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This Independence Day weekend, it seems appropriate to feature a brewery that is as American as entrepreneurship and the Transcontinental Railroad, and as down-to-earth as two guys making beer and pizza can be. Don’t look at me like that; pizza is almost as American as hamburgers, and both are, quite appropriately, immigrants from other domains.
29 May 2015
Railhead Brewing Company was one of several sponsors who contributed prizes to this year’s Upstate New York Homebrewers Association homebrew contest; our first place and third place ribbons netted Ben and I—among other items—two of their growlers and a decent-sized gift certificate.
On a day so hot that the car’s gas gauge decided to get stuck at the empty line, we took our winnings and set off on the eighty-one and a half mile journey south to Hornell, New York. It didn’t take long to leave the Rochester metro area behind, and soon we were travelling though some rather pleasant rural areas and small towns with old-school architecture and cute downtown shops. There was just one problem; we were on a course to arrive at Railhead about an hour before their opening time of 3pm.
Thinking to use up the extra time, we took a slight detour toward Letchworth State Park, passing a Veterans cemetery on the way. But alas, the man collecting park fees could only accept cash or check, and we had neither. Despite our failed attempt to visit the park, we used up enough time that we only arrived 10 or 15 minutes before Railhead was due to open.
Parked next to the rustic brewpub, which, as Ben noted, “looked like something you’d see along the railways in the 1850s,” we had more than enough time to appreciate the treeless gravel parking lot that abutted a defunct rail line. To complete the scene, an abandoned railcar sat on the track, doors slightly open, weeds growing up over the wheels.
The brewpub doors were unlocked promptly at 3 o’clock, and not a moment before (we checked). To be sure, stepping into Railhead’s cool, shaded interior was a relief from the hot midafternoon sun, but also from the aggro and stress of East Coast metro life. From the rough, unfinished log beams to the hand-built bar and enormous American flag gracing the back wall, Raihead is a place that takes pride in its roots and evokes an earlier era, when railroads were the lifeblood of American transportation and commerce, and folks could enjoy a tasty pint at station watering holes along the way.
Walking in, we were greeted by David Woolever, Railhead’s co-owner and head brewer. Like most in the beer trade, Dave was friendly and happy to answer my questions. The brewery has been open since last August, and is Dave’s full-time occupation. His business partner still works in Rochester, so he wasn’t there at 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon. With the place to ourselves for the moment, we pulled up barstools and got down to the business of having a tasting flight, served in trays the Railhead folks made themselves.
This one had been tapped the day before our visit. Brewed with Sapphire, Crystal, and Centennial hops, this pale ale tasted like an IPA; plenty of hops, and notes of pollen. As Ben put it, “kind of a ripe leaf mould bit to it. I rather enjoy it. It’s nice.”
The nose has pleasant floral notes; the several hop varieties make it difficult to pinpoint any single one.
Malty, roasty, and as Dave mentioned, a bit hoppier than the average American Brown. It’s no Moose Drool, but that’s not really a fair comparison. Ben says it compares well to Rohrbach’s, where Dave used to work.
This is a somewhat unique beer that uses Belgian yeast and honey from a local apiary. As expected, it has a Belgian yeast character to the nose, and also in the flavor. Along with hints of what I would guess as candi sugar, if I didn’t know it was honey. The mouthfeel is very smooth, with a slight tingle on the tip of the tongue. The hops add to the depth of flavor without being overpowering. My only complaint is the New York state malt bill. But like many of the breweries popping up all over the state, Railhead operates under a farm brewery license.
As Ben said, “…with a little more leather, and bit more cherry in it, [Humble Beeginnings] could probably approach Ommegang. How they could achieve this, I don’t know. But it’s an excellent beer.”
To round out the flight, I had some of the Sweet Draft Cider from Blackbird Cider Works. I’m a fan of English draft ciders, so I’d prefer a bit more tartness and tannin.
When you’re used to seeing at least $6/pint in a restaurant for anything halfway decent, $5 flights and pint prices that range between $4 and $4.75 are a pleasant surprise. Those are Blue-whatever-it-is prices at most (city) establishments. And if proponents of Big Beer think craft brews are only for snobby hipsters, they should meet the two middle-aged bikers—both veterans, I think—who I chatted with while settling the tab later in the afternoon.
Most of the farm brewery license holders I’ve seen don’t serve food, at least not yet. With their cheese board and selection of wood fire baked pizzas, Railhead is a pleasant exception. The place started to fill up around 3:45, so Ben and I retreated to a corner table to enjoy a pepperoni pizza before heading back north. Nothing goes with beer like a good pizza, and Railhead’s is quite tasty. Hot and fresh, with that distinctive wood fired-cooked flavor that I can’t get enough of, it was a perfect way to wrap up our visit.