When Rob Mitchell, vice president of craft, wine and spirits for Manhattan Beer Distributors, described where he lived in Orange County to people outside the region, he said he’d use Woodbury Common Premium Outlets and Orange County Choppers as a reference. Now he says his home region has name brand recognition of its own.
“Today, I just say I live in the Hudson Valley, which is similar I think to saying I live in Napa,” Mitchell said, alluding to California’s fertile wines-producing valley. “There’s a connotation of the Hudson Valley and all it offers as a breadbasket to New York City.”
Mitchell was one of four panelists at a recent roundtable discussion of the Hudson Valley’s craft beverage industry at the Culinary Institute of America’s Marriott Pavilion in Hyde Park. The panel was a kickoff event for Hudson Valley Restaurant Week, sponsored by The Valley Table, which starts the first week of November.
The panel featured Mitchell; Douglass Miller, a former CIA instructor and lecturer at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University; Gregory Best, a Poughkeepsie native and owner of the Ticonderoga Club in Atlanta, and Hutch Kugemen, head brewer at The Brewery at the Culinary Institute of America. Janet Crawshaw, publisher and founder of The Valley Table, moderated the discussion.
Miller said the climate for craft beverages — locally produced beer, wine and spirits — is as good as it has ever been.
“This is absolutely the best time ever for food and beverage, spirits, wine, that we’ve had in this country,” he said. “The collection that we have, the quality that we have, is second to none.”
Before an audience composed largely of professionals in the industry, panelists discussed how the production and consumption of craft beverages have been able to grow in the region and country, along with what both producers and sellers can do to make sure they are not overwhelmed by the surge in selection.
“With all these products available, now what?” Miller said.
It’s a question likely to puzzle brewers, distributors and restaurateurs equally. For beer, there are more than 240 breweries in New York state alone. How does a brewer get his or her product to stand out? And how do distributors and restaurateurs make sure they uncover the highest-quality products?
One word that was constantly brought up was “authenticity.”
“It’s who they are, where their products come from,” Kugeman said. “What do they believe in? Small producers have the ability to be not just local, but hyperlocal.”
Having local resonance can help sway customers to give your product a try, panelists agreed.
“My job was not just to make cocktails, but to try to tell a story about that cocktail,” Best said, citing years of experience bartending and working in bottle shops. “I started finding that the products that I liked the story behind, came from where I came from.”
For restaurants, Miller said a larger selection, be it wine, beer or spirits, isn’t always better.
“Having a good selection could just mean three or four beers on tap, a wine list of 20 different wines … and a spirit selection might be 20 or 30 products,” he said. “If you can sell quality, that’s better than carrying 20 beers on tap.”
It also allows for staff to be trained and knowledgeable about the products. And that can be especially important, Best said, because customers are learning ever more about products on their own.
“There’s a higher consumer knowledge base than I have ever seen in 16 years in the industry,” he said.
Kugeman, who has been brewing for various breweries in the state for 14 years, said that increasing competition among craft producers could prove to strain regional resources, such as hops for brewers. But the beer industry, he said, still has room to grow.
“We have 1.4 breweries for every 100,000 people in New York state,” Kugeman said. “That sounds like a lot. But if you compare to Vermont at 9.9 breweries per 100,000 people or Oregon at 7.7 per 100,000, you can see that we are actually underserved here in New York.”
Hudson Valley Restaurant Week, launched 10 years ago, includes more than 200 restaurants in the region offering three-course dinners for just under $30. The event is held every spring and fall. The fall week starts Nov. 1 and runs through Nov. 13.