The beer you wish you could get here -- but can't

hoosick street beverage west coast beers

Some of the West Coast beers at Hoosick Street Beverage.

By Jeff Janssens

There's no question that beer lovers of the Capital Region are blessed these days. It's easy to find good beer at a number of bars in the area, there are a handful of beer stores with great selections, and you can even fill a growler at some area supermarkets now.

"[The beer scene] is huge now," says Mike Smith of Hoosick Street Beverage Center in Troy. "You see it here through the RPI kids. On Friday nights, we used to sells kegs of Keystone. Now they're all buying the good stuff."

That doesn't mean we have access to all the good beer, though. Craft brewing is, by definition, done on a small scale. And because of limited supply and distribution, there are some beers that are either hard to find here -- or just not available.

So I stopped by Hoosick recently to talk with Mike Smith about some of the "holy grails" of beer they'd like to be able to get, but can't -- and some good, locally-available substitutes.

Bell's Hopslam Ale: Double IPA

Called "the Wonka Golden Ticket for beer nerds," Hopslam could be on its way from Michigan to New York in the near future -- but don't get excited just yet. "With a brewery like Bell's, I've always heard that if they try to come to the upstate market, they first have to do New York City, Boston, the surrounding cities," says Jimmy O'Connor, regional manager for Long Trail Brewing in Bridgewater, Vermont (he happened to be at Hoosick when I stopped by, and joined in on the conversation). The demand generated by those cities is so great that many growing breweries simply can't invest the resources to expand into this region.

hoosick street beverage Ithaca beers

Alternatives: "Hopslam is tough," says Mike Smith, citing the six different hop varietals used in the beer. For that reason, he says, "You can always find a hoppy beer, but it's never going to be the same [as Hopslam]." One popular choice, which I recently had for the first time on tap at The Ruck, is Flower Power from Ithaca Beer Co. It's not as strong as Hopslam (7.5% ABV versus 10.0%), but the similarly inventive use of hops -- it's hopped and dry-hopped several times during the brewing process -- lends Flower Power a balanced piney and citrusy taste sure to please any hop head.

Russian River Brewing's Pliny the Elder (Double IPA)

This beer is ranked #3 on Beer Advocate's list of the top 250 beers, just behind its seldom-seen nephew, Pliny the Younger. Noticing a trend? IPAs often hold the "most wanted" title for beer drinkers. Many serious beer drinkers are obsessed with the biggest hop-bombs out there. It's not just a point of pride (who can handle the most bitterness); it's also because these hop-heavy beers provide the most regional differences among brews based on the varieties of hops used and how they're incorporated.

Alternatives: "There's not a replacement for everything," says O'Connor. "Pliny is great. I had it, I liked it a lot, but out here I can find so many other beers that will be satisfying." In trying a beer like Pliny, part of the appeal is in knowing how other IPAs stack up to arguably the best one out there. But if it's just a question of being able to get our hands on some of the best California beers out there, we're fortunate in the Capital Region to have access to some of the West Coast's best, like those from Firestone Walker, Stone Brewing, and Green Flash. Try a Firestone Double Jack and the bold hop profile, high ABV, and bomb of citrusy flavors will have you forgetting about the Plinys -- at least for a while.

Allagash White (Witbier)

Allagash White bottle and glass

You'd think that we'd be able to get beer from Maine's second-largest brewer in the Capital Region, but that's not the case -- even if you can find Allagash in Western Massachusetts. Occasionally the guys from Hoosick Street might make the drive to pick up some cases to sell in their store (they had some available when I visited), but more often than not we're left wanting when it comes to one of the most popular American takes on this highly drinkable version of the classic Belgian wheat beer.

Alternatives: When it comes to Belgian beers, we're fortunate to live so close to Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown. Their standard witbier, the Witte, is a good replacement for Allagash White, but it's nice being able to take advantage of many of Ommegang's rarer selections that can only be found at the brewery, or in this region, on tap. Also look out for Long Trail's Double White, a sort of imperial witbier at 8% ABV, available from April-August.

Great Lakes Brewing's Christmas Ale (Holiday/Spiced Beer)

This is a beer I fell in love with during the three long winters I spent in Ohio. It's the most balanced holiday beer I've had, brewed with honey and featuring a seasonal blend of spices, including ginger and cinnamon. It's currently available in western New York, and Smith picked up a couple cases of it in December for Hoosick Street, but those were snatched up almost instantly; the beer has a noted cult following.

