Bandwagon Brewpub: Ithaca

You may remember Ken Carman’s two columns here @PGA: one on their brewer, and one on the brewpub, Bandwagon. Here’s more on their brewer and this Ithaca brewpub. In picture posted below Lars Mudrak is standing to the left.- PGA

Written by Matt Hayes for

Ithaca — The best craft beer in all of New York State is being brewed right here in Ithaca.
Bandwagon Brewpub earned that distinction from judges at the 2012 TAP New York Craft Beer & Fine Food Festival, who awarded the Cayuga Street restaurant and craft brewer with the gold medal for Best Individual Craft Beer in New York State. Judges chose Bandwagon’s High Step Weizenbock out of more than 200 individual brews from more than 50 New York State brewers at the April 29 festival. This year’s festival featured the most competitors in the event’s 15-year history.

For Bandwagon, submitting the winter seasonal beer had been planned as a last hurrah for the Weizenbock, a strong, dark wheat beer among the favorites of brewer Lars Mudrak. Now the beer, which was to be transitioned out to make way for summer beers, will have a permanent spot on tap at the brewery. A new batch is being brewed to be ready for consumption at Bandwagon by Monday.

“People have been asking about it a lot,” Mudrak said. “I feel it’s kind of Ithaca’s, too; it’s not just Bandwagon’s. It’s all our customers’. They drank my mistakes along the way so they should enjoy in my successes as well.”

The beer making talents displayed by Mudrak are distinctly Ithacan in origin. The 23-year-old began covertly experimenting with brewers in his parents’ Coddington Road home at the age of 15. “I think my record was 25 gallons of beer brewing in my closet at once without my parents knowing,” he said.

While that illicit operation sparked an inspiration in the art of creating beer, making a career out of that passion, as it is for most artists, didn’t come without a struggle. After months pestering another Ithaca brewery for a job the manager mentioned that a new nano-brewery on Cayuga Street might be a good place to look.

In December 2010, while home on winter break from college, Mudrak went to the newly established brewpub to ask if they needed an assistant brewer. They didn’t, he was told, but they did have a need for a dishwasher.

Mudrak said sure.

“I told all my friends I am starting to be a brewer. That was kind of a lie because I was really just washing dishes. I thought ‘man, I hope I’m not lying to my friends right now.'”

Along with his dishwashing duties he picked up a few brewing shifts as an apprentice. By January he decided to quit school and focus on brewing beer exclusively.

It was a bit of a risk, he admits, but one he is thrilled he took. Over time much of the creative aspects of the brewing process were turned over to Mudrak. As original brewer and co-owner Michael Johnson focused more on expansion efforts, many of the creative aspects were turned over to Mudrak. Old recipes became his to evolve until the complete process became his own. Now, in the small cellar area of the pub, he and his assistant Brian Rettger churn out two barrels worth of their own concoctions, tweaking and learning as they go.

“I don’t have any formal training,” Mudrak said. “I’d much rather get a love for the art and then figure out how to work the precision rather than the other way around.”

Soon Mudrak and Bandwagon will have a lot more room to experiment as the company is in the third phase of an expansion effort with work being done on a distribution brewery in Interlaken. That new facility will allow for Mudrak to brew 30 barrels rather than the two possible now on Cayuga Street.

Whether in his parents’ closet or a state-of-the art facility, for Mudrak the fun is in the art of trying to turn a few simple ingredients into the best-tasting beer possible.

When word arrived that his Weizenbock won the best craft beer award, Mudrak, as usual, was in the cellar, working on a different brew. He yelled to co-owner Nick Antczak in his office to come help lift a fermenter. “Here,” Mudrak said, pouring Antczak a glass of the Weizenbock, “you better drink the best craft beer in New York State. We were both floored.”

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