Those of us who live in America’s urban environments are lousy with great beer selections these days. Even the suburbs are bursting with breweries. GBH’s home in Chicago is a perfect example of a booming market all-around. But I mostly take it for granted until I head home to the Twin Tiers of northern Pennsylvania along the border of New York state. As soon as I get east of Ohio along Interstate 86, I practically start counting the miles between me and my next great beer. I can appreciate a Yuengling Lager as much as the next guy, plenty of them in fact, but nostalgia and corn grits can only get you so far across such a wide and isolated section of beer country.
These days, whenever I feel that anxiety creeping in, I just open Maps on my phone, search “brewery” and pins drop everywhere. And that’s how I found Upstate Brewing Company.
A half dozen breweries showed up in a 30 mile radius that day, but most of them looked like tired brewpubs or start-ups still in their muddiest days. Upstate, with its stark black and white logo had a certain clarity. "This might be a good one,” I recall saying to my wife as we cut through the Southern Tier in the middle of the night. She nodded knowingly, making the same quick read that I did.
Just a couple of miles off the highway in Elmira, NY, Upstate Brewing Co. is quickly filling up their small production facility (far ahead of any any schedule they could have laid out for themselves) and cranking out quality beer that’s hitting coolers all over the Empire State. This past year they’ve expanded distribution into Rochester, Albany, Buffalo, and New York City, as well as penetrating large grocery retail with Wegmans. And this week, they’re sending off the first palates stacked with their iconic 16oz black and white cans of their best-selling Common Sense ale to the Met’s Citi Field where it'll be served alongside Sixpoint, Brooklyn, and Bluepoint. “Oak Beverage was looking to get some local beers in cans into the park and we perfectly fit the bill. They seem to really love the Common. Its unique," says founder, Mark Nuemann.
Common Sense, their rendition of a Kentucky Common Ale feels perfectly designed for such a soft, transitioning market — malt-forward, mildly hopped at 22 IBUs with Willamette, Cascade, and Columbus, it finishes bready and a touch sweet. Despite its restrained profile, it was nearly flawless.
Upstate is five years old. In craft beer years, that’s usually well on the way to regional status. But outside craft-focused urban market, beer adapts much slower — customers need to be created before they can be sated. Growth requires patience and flexibility. There are few trends of which to take advantage. They’ll grow from 900 barrels in 2014 to about 1,600 this year on a 7-barrel brewhouse and a small collection of 15 barrel fermenters — and it’ll mostly be founder Mark Neumann and his recently hired brewer doing it alone.
Mark and his original partner moonlighted their day jobs for a few years as they honed their technical abilities and worked to catalyze such a soft local market. But in September of 2014, Mark went full-time and his partner took a job at another brewery, parting ways. "I wanted to get bigger tanks and put the money right back into the business” explains Neumann. “He wanted a salary so now he’s an employee at another brewery. It’s good. I’m in it for the long-haul and I get more satisfaction if success comes a couple years, even five years down the road, and I know I worked myself to death to make it happen."
Neumann’s previous entrepreneurial experiences seemed to prepare him for the emotional torture of running a brewery in those early, lean days. “I moved to LA after college on my own and took over a construction company. We were all basically losing money, but we dug in and made tough decisions, turned it around and made it profitable and grew the company. It was a very a satisfying sensation — doing well on our own. Beer is a tough industry; it’s not going make money over night. I want to make money, but in the short term it’s a labor of love, and I’m mentally prepared and financially prepared to accept that."
With the fading memory of a great regional brand like Rolling Rock behind them, Upstate took a crack at an Extra Pale Ale — a bit fruity and well hopped with Comet, Apollo, Bravo, and Columbus. Its got great bite and the body is just shy of sessionable depending on your personal aptitude. For Neumann, Extra Pale Ale is more than just a historical reference for the style, it’s a more honest description of what’s in the can. "It’s more true to what it is, versus calling something a 'Session IPA.' Extra Pale is what it actually is — extra pale in color, extra hops."
The Wheat IPA has been Neumann’s second place brand since they opened, but now that they’re transitioning the XPA to cans (it’s been draft only for awhile) they expect it to take over and give Common Sense a run for its money. “We already sold out our first batch,” says Neumann, with a note of surprise and nervous anxiety in his voice. "It’ll probably be our second-best seller since it’s a little lower abv. I think it stacks up against any Session IPA out there eight now.” Neumann doesn’t strike me as a man that boasts often.
For me, it's just nice to have something to write home about.