Rochester loves its craft beer. From Three Heads Brewing to Lost Borough to Swiftwater, there are more destinations than ever for local beer connoisseurs to wet their whistles. And yet many beers get overlooked — seemingly too obscure or odd to be considered everyday elixirs.
What follows is a non-comprehensive survey of seven beers and two ciders — the kinds of libations that may be lesser-known but are no less worthwhile — and where you can find them. All of the selections mentioned were available on tap at the time this article was written. Taps are changed frequently, so if the beverages below aren't available, be sure to ask your bartender for similar recommendations.
No conversation about beer in Rochester can begin without Genesee Brewery and the Genesee Brew House. The region's signature beer maker has been at it for nearly 140 years, and while the "Red Eye" and Cream Ale are fixtures in local grocery stores, some of Genesee's beers can only be found at the Brew House.
One such variety is the 12 Horse Ale. At 5.1 percent ABV, this is Genny with a bit of a kick. Golden in color, with bright hops on the front end, the welcome presence of malts satisfies the palate on the back end. When in search of a rejuvenating, lighter beer, Genesee 12 Horse Ale is an exclusive treat you can only enjoy here in Rochester.
The brewery's Black Pilsner is also unique to the Brew House. This relatively light black lager (5 percent ABV) has plenty of substance. Replete with caramel overtones, semisweet malts, and a thick, milkshake-like head, this is a summer beer for stout drinkers.
Jack Ryan's Tavern is the kind of neighborhood bar you'd want to cozy up to after a long day at work for a lighthearted chat with friends. Jack's is also an excellent place for IPA aficionados, with beers like Singlecut and Galaxy Andromeda on tap. Another option during a recent outing was Stone's Tangerine Express IPA (6.7 percent ABV). Complete with a frothy head, this California IPA's hops were ever-present without being overpowering. Most importantly, the sweet citrus of the tangerine provided a great counterbalance to the bitterness of the hops. Overall, the Tangerine Express is a refreshing option for beer drinkers who might be hesitant about IPAs.
Since its inception, Tap and Mallet has been a go-to for craft beer enthusiasts. Boasting an extensive lineup of beers on tap, the South Wedge bar and restaurant can consistently be counted on for unexpected or left-of-center beers.
On a visit to Tap and Mallet, I encountered two beers that could not have been more different. First there was the SeaQuench from Dogfish Head, a Delaware-based brewery best known for its signature 60, 90, and 120-minute IPAs and its willingness to combine bizarre flavor profiles like Belgian-style white ale and red wine. At 4.9 percent ABV, the SeaQuench was a melange of Berliner Weisse, Gose, and Kolsch characteristics. The result was what I would describe as a sessionable sour beer. The sharp zest of lemon hit the palate right away, and while the taste was pucker-inducing, this is a beer one could enjoy on a long summer's day. With its light effervescence and a flavor profile akin to a drier champagne, the SeaQuench is an effective cross between a porch-sipping shandy and a gratifying gose.
On the opposite side of the spectrum was the Black Hole by Danish beer maker Mikkeller. This extremely boozy Imperial Stout weighed in at 13.1 percent ABV. If you like your beers to pack a wallop, this is your kind of beverage. There was plenty of roasted malt flavor, along with big bittersweet notes of cacao chocolate. Make no mistake, the Black Hole was a slow-sipper, with a little smokiness for added intrigue.
There is a similar dichotomy at work at Joe Bean Coffee Roasters, one of the premier coffee shops in Rochester. Although Joe Bean's reputation for high-quality espressos and detail-oriented brewing methods is well-established, its peerless knack for truly unusual beer offerings is decidedly less well-known. Among the available beers during my last stop in was the Singlecut Beth Power Ballad, a sour beer with an impressive 12 percent ABV, made by a New York City-based brewery frequently praised for its IPAs. As opposed to the Dogfish Head SeaQuench, the Beth Power Ballad was more vinegary than tart. An initial sweetness from the blueberries used in the brewing process gave way to a fungal, kombucha-like sour taste. A dark red-to-purple color, the beer had a prominent blueberry flavor without being gimmicky.
Pineapple is perhaps the last ingredient you'd expect to find in a stout, but that's exactly what I got with the Danish stout To Øl Pineapple Express (10 percent ABV). An unobtrusive tartness bookended a smooth tasting experience akin to that of a brown ale or porter. The pineapple notes didn't come through until the end, melding surprisingly well with the coffee essence of the stout and lending additional complexity.
In a world with plenty of very sweet, mass-produced ciders like Angry Orchard and Woodchuck to go around, ciders with more sophistication and nuance are in shorter supply. That's where Mullers Cider House comes in. While craft cider made here in New York state can be readily found locally, overseas selections are generally rare, unless you're drinking at Mullers. Spanish cider served there is an absolute must-try. On tap recently was the Riestra Sidra Natural, a lovely dry cider in which nothing was added to the fermentation process but the apples themselves. Semi-tart with lingering notes of olive oil and vinegar, the 6.5 percent ABV Riestra had just enough sweetness to even things out.
For cider lovers craving something sweet, Mullers still has you covered. With Star's Cinnamon Raisin, the sweetness struck me right away, but there were subtleties, too. At 6 percent ABV, the Cinnamon Raisin is a highly unusual nitro cider, in which nitrogen is used instead of carbon dioxide, giving it a velvety texture and exceptionally smooth taste from start to finish. Interestingly, the apples took a backseat to the cinnamon raisin flavor, which was balanced out by a slight pear-like sweetness at the end.