Alternatives: "Christmas Ales are a touchy thing," says Smith. "You can make them like the Harpoon Winter Warmer, which is just too spicy for me, but that's why Southern Tier's 2Xmas is good." At 8% ABV, the winter beer from the Lakewood, New York brewer is warming in a way similar to Christmas Ale, and features a unique flavoring blend of figs, cardamom, and clove.

The Alchemist's Heady Topper (Double IPA) and anything from Hill Farmstead

Two tiny breweries in northern Vermont round out our list. Heady Topper is the #1 beer as rated by Beer Advocate users, while Hill Farmstead is the #1 brewery as voted by the users of RateBeer.com. The Alchemist is impressive for their dedication to perfecting one beer. For now, Heady Topper is only available in a couple dozen establishments in the area around the brewery, but they're looking to expand to Boston in the near future.

Hill Farmstead's ever-changing selection of beers, ranging from pale ales to smoked Baltic porters, is even harder to find than Heady Topper.

Alternatives: Who needs alternatives? A visit to Hill Farmstead and The Alchemist would make for a great weekend trip, beer lover or not. Hill Farmstead hosts beer-related events throughout the summer and fall, and even provides camping information for the area. Magic Hat's not far away, and you could stop by Otter Creek and Long Trail (like Emeril Lagasse did) on the way there or back.
____

There's plenty of good beer available here in the Capital Region, and some of the best beers in the world are a short and scenic drive away. If you don't want to travel, beer trading is more popular than ever. And the local beer scene is only growing, as evidenced by Hoosick Street's recent expansion. "We're out of room here," says Smith. "We moved the whole store around last month and still have to add two more shelves."

It's a good problem to have.

Jeff Janssens writes about food and beer at The Masticating Monkey.

Comments


I dearly miss Dixie Blackened Voodoo. The brewery was in New Orleans and devastated by Katrina. It is being made again under contract at another brewery (In Wisconsin) but it Just Isn't The Same...

Heady Topper is worth the drive.

You can visit The Worthy Burger in Roylaton VT for amazing localvore fare and the biggest selection on Hill Farmsteads brews on tap that you will find in one place.

Even though we can get Founders' core line, it's their rarer beers I'm coveting, especially KBS. It'd be nice if that beer is available here.

Also, we can't get New Belgium brewery which is odd because they're one of the largest craft breweries in the country.

I'd also add Cigar City and Deschutes to the list.

It may not compare to some of these other top picks, but the beer I miss being able to get the most is Berkshire Brewing Company's Steel Rail Extra Pale Ale.
http://www.berkshirebrewingcompany.com/steel_rail.html

Steel Rail is a truly excellent beer, but that's only half the pain of not being able to get it - like Allagash White, the other half is just how tantalizingly close the distribution reaches. It's pretty widely available just over the border in Western Massachusetts - on tap at bars and in growlers in every package store in Northampton (probably North Adams and Stockbridge, too). If only it would make the short hop out the Berkshire Spur...

Terrapin Rye! And agree with Chad -- kinda hard to believe you can't get Fat Tire here.

FWIW Bells owner has confirmed on Facebook a month or so ago that it would come upstate NY before NYC area.

New Belgium is now owned by Coors (for the past several years) and naturally, the quality and taste has gone seriously downhill. It is no longer really a craft brew, but a smaller market brand name of the Coors brewery using the same crappy ingredients that go into banquet and the silver bullet.

I'm with you, komradebob - Dixie Blackened Voodoo was terrific. I also enjoyed the Crimson Voodoo. I guess I didn't realize that the brewery had been destroyed in Katrina, so that explains why I never see it anymore.

And, I promise to bring back some Great Lakes Brewing beers when I come back to NY to visit.

I second Allagash White!! I friend called about this a year or so ago, and I believe the response he got was that it is all based on the wholesale distributors in your area. They sell directly to wholesalers who then sell it to retailers (thank you convoluted 1940s regulations), so if we don't have the right wholesalers, we are kept in the dark. Unfortunate reality. But, as the author stated, you can't go wrong with Ommegang!!

New Belgium IS NOT OWNED BY COORS. They share distribution partners with MillerCoors but that is all. New Belgium is an employee owned company with great commitment to craft brewing and its community. Not to mention they're the 3rd largest craft brewing company in the US behind Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada.

http://www.brewersassociation.org/pages/media/press-releases/show?title=brewers-association-releases-2010-top-50-breweries-lists

Please, lets get our facts straight before we start spreading rumors.

