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Craft: “1. a trade or occupation requiring manual skill. 2. skill; dexterity.” – Random House Webster’s Dictionary
“Craft”—and I use the term loosely—breweries are proliferating, a fact that is news to exactly no one with any interest in the subject. Throw a rock around here, and you’re likely to hit a new brewery, more than likely started by a former homebrewer who figured out that people liked what he made. And yes, I say “he”, because I’ve yet to meet a single pro brewer in New York who is female. If y’all exist, give us a shout so we know you’re there.
I’m happy to see so many homebrewers going pro; it is, as so many have described it, a “dream job.” What concerns me is the quality of the product. Why? Because I care about beer. So it bothers me to hear folks raving about a piss-poor beer, merely because it’s local. Which brings us, in a roundabout and tangential way, to the subject of today’s article: Crafty Ales and Lagers.
No, they’re not a piss-poor brewery, and neither have I heard any Rochester locals raving about them, which may be a slight oversight on their part (though one friend did mention that he liked the stout). So I figure Crafty should get some airtime for their accessible approach to craft beer.
Owned and Operated by one Mike Darling, Crafty Ales and Lagers is sort of tucked away in downtown Phelps, NY. Ordinarily, a downtown location hardly qualifies as “tucked away,” but Phelps is not a large town, and is easily bypassed. But, thanks to Google Maps, the sandwich board on the corner, and a sign over the door that is faintly reminiscent of an old European ale house, I found the brewery just fine.
December 4, 2015
The taproom is painted in a soft, inviting yellow, and decorated with small touches of witchy kitsch. Given the inextricable link in history and pop culture between witches and women, I’d sort of hoped to find a woman at least involved in the brewing. No such luck, but Mike’s wife, Jennie, does help in the tasting room two days per week, and I’m fairly sure she also holds down the fort with a regular job. Also, Jennie was responsible for Mike’s eight-year stint in Denver, CO and for getting him into brewing in the first place, with the gift of a homebrewing kit for Christmas, 1994. With that, Mike launched his homebrew career in “a crappy little apartment about a stone’s throw from Denver University.” A photo of a younger, longer-haired Mike, hangs on the taproom wall.
While brewing can be a solitary craft (though it’s definitely easier with help; Mike’s comes in the form of Assistant Brewer Tim Bower), beer is a social elixir, and most people involved in its creation are happy to talk about it. After the usual round of introductions and whatnot, Ben and I start sampling the beers while I chat with Mike, and occasionally, the other patrons.
Gypsy Snap Broomstick
5.8 % Pale Ale
Citrusy, with a spiced phenolic character that immediately points to the Belgian yeast. Pale ales and IPAs don’t always take well to being fermented with Belgian strains, but this one is pleasant and highly drinkable.
To my intense chagrine, I spill part of my first sample, and have to spend a few minutes blotting my notebook, while Mike mops the floor. Good naturedly, he says his title is “CMO; Chief Mop Operator.”
Recovering from that minor disaster, I move on to the next beer.
≈ 4% English Mild
Brewed with six malts, and EKG (English Kent Golding) hops from Cheshire, NY. Light caramel notes in the nose, and toasty character in the flavor, as I’d expect for the style. Some feel that English Mild is a boring beer, but like many British styles, I think it makes for an excellent session, and obviously goes along great with pub food.
Crafty, an obvious play on words blending craft beer and the lighthearted theme (there’s no real occult anything in the taproom, website, or merch; I’m nerdy enough to recognize it when I see it), has been open since June, 2013. Currently, there are eighty-five entries in the Finger Lakes Beer Trail “Breweries & Brewpubs” directory. That’s thirty-eight more than there were when Crafty Ales and Lagers first got on the beer trail.
Opening his own brewery has been Mike’s retirement plan for years, but job instability nudged him in that direction a couple of decades earlier than previously anticipated. Currently, Crafty runs a 2 barrel system, which they upgraded to in August, 2014. Mike was excited about the increased ability to meet demand for his beers, but then in December of the same year, New York State amended the microbrewery license, allowing them to serve whole pints. Naturally, this increased the amount Mike needed to keep on tap. Now, he’s exploring options for expansion to a 7 barrel system. For my purposes, tasting flights are perfect, but in the course of my visit (late on a Friday afternoon), I see Mike sell mostly single pints, and one or two growlers.
Wicked Wet Rye
6.5% Wet hopped rye IPA
This one used quite a bit of New York hops; “twenty-five pounds of Chinook came from the hop farm in Newark, and he drove ‘em down about an hour after picking ‘em,” Mike said, and “five pounds came from Clifton Springs.” This RIPA definitely has a New York hop flavor, with plenty of bitterness, and a touch of rye spiciness.
Like Three Huskies and Gaël, both of which I’ve written about recently, Crafty operates under a micro, not farm, brewery license. This gives them the freedom to use whatever ingredients are appropriate to the beer in question, whether New York grown, or not. Mike has always enjoyed cooking, and he feels that helps him to have a well-developed palate, and also makes recipe creation easier. He appreciates beer as an agricultural product, and sees that the terroir makes a difference to the ingredients; hops, especially.
6% Oatmeal Stout
Creamy, tan head, opaque pour with mahogany highlights, and a medium-full mouthfeel. Strongly roasty, with a touch more acridity than I prefer, and with slightly less body than I’d expect from an oatmeal stout. The appearance is much like an imperial stout, with a slightly darker tan head than you’d see in a classic Irish stout, beautiful legs that stay high on the glass, and good head retention.
Dark Star conforms well to Mike’s goal of creating “approachable” beers. While craft brewing continues to expand in the U.S., a great number of people still fall into the “Blue” and “Light” crowd. Mike loves craft beer, and wants to share it with people. In order to do that in a friendly, “approachable” way (there’s that word again), he makes brews that provide an easy transition for non-craft drinkers. One such is Crafty Cream Ale, which “uses locally sourced honey and honey malt.”* That one’s not on tap when I stop in, but I’m sure it sells well when it’s on.
“We like to have balanced beers, with a lot of flavor,” he says of his brewing philosophy. “We’ve probably done forty-five beers in the two and a half years we’ve been open,” he estimates. They do four beers on a constant basis, and the rest are one-off, or seasonal.
6.8% Smoked Pumpkin Ale
Quite smoky (the pumpkins are actually smoked, which I like), with some almost-pithy, gourd character. Smoke is the stronger flavor, though. The not-quite Burnt Sienna color is expected for a pumpkin beer. Smoking the pumpkins added fermentable sugars, boosting the ABV.
Mike’s found his niche with entry-level, “approachable” craft beers, and seems to enjoy helping to change customers’ perceptions of beer; if someone says, “I don’t like dark beers,” Mike will have them try Mystic Mild, a richly dark beer that almost no one could find extreme. “I kinda know my audience at this point in time, and it’s not where I have to dumb the beers down…” he says, shortly after mentioning that he’ll have a Belgian Quad going on tap the following week (Wednesday, December 9th).
If you’re a craft beer aficionado looking for something truly extraordinary, you’re likely to be disappointed by many of the local breweries. But Crafty Ales and Lagers does a good job of providing quality beers to both seasoned microbrew drinkers and newcomers to the scene. Every convert from Blue and Light beers has to start somewhere, and if that somewhere is their neighborhood alehouse, so much the better. Also, the macrobrew tap at Crafty isn’t; it’s water, which comes in very handy when drinking a tasting flight.
All photos by Benjamin Wilson
*”The Beer.” Crafty Ales and Lagers – A Nano Brewery in Phelps, NY. Accessed December 11, 2015.