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Apr 20, 2014

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Woodstock Brewing

By Gregg Smith

What do the original capital of New York State, an Apiary, fine art, a hippie commune, an old foundry, and Rip Van Winkle have in common? Well they've all been tied together in Kingston, New York and the story is one of those best heard over a beer, and if your lucky that beer could be a Hudson Lager.

Back in the days of the colonies Rip Van Winkle took a trip up to the Catskills and heard what he thought was an approaching thunder storm. In a hollow he was surprised to find a group of diminutive keg tappers playing nine pins. At their invitation Rip sampled the brew. You know the rest of the story, Rip over-indulged, but being a responsible drinker he decided to sleep over. This all took place in the Catskills not far from Kingston, New York, the state's original capital.

By the mid 19th century this orchard and farming region of the central Hudson boasted twenty two breweries, five of which were located in Kingston. Alas, the Volstead act (AKA the eighteenth amendment, or prohibition), and the post war competition from the large national breweries, did them in, with the last one closing its brew kettles in the 1950's. This era saw America deviate from the taste of real beer as the national brands seized upon the light taste developed during prohibition and the war, and added more adjuncts such as corn and rice. This technique lead to faster fermentation, lessening both aging and expense, and made a beer distinguished from its European ancestors by its very light body.

Our story now flashes forward to when "the event" of the late 60's was named after the nearby area of Woodstock and three days of peace, love, and rock and roll. It brought with it Nat Collins, and although he didn't know it, he had started on the journey that continues the legacy of Rip and all those previous breweries.

Nat was drawn to the area and entered the Rainbow Farm Collective filling the post of beekeeper. It wasn't long until the flower children sitting in the bliss of communal spirit discovered there just might be a little something missing in their otherwise perfect marriage with nature. That one thing could only be - beer. Nat's assignment was to convert the commune's fermentables, honey and grain, into a suitable beverage. Although he subsequently left to pursue a more conventional career he continued to refine his home brewing abilities.

In the late 70's he formed and ran his own construction firm, but all the while he dreamt of retiring and running his own brewery. By the late eighties he decided that time had come. Disbanding the firm, he took to the road and visited micro breweries, brewpubs, attended courses at the Siebel Institute, and became an AHA\HWBTA recognized beer judge.

On returning to Woodstock he started searching for an appropriate building to house his dream. This brings us to a Kingston foundry which first saw operation in the 1830's, the gantry crane is still there up above the hung ceiling. Although Nat wanted to locate in Woodstock the space in the foundry building and the cooperation from the city was too good to pass up. Now was the time that all the construction experience, and help of friends, came in handy as he cleaned and refurbished the building that had recently served as a garage. The sweat equity paid off in a 6,000 sq ft brew house with a new poured slab floor, angled just right for clean brewery operations.

At Woodstock the brewing follows a traditional and time-honored process. It starts with grain from Shreier Malting Company and some Munich malt from Belgium. The grain is passed through the brewery's rollermill which acts like a rolling pin to slightly crush it. Just a short distance from the crushing room is the mash tun where the cracked grain is combined with excellent local water. The grain and water is "mashed" at 158 degrees, which allows the starches and complex sugars stored in the grain to break down into fermentable sugars. After about an hour the grain is removed and the resulting liquid "wort" is directed to the 20 barrel brew kettle. Hallertau hops is added for flavor and its natural ability as a preservative. A ninety minute boil follows, with Tettenang hops added in the last 10 minutes.

The brewery uses steam heat for the boiling supplied by a new gas boiler "Big Bertha" which puts out 1 million BTU's. At the end of the boil the wort is drawn off and cooled on its way to the fermentation tank. Now is the time the yeast is added and begins to work its magic, producing alcohol and CO2. The yeast Nat uses is a bavarian strain which imparts specific flavor characteristics to the beer. After ten days in the primary fermenter, where most of the fermenting activity occurs, the beer is transferred to the secondary fermenter for aging. The finished brew is then ready for filtering and kegging in a system that can fill four barrels simultaneously.

The brew that results from these efforts is an American Lager called "Hudson Lager, Golden Amber". It presents a bright appearance, and deep straw color. The nose offers an appealing malty aroma that includes just a hint of the flowery tettenang hops. An easy hand on the CO2 leaves a proper amount of carbonation and an inviting head that clings to the glass in a fine lace. The flavor is well balanced with a touch of hops in the finish. This is a well made beer, good enough to be served across the river at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.

It was a conscious decision to start with a lager, the local population patronizes Bud and Miller, but now Woodstock is making inroads in their market. Nat has big plans; aside from taking on the big two in his area. One is the upcoming addition of a bottling line. Another is the introduction of St. James Ale to celebrate the brewery's fourth anniversary. This will join the popular seasonal beers of Ichabod Crane holiday beer and Big Indian Porter. Ichabod is a potent pumpkin beer packing a big alcohol wallop behind its subtle spices. The other, "Big Indian" is an excellent rendition of an English style porter, sweeter and thinner than American versions of porter. In early 1993 the brewery underwent its first expansion with the delivery of an additional primary fermenter and three more conditioning tanks. Eventually the strategy is to expand to about 6 to 8,000 barrels a year. Nat emphasizes this will be a gradual expansion because he wants to continue his control of the distribution and handling of his beer. Handling is extremely important in an unpasteurized beer such as Woodstock. Overheating, chilling and agitation can cause this beer to lose the flavor that makes it a unique full bodied brew.

When you search for the Woodstock's brews look for the fine art framed in the diamond logo. The lager portrays a Hudson river sloop passing near what appears to be Storm King. The interpretation will not fail to remind you of Bierstadt, Church, Cole and Cropsey. Each beer will feature a different scene portrayed in the style of the Hudson River School, which is very fitting since Frederick Church lived just across the river.

The brewery is open for tours from 9AM to 1PM on Saturdays and by appointment. The tour, which is handicap accessible, includes a full explanation of the brewing process and ends in the tasting room. As you walk through you may discover that Nat has kept ties with his start, for it's not uncommon to see his homebrew equipment stuck in a corner. In fact he twice hosted the regional judging of the American Homebrews Association national homebrew competition.

Nat may even sheepishly tell you of his adjustment to the new size of the operation and how the first time he entered the Mash-Tun for a cleaning he took a cordless phone along, just in case. If you plan to be in the Kingston area a visit to the Woodstock Brewing Company is well worth the trip. For more information contact the brewery at (914) 331- 2810.

Gregg Smith

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