It was nearly 2 p.m. on the opening day of the Saratoga Race Course meet, midway through the day’s third race, and Melissa Fischera was ignoring the thunderous sounds of humans and horses. Instead, she leaned her elbows on a red cocktail table inside the Taste NY: Beer & Cider Pavilion, talking rapidly with her friend and fellow Siena College senior David Hall.
“We were really bad at betting and we like beer better,” Fischera explained.
Taste NY: Beer and Cider, best described as a craft beer festival, can be found in the Saratoga Pavilion every Friday between noon and 4 p.m. through the end of the race season.
If the $20 cost of admission sounds steep, consider the reward: 20 sample cups (picture a bridal shower punch cup). Wander the tent freely, tasting and testing with the help of bartenders.
“If you gauge it based on the prices for a full beer anywhere else at the track, this is a really good deal,” said Fischera.
The selection of beers in the pavilion will rotate. On opening day, the Saranac Brewery and the Olde Saratoga Brewing Co. presided over a table. A third table (nearly long enough to span a whole pavilion wall) held 16 big buckets of ice. Each bucket featured a different local beer.
Thanks to a table stocked with free bags of Saratoga Chips, no one need drink on an empty stomach. Anyone especially hungry could buy a $3 hot dog from the stand in the pavilion’s back corner.
A “first pour” ceremony kicked off the first season of Taste NY: Beer and Cider. Maybe “chummy toast” would more accurately describe what happened. Chris Kay, CEO and president of the New York Racing Association, officiated. Kay contrasted last year — when Taste NY only opened on Sundays, in a smaller tent, featuring only artisan vendors — with this year’s more bountiful offerings: wine and cheese on Thursday, beer and cider on Friday, and food and artisans on Sunday. All local, of course.
“You might find a new favorite beer this afternoon,” he said, smiling hospitably.
Representatives from Saranac Brewery and the Olde Saratoga Brewing Co. joined him in raising high their cups of Saratoga Summer Ale — then a ceremonial pause — then, finally, the long swig.
Why offer a beer pavilion when plenty of beer vendors already line the paths around the race course? For one, lots of those vendors sell imported beers like Heineken, or represent big, out-of-state breweries like Samuel Adams. “By showcasing [local breweries’] tremendous products at the Saratoga Race Course every week, we are helping to raise the profiles of small businesses from all across the state,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a recent press release.
Lindsey Murray, sales and events executive for Olde Saratoga Brewing, put it this way: “While we’re all competitors, we’re all comrades, because we together encourage people to join the movement of drinking craft beer.”
But what if locals truly enjoy, say, Blue Moon’s Summer Honey Wheat Ale? Why should they convert to the local craft beer movement? Aside from taste, another unique virtue sets local breweries apart. “Most summer seasonals are out of stock in July. Kind of like fashion week — beer companies operate way ahead of the real season of the year. But [local breweries] have the ability to establish ebb and flow with the local farmers and community so we can sell summer seasonals through Labor Day,” Murray explained.
“To me, it’s ludicrous to stop selling them any earlier,” she added.
Bartender Christopher Parillo manned the Old Saratoga Brewing Co. table on opening day. Beside his draft beer keg was a display showing the base ingredients of beer. If anyone were to confuse these mason jars full of hops and barley for rabbit food — and yes, they look awfully similar to the untrained eye — Parillo’s could talk to them about the mechanics of the brewing process. Parillo isn’t just a book-smart bartender. He started brewing his own beer years ago.
“It started when I got a gift — a brewing kit,” he said. Now, after an arduous period of trial and error, he’s arrived at the technique that reliably produces quality beer. He can fill 48 beer bottles for around $30. The entire brewing process takes him three weeks. Of course, Taste NY wasn’t intended to support home brewing, per se. But it does seem fitting that stories of home brewing are told at a celebration of local, small batch goods.
Taste NY is part of I LOVE NEW YORK’s summer campaign to promote local products.