Wednesday, March 23, 2016

High Peaks Happy Hour: BarkEater Craft Brewery, Lowville

Xavier Cordova, BarkEater's brewmaster.A brewery double-header in the Old Forge and Tug Hill regions covered nearly 300 miles and 12 hours, counting stops and tastings.

We couldn’t waste the hour-and-a-half between interviews so decided to use our time wisely and snag an elusive Happy Hour Passport stamp (and a refreshment) at the Big Moose Inn in Eagle Bay before venturing on to BarkEater Craft Brewery.

Our connection to Lowville featured a road so desolate that the disappearance of electrical service was noted for a brief period. As homes began to reappear on the 13-mile stretch of Moose River Road, we arrived at Turin.

Running right on schedule, we made a quick stop at Lock 96 gas station for relief. A slice of pizza seemed a good choice for lunch and a large table inside offered a place to eat it. Two charming octogenarians shuffled to chairs on one side as we occupied seats on the other. The shared table invited conversation, but Pam’s application of mustard and ketchup to her pizza demanded it. They chatted with us amicably, as if we were neighbors rather than the time-challenged and ravenous travelers we were. The visit was brief but pleasant – except for our new worries about the men’s ongoing health issues. With fresh cups of convenience coffee in hand, we headed to our next destination, determined to be back inside the Blue Line before sunset.

BarkEater_IntThe BarkEater Craft Brewery, tucked among the patchwork of Shady Avenue storefronts in Lowville, announces its location with a small sign in a woodburned birch bark style swinging from a wrought iron bracket. A colonial lantern mounted on the building’s cedar shakes illuminates the warmly inviting red door that transports the visitor from the twentieth-century sidewalk to the tavern inside. Although craft beer is somewhat a mystery to many uninitiated residents of Lewis County who might not know what to expect from a taproom, the curious elect not to pass the taproom by.

Our entrance interrupted an assembly of staff who meet regularly to taste and analyze styles of beer from other producers. It’s all very scientific. We were greeted by founder Dean Richards, whose easy smile and relaxed demeanor made us feel immediately at home among the pine tables and saddle barstools. Framed wildlife drawings created by Dean – an artist of seemingly limitless talents – hang on the walls. The absence of TVs prompts conversation among patrons, nudged from their mindless stares to conscious interaction.

This nanobrewery uses a half-barrel brewing system, earning the distinction of the smallest registered brewery in New York State, and the only brewery in Lewis County. BarkEater brews three batches a day to fill a single fermenter. Dean refers to it as “guerrilla brewing.” Having produced more than 35 different beers in 18 months, not having to commit to a production schedule allows for experimenting with many different varieties. Five taps are constantly changing, though some are brewed repeatedly to satisfy demand. The decision to open at that size and remain at that production rate through the first year was a conscious one for Dean, who points out Dogfish Head had started in the very same manner.

BarkEater’s expansion plans include upgrading to either a five or seven-barrel system in the future, depending on a variety of factors. While the current space won’t accommodate that increase within its confines, Dean also has an off-site production space that will help BarkEater grow in a manageable way. Heeding advice from a well-established brewer in Glens Falls, Dean is cautious about getting too big. He’d rather remain an active participant in the brewing process – the reason he’s doing this in the first place. BarkEater sells 95% of its product on site, currently distributing only to Jeb’s Restaurant next door and Tug Hill Vineyards in Lowville, but two dozen restaurants are ready to accept BarkEater beer as soon as production meets the demand for distribution.

An emergency phone call prompted Dean to turn us over to BarkEater’s brewmaster, Xavier Cordova. Dean did all of the brewing the first year, but refers to himself as “just” a home brewer. As BarkEater approached its one-year anniversary, he decided to bring Xavier on board as a gift to himself. “I can make good beer.” Dean states. “Xavier makes great beer, in my opinion.”

Xavier is a professionally trained brewer who came from Matt’s Brewing Company, one of the largest in the state, to work for the smallest. “BarkEater’s focus is quality. It’s irrelevant how big it is,” says Dean. BarkEater has created 25 recipes since opening. Some have been experimental and are not reproduced while others have required re-brewing due to popularity.

