Saranac steps it up
Craft beer lovers may have noticed that Saranac Beer, produced by Matt Brewing Company in Utica, New York, has been turning out some excellent beers lately. This spring’s White IPA, a hoppy, crisp, and insanely drinkable ale made with the popular Citra hop and a hint of orange and coriander for a hefeweizen-like appearance and fruit character, got my attention as well as that of most of the beer lovers I know; when thrown into a blind tasting with Belgian and Belgian-styled ales by some of the world’s best producers, it stood out so impressively that my fellow tasters and I were sure it was a rare, expensive European selection.
We weren’t the only ones. In response to overwhelming success of White IPA, Saranac has added it to the regular lineup (previously it was intended to be a seasonal only), so we get to drink it all summer long.
Brewmaster Jim Kuhr is pleased with the extra attention, but points out that trying new and exciting flavors without sacrificing drinkability has been Saranac’s game for a long time. Now, he’s following up with a lemon ginger saison as part of the brewery’s higher-end High Peaks line.
“It is a very traditional Belgian style,” says Kuhr of the new saison. “We use Belgian yeast, which we picked because its characteristics would complement the lemon and ginger. It’s a nice summery refreshing flavor with a little extra zing to it.” Rather than using artificial flavoring, Kuhr incorporates the “extras” into the brewing process.
“We use them in the kettle in a manner that allows us to extract all that nice flavor more fully than if we had used flavorings,” he explains. “We used lemon peel and dried ginger and I think it came out pretty well. Our customers seemed to think it was a good mix too.”
Normally, Saranac uses their house yeast, Matt ale yeast, which is what gave the White IPA its smooth, accessible quality. “It’s a traditional strain, and it doesn’t compete with the other flavors; it’s just a nice background ale-y-ness––is that a word?––with a little fruity character to it, but not overpowering,” says Kuhr. “Some yeasts are so characteristic that they compete with the other flavors. We like our ale yeast––that’s why we’ve been using it so many years––but what really pleased us with White IPA is how well the Citra hops and the orange coriander really complement one another, just like the lemon ginger saison the orange and coriander added in the kettle with our normal kettle hop. After fermentation we dry hop with the Citra and they really play well together.”
The High Peaks series, Kuhr says, began with the brewery’s first IPA back in 2006. “Our intent there was to show people, at the time when these West Coast IPAs were getting all the buzz, that if we want to make a beer that knocks your socks off we can do it,” he says. “It’s just not the normal Saranac style, which is very drinkable, very much in traditional style. We always strive to make a very drinkable product that’s a good value for the customer. With the High Peaks series we’re saying, ‘We can make an extreme beer, and here it is.’”
Saranac’s other debutante this summer is a blueberry blonde ale. “We decided to keep that one unfiltered; it’s not as cloudy as White IPA, but it allows us to maintain the flavors that we add in ‘upstream,’ as we would say, to try to capture that blueberry note that people expect but not overpower the beer,” says Kuhr. (Filtering, which removes contact with yeast, produces a clear appearance and necessitates forced carbonation––qualities that many macrobrew drinkers expect and many styles dictate––but inevitably causes the beer to lose its natural carbonation, as well as a little character, in the process. Brewers typically decide whether and how to filter based on style, yeast type, and additives.)
Kuhr says the key to introducing such beers without turning off the regular customer base is “understanding the ingredients and how they impact the overall perception of the beer to the consumer. It comes down as well to something as simple as naming it something so that we’re describing it correctly, so the beer delivers what the consumer expects.” He explains that thanks to his team’s experience and the advantage of multiple brewing locations, Saranac has cultivated a strong knack for educated risk-taking. “Over the life of Saranac we’ve brewed close to sixty different recipes for many years,” he says. “As brewers, we’ve been doing this for so many years and working with so many different ingredients that we’ve got a good handle on how our brewery and our yeast work, and we can test the ingredients in our lab or our pilot brewery, or our sister brewery over there in Buffalo [Flying Bison Brewing Company].
“I don’t know that people really recognized us as having creative output for the beer and now we’re getting the word out,” he adds. “Saranac is not just Adirondack Lager and Trail Mix [one of the brewery’s well-known variety packs]. We’ve been pushing the envelope with bigger bottles, bigger product, new styles, new twists on old styles. So it’s nice to get a little more recognition for what we’ve done for a long time.”