to report my instincts were wrong.

Here were the brews I tried: 643 Double IPA, Dobos (Belgian Dubel), Six Mile Saison and Gruit to It. Me? I headed for the most likely two by four to beat my taste buds with: the Double IPA. I was surprised: little of the typical American citrus-like hops; Cascade, Amarillo, etc. To the taste it wasn’t quite a “double,” but also not a straight IPA. More like a hopped up straight IPA with a nice British/German twist. They also used more complex malts than one would expect in either a double or a British IPA. Maris Otter? Munich? Caramel? Not sure. Maybe all three or two of them? This was a fairly complex brew. Compliments to the brewers.

Now on to the Gruit. For the uninitiated, Gruit dates back to pre-hop days when brewers used psychotropics and aphrodisiacs. Of course Bandwagon didn’t use either, and when it comes to the last of the two, since this was dinner with my cousin, Joyce, and second cousin, May, they were probably grateful no aphrodisiacs were used. Take it from me, guys, you had nothing to worry about. Hey, I may be the cousin who lives part time in the South…but I’m not that “South.”

What was I writing about? Once I knew it… Oh, yeah, Gruit!

OK, depending on what bittering additions were used, I expect some possible Chloroseptic-like phenolics… especially when brewing with heather tips, yarrow, sweet gale and juniper berries, but as it warmed it became a little annoying for those of us who have intentionally polluted beer just to get a better grade on our beer judge tests. I did “enjoy,” but please serve colder or back off on at least one of the spices just a tad. I would suggest the latter since “cold” isn’t all that traditional. I listed the spices in what I thought would be the most likely order of major to minor suspects.

I know: there’s the thirst of the crowd one must satisfy in such an establishment, so brew schedules must be met first; experimentation later. Some times I imagine pro-brewers to be like a mother with too few breasts and too many babies. So if you tell me to “just go suck on it,” I’d understand.

Sorry.

Couldn’t resist.

The Dobro could use more complexity. I’m guessing that’s Belgian Abbey yeast… White Labs, maybe? It dominates. There was little head. Enjoyable, but if you have a queasy stomach… drink something else. I found that out when they placed me; as a judge, on the Belgian table at Chattanooga last year. Too much of that yeast is not a good thing if you already don’t feel well. This amount of Belgian funk was just right, but as I typed …some complexity could be added, malt-wise. One would expect such from a Dubel.

The Saison was as expected: a light, pleasing, summer quaff. I’m just more of a “beat the taste buds” type of guy.

For the non-beer crowd they had a fully stocked bar and, as my second cousin; May knows, they make great mixed drinks… her evil “Uncle” Ken leading her down the distilled/fermented path to HELL once again. Bad Uncle Ken. Bad.

Food? Well the menu is just a bit pricey; but many of the dishes I saw seemed well worth it. My cousin Joyce had steak and potatoes. She held a shotgun on us to make sure we didn’t get near the tempting dish while she hogged the whole damn thing. She did say it was wonderful; with a smirk, as we all drooled in our own laps and she vacuumed it up.

No. I’m busting chops. We didn’t ask and she probably has better table manners than I do.

“Busting chops?” No, twasn’t “chops” at all. That must be a misprint; or maybe a MIS(SED)-steak.

As I already typed: “Bad Uncle Ken. Bad.”

My second cousin, May, had a shrimp and andouille Belgian waffle-like dish with a sweet/hot pepper cream sauce. Sound good? Yes, it was, as she yelled out in the middle of the establishment: “Uncle Ken, why did you keep snitching off my dish?” Nah, she shared, having far better manners than her shotgun wielding mother. (Kidding, Joyce, kidding.)

My dish was a slight disappointment: a catfish/orzo on the side concoction. Well prepared. The side was great. I just felt the fish could be a thicker cut and taste more fishy; less bready. The latter is hard to get with all the farm raise catfish these days, but a thicker cut might have helped too. Seemed mostly bread. And the sauce; a bit to bland to identify taste-wise, could have stood out a little more. But the dish is still worth the price.

I have yet to meet either brewer. Perhaps yet another brewer profile on my next swing through Ithaca?

Just to be above board here… (Where did that phrase come from?) …please note that John Hughes is part owner and dating another second cousin: May’s sister…  and also has the same last name as my Grandma Carman’s mother… Oh, my, my,  my… are we going back to my “Southern” joke strategy? Nah. Just thought I’d put that up front and it also reinforce my intent to force my own sick sense of humor on my readers.

Wink.

John Hughes seemed very interested in all I had to say after my visit. That’s a sign that Bandwagon is on the right track. There isn’t a restaurant, or a brewery, in the world that can’t use some tweaking so, John…

Tweak.

Tweak.

Tweak.

I’m officially tweaking, just a little… yet also declaring Bandwagon well worth the visit. Or two. Or three. Well, probably many more visits.

Maybe you’ll be lucky and meet me there.

Oops.

“Lucky to get on the brew-Bandwagon” more than once? Yes. “Lucky to meet me?” Well…

-30-


Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to review, discuss and comment on all things beer including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives all things beer. Also: reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the beer business, and all the various homebrew, judging and organizations related to beer. Essentially, all things “beer.”
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