Jesse Darrow, of Ithaca,loads full bottles of CascaZilla Ale into cases as they come off the bottling line at Ithaca Beer Tuesday, Nov. 29, afternoon. / SIMON WHEELER / Gannett Staff Photo
Written by My-Ly Nguyen for pressconnects.com
On a recent Saturday night, a group of friends was willing to wait about two hours for a table at an Ithaca brewpub.
It was family weekend at Ithaca College and there was a concert at a local theater, helping to add to the long list of names waiting to be called.
But for these friends from the Binghamton area, who were looking for more than the run-of-the-mill corner bar, time flew by as they sampled a flight of five brews — among them a peanut butter chocolate stout and raspberry jalapeno ale — a New York cheese plate, and breaded and fried pepper jack cheese sticks in the brewpub’s lounge. That was before the meals, featuring locally sourced produce and meat from local farms and suppliers.
“It’s unique in both taste and experience,” said Rick Lucas, of Binghamton, part of the group. “It’s not like your chain restaurant, which are the same no matter where you go or what city you’re in.”
Soon, the roughly hourlong drive to Ithaca or another community for a similar drinking and dining experience won’t be necessary. At least four breweries are expected to open in Binghamton between January and the third quarter of the year, boosting the growing trend of such businesses opening across the country and ideally bringing increased foot traffic, consumer spending, community revitalization and, perhaps, tourism to the city. They’re exactly the kind of businesses many in Binghamton want.
Those starting local breweries have varied backgrounds but share a longtime love of making beer — they all started as home brewers — and a strong desire to locate their startups here, a place they deem to be teeming with potential and on the cusp of great things.
They don’t mind the brewery competition. Instead, they expect it to serve as a likely driver of potential customers to their respective businesses.
“Hopefully, the ones in Binghamton will be able to offer a similar, unique experience that patrons in other cities will drive here the same way we drive there to try something new,” Lucas said.
City surveys over the past few years indicate brewpubs are high on the public’s wish list for the community and would be a valuable asset to the city’s mix of businesses, said Merry Harris, Binghamton’s economic development director.
In fact, one of the types of businesses the West Side Neighborhood Project — a group of residents, renters, landlords, and city and Binghamton University officials — wants to attract are brewpubs.
“It’s the kind of thing people have seen in other places. It’s trendy,” Harris said. “We want things downtown that are going to be attractive to the students and to a broader audience. Brewpubs really do kind of fit that niche.”
Harris envisions the creation of a Binghamton-area “beer trail” down the line that would appeal to people from this area and beyond.
Beer enthusiasts Theresa Hollister and her partner, Adam Smith, already created the Finger Lakes Beer Trail in the spring, modeling it after the wine trails of Seneca, Cayuga, Keuka and Canandaigua.
“We started seeing all these breweries popping up,” said Hollister, of Apalachin. “It seemed that every time we were out on the wine trail, there was a new brewery. We had the idea that brewers need a trail like the wineries have the wine trail.”
There are about 25 craft brewers on the Finger Lakes Beer Trail, she said.
While it’s unusual to have four breweries planning to open in Binghamton alone, the popularity of the idea doesn’t surprise Hollister.
“They’re all taking advantage of a growing market segment,” she said. “Yes, they’re going to be competing for the same customers, the same dollars, but people like to go from place to place.”
People who drink craft beer are white collar, young professionals.
“They’re people with a more discerning taste,” Hollister said. “They generally have a higher expendable income.”
The new breweries in Binghamton would “provide a substantial tour loop consisting of 11 microbreweries between Binghamton, Syracuse, Cortland and Ithaca,” Hollister said.
A growing trend
The U.S. has about 1,800 breweries, with roughly 725 in the planning stages compared to 389 a year ago, according to the Brewers Association trade group. More than 90 percent fit the small and independent craft brewer definition — each producing 6 million barrels of beer or less per year.
Craft brewers had only 6 percent of U.S. beer sales in 2008, the association said, but the number of craft brewers has grown from eight in 1980, to 537 in 1994, to more than 1,600 in 2010.
“America’s beer drinkers are rapidly switching to craft because of the variety of flavors they are discovering,” said Paul Gatza, the association’s director. “And they are connecting with small and independent craft brewers as companies they choose to support.”
Home brewers/beer enthusiasts with entrepreneurial spirit are responding, but they face obstacles met by any small business operator.
“There is a growing interest in establishing new breweries,” Gatza said. “Will they all make it? No, but many will if they produce high-quality, interesting craft beers and can get them to market through self-distribution and beer wholesalers and beer retailers.”
Besides access to market, other challenges include managing costs of raw materials and ingredients and operating in a highly regulated and highly taxed industry, the association said.
Secrets to success
“My main advice for new brewers is to understand how the market works and how their products will fit in,” said Dan Mitchell, president of Ithaca Beer Co., a brewery he opened in 1998 to “exemplify the spirit of the Finger Lakes.”
When he started, there were few breweries in upstate New York and none in Ithaca, Mitchell said. His operation started small, with only a couple of people.
Today, the business has 15 employees and brews more than 10,000 barrels a year, Marketing Director Allison Graffin said. That breaks down to more than 100,000 cases a year, with distribution in seven states.
Ithaca Beer produces five year-round beers and four seasonals. The company sells its beer in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Ohio, at places such as Wegmans and other retailers, and in bars and restaurants, including the Ithaca Ale House.
Growth has pushed forward the business’ plans to construct a brewing facility and brewpub behind Ithaca Beer’s current location, Graffin said. Ithaca Beer leases space now. The brewpub could open in late spring or early summer.
“We’ve never been able to serve pints … just tastings,” Graffin said. “There seems to be a growing demand for people to be able to go to the place and have a beer where the beer is brewed and spend time there and have a good time.”
Mitchell added he had wanted to open a brewpub for years.
“When I found the system that made the most sense, I bought it, and then the building I was looking at fell through,” he said. “I found our current location and went all in on the wholesale side. After 13 years, I can now open a pub.”
While serving food will become a component of the business, Ithaca Beer will still be about the beer.
“The key to success is having really good beer,” said Graffin, adding the employees’ hard work, enthusiasm for the product and community involvement also are success drivers.
Mitchell declined to disclose Ithaca Beer’s sales, but said his target customers are those ages 21 to 60-plus — and a growing number of them are women.
“Distribution is and always has been the biggest challenge,” he said. “Making good beer is one thing, but getting it to market is another.