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Otsego County 'hopping' along to a familiar distinction

By GARY LIBERATORE

(WKTV) - In the 1800's, Otsego County had the distinction of being the largest hops producing region in the then relatively young United States, and now the county is quickly gaining another  related distinction, microbrewery capitol of New York State.

Today, if you didn't know it, there is something called the Cooperstown Beverage Trail, a trail where you can travel throughout Otsego County and come across wineries, an historic cider mill and a number of breweries.

The Trail, as it's known was founded back in 2004 by four of the establishments now along the trail, and is billed as New York State's first official cuisine trail.

Those four original establishments are Bear Pond Winery, Cooperstown Brewing Company, Brewery Ommegang and the Fly Creek Cider Mill.

According to cooperstownbeveragetrail.com, two additional beverage makers joined the Trail in 2012, Butternuts Beer & Ale and Rustic Ridge Winery.

At each of the locations, you can enjoy tastings, take a tour to give you a close-up look at how the beverages are made, or just walk around in the specialty shops.

Cooperstownbeveragetrail.com boasts that last year alone, more than 20,000 visitors explored the trail.

Brewery Ommegang President & C.E.O. Simon Thorpe says the beer business is booming, "Over the last four years, basically we've tripled the size of the company here. It's one of the big success stories in Otsego County."

Thorpe says Ommegang opened for business back in 1997 by a couple of local entrepreneurs, Don and Wendy Fineberg, with the backing of Belgium beer giant, Duvel Moortgat which bought the Finebergs out a few years ago, "We're here in a farm house and they originally started the brewery with nothing, and today it has the reputation as one of the to 3 or 4 craft breweries in the country for quality.".

Now, other area beer lovers have turned their passion into a profit making business.

Chuck Williamson, who started up Butternuts Beer & Ale in rural Garrattsville in the 1990's, bought his partner out, and has since purchased Cooperstown Brewing Company in Milford.

Just like Thorpe, Williamson says the beer business is a very good place to be these days.

He says whether its his agriculturally based named beers at Butternuts Beer and Ale, like Porkslap Pale Ale, or his baseball themed beers at Cooperstown Brewing Company, like Old Slugger, he believes his beers would have mass appeal if he were to try and market them to areas outside of the several county region here in Upstate New York where he is currently focused on, "The brands I believe would have national capacity.  The question is production capacity to service that market."

Williamson says one of his most popular brews is his Butternuts Porkslap Pale Ale, but he says there's nothing pork about it, it's just a play on words.

He says he and his former business partner used to work at a brewery in Park Slope, Brooklyn, before purchasing land and opening Butternuts in 2005, "Our image and our intention with the Butternuts brand was to kind of take that 'pretense' of Craft Beer off the table.  At the time, especially in late 90's early 2000's, there was a definite divide between the macro beer drinker and the micro beer drinker.  The macro beer drinker felt alienated, so they just would say I don't like that stuff, because I can't approach it.  And its human nature, if you're not familiar with it, you just want to say no.  So we wanted to try and break that boundary down, and say, hey this is beer, but it is fun.  It's good beer, but don't be so serious, don't be overly serious about it, give it a try."

And that's what it appears Americans have done with craft beers in general.

According to the Brewers Association of America, 2,403 breweries operated in the U.S. for all or part of 2012, and last year alone, 409 opened up (310 microbreweries and 99 brewpubs).

That's a 16 percent increase in breweries in just one year, and the year before, in 2011, there was a 13 percent increase.

Brewpubs, if you aren't familiar with them are restaurants or bars that serve beers that they produce right on the establishment's premises.

One of those brewpubs that has popped up in Otsego County is Council Rock Brewery on Route 28 in Cooperstown.

Manager Michael Barrow says Council Rock has its own beer naming system, "In our beers we try and incorporate the history of Cooperstown.  So for instance one of our beers is called the Leatherstocking Brown, and it has to do a lot with the history and founding of Cooperstown.  We also have a Sunken Island Scotch, and actually in town, we have a sunken island in Otsego Lake, so we try and incorporate that as well into the beer."

Also, Council Rock Brewery itself is named after an actual rock that sits in the water where Otsego Lake meets the Susquehanna River in Cooperstown, which is where the local Indians met in the 1700's.

So there you go, each brewer has their own naming system when it comes to their beers, even though it really all comes down to taste.

Williamson says beer sales all comes down to marketing, no matter how big or small the brewery might be, "Beer is about marketing, it always has been.  I mean you can have the best beer in the world, but people can't relate to it if they can't approach it.  Nobody will know about it.  And in the same breath you can have a very mundane beer, and everybody in the world will buy it.  It's a two way street.  I think people have to identify with it.  It's a personal experience, so people want to know when they buy a beer, it's like saying, 'Hey this is who I am', so it's a big factor."

So, maybe someday soon we will see Porkslap Pale Ale, Old Slugger and Leatherstocking Brown in stores, bars and restaurants all over the country, not just in Otsego County.

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