The following is a guest post, written by a good friend of mine, Ryan Conaughty. I met Ryan while he was studying for his Masters in Creative Writing at SUNY Brockport. He’s taught me a lot about craft beer and has been a huge supporter of this site since it’s inception. If you enjoy his writing, I recommend checking out his bike journal titled, TransAm Blues, wherein he tells the story of the time he rode his bicycle across the whole freaking country, by himself. He’s a great writer, a great friend, and he knows a whole lot more about beer than I do. Enjoy!
The Sherwood Inn sits on the northern shore of Skaneateles Lake, an emblem of vintage class and elegance. It’s a gorgeous building; beautifully simplistic. It stands with subtle dignity, a testament to the days of nickel beers and horse-drawn carriages. To me, it represents a lifestyle we lost somewhere along the way: one without constant and immediate technological distractions that rip us away from each other while pretending to connect us. The Sherwood Inn is a building that reminds me of the good old days that we easily forget about and then wish that we could somehow get back.
The lighting is soft and low inside the Inn. The bar in the tavern is old and comforting. It’s dark and there’s a low murmur with the sounds of clinking glass and bottles. It’s one of those bars you walk into and you can feel the stories emanate from the scratches and scuffs in the gloss of the wood. It feels as though you’ve stepped back into the past and it feels completely natural to be there. Outside, the sun is slipping out of the sky toward the horizon and people are beginning to sit down for dinner. There is a small table with various NY cheeses: sharp, smoked, creamy, it’s all beautiful. I see servers walk past me with balsamic onion and goat cheese tartlets and another with bacon wrapped dates. There is a large table with cold bottles and cans of Saranac Blueberry Blonde, Summer, and Pale Ale that people are helping themselves to.
I’m introduced to Chuck as I sip on a can of Saranac Blueberry Blonde. He manages The Sherwood. His demeanor is calm and cool but I can see that he’s watching everything going on around us: the way the beers are being poured, the way the servers are trickling out the doors with plates of tomato cucumber salad and warm stretch bread with clock-like precision. This is his show. Their first beer dinner, and he’s proud of it. “I think we’re doing alright,” he says as his eyes pan over the crowd as they begin the first course of Kölsch and salad, “we were expecting fifty or sixty people to show. There are over two hundred people here tonight.”
Each table sits anywhere from four to eight people and is covered in a blue and white checkered table cloth. Next to each plate of food and sample (or can) of beer are small candles in glass holders. The flames dance slowly in the cool breeze of summer.
As I ask Chuck a few quick questions, Fred Matt, the President of The Matt Brewing Company, stands in front of the crowd and begins to tell stories about being in the beer business. He tells one about how his father had to go into the hospital when he was sixty-nine. The newspapers reported that he had died. “Well,” his father said upon hearing the news he had apparently passed, “German lore says if you are ever said to have died but didn’t, you’ll live another thirty years.” When he finally did pass, he was ninety years old.
“We’ve done Antinori wine diners,” Chuck says quietly as Fred Matt answers some questions from the crowd. “Those do well. But we’re really trying to place an emphasis on New York.” I counted forty-eight wines from NY currently on their impressive (and award winning) wine list. “We’ve got seven New York State beers on tap inside. People are looking for more local flavor.” Chuck is proud to inform me that, other than Empire Brewing on Armory Square in Syracuse, The Sherwood is the only place where you can drink Skinny Atlas Lite, a Kölsch-style brew that, as Empire says, has “the flavor of a light German pilsner crossed with the crisp cleanness in an American Ale”.
While Chuck attends to the organized chaos, I start on the appetizer. I’m given a sample of Saranac’s Session IPA and a plate of Leigh and Steigerwalds smoked bratwurst, fingerling potato salad, cabbage braised in the beer, and a house made spicy mustard. The cool thing about Saranac’s Session IPA is that, for me, it is not pretentious. It doesn’t claim to be anything other than what it is: an accessible example of a misused but popular style. Some at my table were less than enthused that the beer was labeled an IPA (Begin rant: just because it’s an IPA doesn’t mean it has to strip the enamel off your teeth with bitterness. Not every IPA has to be Pliny the Elder or Hedonism. I think we should get back to basics and remember that a “strong hop characteristic” doesn’t automatically mean “consumable battery acid”. End rant.).
Before dinner is served, Chuck introduces me to Dan Hudson, the Executive Chef. I meet him at the outside grill, where the smoke billowing from the sizzling ribs seems too good to not be considered a form of inhalant abuse. When I ask him about the logistics of cooking for so many people and pairing it with beer, he says practice makes perfect. “We’ve had a lot of practice with the wine dinners. This time, instead of worrying what food to pair the beer with, we basically chose the beer first and then just made food that people like to eat.” When I sit back down, I’m greeted with what Dan promised.
First, the spice rubbed baby back rips with Tennessee whiskey BBQ sauce, then a summer cole slaw, Jalapeno corn bread and my new favorite side dish, Utica Greens. But none of it is put in front of me. The ribs are piled high on a plate and the sides are in two large bowls. This course is family-style: pick it up, put it on, pass it around. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. As I drink my Rye IPA, I look around the table I’m sitting at. The sun is hidden behind the horizon and the night air is calm. The candles begin to glow against the dusk. Everyone at my table is smiling at each other and passing dishes around and laughing and I get the strange feeling that maybe we haven’t lost the good old days that The Sherwood Inn represents after all. Maybe nostalgia isn’t a longing for a past that we can’t get back but a desire for something that’s right in front of us that we can’t see anymore.
As my table professes their undying love for the ribs Dan and his crew had prepared, Fred Matt comes to our table. He’s a tall man with quiet but focused eyes. His voice is calm yet assertive. He’s been told someone wanted to ask him a question or two. Someone at my table asked Fred if there was anything that Saranac has done that he wished could have gone better or wish they would have done first.
“Shandy,” Fred says after nodding his head, “Our Shandy is shipping out 25,000 cases. Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy? Four million plus. We could have done that better. I think we did a really good job with that beer. We just did a shit job of getting it out.” I’m taken back at his honesty. He’s not spewing public relations speak or dodging the question. “Cider, too. We could have done cider.”
The sky is slowly darkening to evening and the lights around the fountain and pointed back toward the Inn begin to soak the crowd in blue and orange hues. The light from the candles bounces and flutters quickly on the tablecloths. Our server puts a towering piece of S’more cake in front of me and a sample of Lake Placid UBU Ale. Before I can rub the gram cracker cake, chocolate ganache, and marshmallow frosting all over my face in ecstasy, I ask Fred what he sees for the future of New York beer and where it’s headed.
“Well, there’s a problem: New York doesn’t like New York.”
I ask him what he means as I sip my UBU.
“No one supports each other. If we combined the beer and the farming movement in NY, then it would trickle down from the business to the people. There could be a 3-5% reduction or hold on certain taxes just for working with local farmers. We just need to be allowed to help each other out.” I’m about to ask him about the Farm Brewery Law that recently passed but he’s whisked away to answer more questions from eager craft beer drinkers.
As the darkness falls over the lake and the tables began to empty, the air fills with an acoustic performance by Tommy Connors. Free pint glasses are placed on a large table, available to take home or fill up (which I did with that gorgeous concoction, UBU). I thanked Chuck and Dan for one of the best beer pairings I’ve ever been to.
“August 15th”, Chuck says as he shakes my hand, “we’re having Empire Brewing here. Five-piece blues band called The Super Delinquents are playing. It’s gonna be great.”