BarkEater_BeerDAX refers to BarkEater’s family of IPAs. The DAX Session IPA has a lower alcohol content (4.8%) than most IPAs, which can average around 6.5% ABV and shoot up to as high as 14% ABV, so it can be consumed a little more liberally than higher-alcohol beers. There’s almost always a version of DAX on tap in the taproom. A flight of samples yielded that day’s lineup. Oswegatchie Export, a big, rich Scotch ale with toffee and caramel notes, is dark and flavorful with a soft, creamy head. DAX Red IPA has a balance of malt and hops with a citrus-y bitter finish. Renee’s Rye Stout was created in memory of Renee Beyer, a local woman who died in a car accident. A portion of proceeds from the sale of the beer is donated to the Renee Beyer Fund. The TUG Copper Ale utilizes Tug Hill grown hops to create this copper-hued pale ale with a malty aroma and hop bitterness. The final sample was a DAX White IPA. The White IPA incorporates white wheat in a crisp, slightly yeasty balance of bitter, tart, and citrus. The rotation at BarkEater Craft Brewery also includes BLK River India Black Rye, Two Bonaparte Stouts (black and dry), DAX2 Double IPA, Kolschbier, Knut Brown Ale, and more red ales, IPAs, Scotch ales, a porter, a pumpkin, and a current offering – Sinzibuckwud. Sinzibuckwud is the Algonquin word for maple syrup (literally “from the wood”). This New England version of Belgian dark strong style ale incorporates local maple syrup in a rich, dark beer with a subtle maple taste and aroma.

BarkEaterFlightWhile Kim engaged in what she calls “immersion therapy” (beer tasting), Pam accosted a couple at a table to find out what brought them to BarkEater – were they regulars? Passing through? The two NCPR journalists had recently moved from out-of-state to the Watertown area and were out sightseeing when they stumbled upon Barkeater Brewing. Not ones to let an opportunity to experience local flavor pass them by, they ducked in for a pint. Quickly realizing they were among celebrities (us) they asked for a photo.

BarkEater Craft Brewery regularly schedules activities and entertainment in the taproom. Thirst Fursday Creative Expression Night is an open mic, held on the First Thursday of each month from 7-10 pm. Live music is featured on Third Thursdays and occasional Wednesdays and Saturdays. A first for us – Theology on Tap – brings local ministers together with taproom patrons for informal spiritual talks and conversation. Visit BarkEater’s Facebook page for their extensive calendar of events.

We left Lowville heading home – or to Matt’s Draft House at the Screamen Eagle in Inlet – we weren’t sure. Screamen Eagle is well known for its pizza, so maybe it was inevitable. Somewhere along the way, Pam fixated on getting back inside the Park before sundown. What would happen if we failed we didn’t know, but it sounded important to us.

We arrived safely inside the Blue Line, somewhere on Moose River Road, before sundown. Between Old Forge and Inlet, we caught a fleeting glimpse of a fat-faced moon, pink and purple, holding its breath. Acknowledging our unbroken curfew with a knowing nod, it winked and scampered behind the mountains. Kim, taking out her Happy Hour Passport to pass the time, began reading the rules and regulations aloud, which had us laughing until our cheeks hurt. We crack ourselves up. We did stop at Matt’s to secure yet another passport stamp, but regrettably skipped the pizza. As we sat at the bar exploring the possibilities of adventure on the rest of our trip home, our giggles elicited some curious glances from the end of the bar. Women our age giggling at a bar should raise some eyebrows – but only to those who don’t know us.

Twelve hours on the road had us both exhausted and inspired. The craft beverage boom is definitely taking shape and promises to keep growing as more breweries, wineries, distilleries, and growers pick up the enthusiasm and work their way into this economic niche. We look forward to discovering all they have to offer.

Photo above, Xavier Cordova, BarkEater’s brewmaster.

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In 2013, sisters Kim and Pam Ladd self-published Happy Hour in the High Peaks: An Adirondack Bar Guide and a companion Happy Hour Trail Passport. As they continue to market and distribute their current book, they are back on the trail doing research for their next project – a guide to breweries, wineries and distilleries in and around the Adirondack Park.

In 2014 they created their own drinking event, a bartender competition they call “BARRED!”, which they expect will become an annual event held in the early spring in collaboration with Basil & Wick’s in North Creek.

With the lofty goal of becoming the Adirondack "Drinking Authority," Kim and Pam report on drinking-related topics and events inside the Blue Line here at the Almanack and at their own blog. You can also visit their website, follow them on Facebook, and Twitter.

The pair have spent most of their lives in Warren County. Pam has a degree in Computer Science, but her passion is mixology. She and her family live in Warrensburg. Kim is a freelance photographer with a degree in Advertising Design and lives in Thurman with her husband.

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