Re: New Belgium, I'm right there with you guys--it was definitely surprising to move here and find they don't distribute to the area. I'm not a lover of Fat Tire, but some of the beers from their Lips of Faith series are really good. And with an East Coast brewery slated to open in two years in Asheville, NC, let's hope that we'll be getting a full complement of their beer.

@Kevin Buckley: I'm looking forward to going out of my way to visit the Worthy Burger. It sounds quite good.

@Rich: If you're in the mood for the Allagash White, I know they still had some as of yesterday at Hoosick Street.

@amy: Terrapin's got some good ones--I especially like their Moo-Hoo Chocolate Milk Stout.

Decent sour beer is what's missing from this list. Cantillon is near impossible to find anywhere, but especially here. The most recent appearance of Tilquin :almost: fills that gap. The only thing from 3F that sits on our shelves is Schaerbeekse Kriek and at $40+ a bottle is merely a special occasion beer. Just last week Brew Crew got in Golden Blend, but again, it's $28 for a 375ml bottle. Yikes.

I've been having luck with shipping beer in from Cascade Barrel House in Oregon, but shipping isn't cheap and neither are the beers. (It ended up being $40 a bottle for Vlad the Imp Aler with shipping). These are true American Wild Ales, not lambics or geuzes, so they are much more in your face tart than the subtle tartness with a bit of funk on the back end like a nice aged Cantillon.

Sloop Brewing out of Poughkeepsie is the closest local brewery that I know who does an infected beer on purpose (*cough cough* Brown's). They do a Berliner Weisse with just the right amount Peach. It's approachable like Festina Peche but better, IMO. Not going to knock and true sour fans on their face but it holds its own.

I make the pilgrimage to Michigan a few times a year, each time stocking up on my fair share of Bells + Great Lakes Brewery. Hopslam is pretty good, but their Two Hearted Ale is just as good, cheaper, and available year-round! I've been looking for any excuse to get up to The Alchemist, but their canning schedule has them constantly selling out on weekdays, making a weekend trip more than a gamble since you'd have to "get lucky" and find it at a local retailer.

The facebook pages for the Brew Crew (Oliver's) and Westmere Beverage are VERY responsive. I highly recommend dropping them a line if you're looking for a specific beer.

To add one more to the list that I'd loooovvvee to see out here - Three Floyds!

A great thing (?) about living in the Capital Region is that we live in the crossroads of fairly major cities/regions. The wilds of New England aren't far, nor is Boston, Providence, Hartford. NYC is a straight shot down the Hudson (by your choice of conveyance), same with western New York and Montreal (et environs).

In any of these places one can acquire beer one can't get here. I know; there are several cases of just such brews now in the house. The solution doesn't have to be finding an inferior alternative.

Wow. You read my mind... Bell's and Russian River.

I love me some Two-Hearted Ale. Excited to hear they're coming. If only Russian River would follow suit. Pretty please Supplication please.

I agree with Chad on his selection and would add Three Floyds Brewing Co. which makes Zombie Dust, Dreadnaught IPA and of course the very rare Dark Lord beer. Another brewery would be Odell's from Ft. Collins CO. their Myrcenanry double IPA is incredible and we touched on the VT beers but Lawson's Finest Liquids and their Double Sunshine IPA is great.

Chris, you couldn't possibly be more wrong if you tried. New Belgium is employee owned and the only beer that has gone downhill of theirs is the La Folie, and only because they mass produce it now.

Oh yes, 3Floyds and Russian River are essential additions. Obviously, Heady Topper (The Alchemist) is astonishingly good. I personally would like to see some of the more exclusive offerings from Founder's as well as a few offerings from Surly (MN). Good article.

Massachusetts girl here to brag- I had the good fortune of trying Allagash White for the first time this week, on draft, at British Beer Co. restaurant. I'm pretty sure it only cost $3.50, too!

And yes, it was delicious.

I'd love to get the Hop Hazard Ale from River Horse Brewery in Lambertville, NJ again. It was distributed here for a few months a couple years ago, but is no longer available locally. It's not an IPA, but a beautifully balanced pale ale.

Shiner

I haven't had a pint of Switchback Ale since I was back at Dartmouth. I was so excited to see it on tap at Dinosaur BBQ the other week, but alas the keg had just been finished...

3 Floyd's is one of the things I miss most about living in Chicago.

Nice list! Re Pliny the Elder, I lived up the street in SF from the legendary Toronado bar. When they got a cask of Pliny the Elder the buzz would go up on chowhound and there would be a line around the block when they opened at 11 am; it would be gone by early afternoon.

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