Friday, July 6, 2012

The Little Brewpub That Could

Ever had a raspberry jalepeno beer? How about a peanut butter chocolate stout?

Lars Mudrak, brewer at Bandwagon Brewpub in downtown Ithaca, makes 'em both. Bandwagon opened in the fall of 2009 with reasonably priced food and a bar stocked with locally produced options. And, in accordance with the growing national trend, they would also brew their own beer.

Less than three years later their High Step Weizenbock won the TAP New York award for the best craft beer in New York in 2012, out of more than 200 beers from 50 breweries across the state. I sat down (and stood up) with the man behind the Weizenbock, Ithaca native Lars Mudrak.

We started the interview downstairs below the restaurant (which is already a flight of steps below street level) where the brewing takes place, in a single large room that resembles a gutted boiler room strewn with equipment, including large metal mash tuns and fermenters. "It's not as hot down here as I thought it would be," I commented as Mudrak and his assistant Brian showed me the cluttered space. "Don't worry," Mudrak assured me with a grin, "we'll get the boil going soon..."

Brian and Lars workin' hard
Mudrak has been boiling since he was 17, when he first made beer. Mostly so that he could have easy acess to booze before 21, he admits. "I brewed a pale ale with my friend, and we got the ingredients out of an old kit that my dad had, that was probably about ten years old," says Mudrak. "We also didn't know what pale ale was supposed to taste like," he laughed. "It tasted like I was chewing on a hop pellet."

Now 23 and legally able to purchase alcohol, Mudrak also has the know-how to make different kinds of beer that taste the way he wants them to. In addition to unique experimental beers, Bandwagon also makes more conventional styles like Pedro's Pale Ale, Pirate Eye (.P.A.), Belly River Oatmeal Stout, and Mudrak's own favorites, Hefe-Wheat and the High Step Weizenbock.

Not that every beer he makes turns out exactly as planned. He poured me a sample of a new beer on draft called the Rookie. It's light, crisp and refreshing. What kind of beer is it? Well, that's hard to say. "We had two bags of completely mixed malts, and we had no idea what was in them," Mudrak chuckled. "So we said, well, it's malt, we can still make beer out of this. It was kind of fun, because we had no idea what color it would be, or what it would taste like. So we'll never be able to make it again- that's one thing that's really nice about being a small place- I like to use the analogy of going to the farmer's market and buying a loaf of local wheat bread. It's going to be Fat Boy Bakery's wheat bread, but week to week it might be a little more doughy, or have a tougher crust. If you want something really consistent, you can go to Wegmans."

Of course, we in the Finger Lakes appreciate our local craft food and booze. Several places in Ithaca now carry Bandwagon brews on tap, including Northstar Restaurant, the Westy, and Ithaca Coffee Company. Mudrak sees Bandwagon's success as a result of the local food movement present in the Finger Lakes. "The community is really supportive of it. Ithaca is all about getting local food, supporting local farms, farmers markets."

Not to mention, he says, that craft beer is just "in" right now. "People are realizing that beer isn't just Bud Light," he says. "Sometimes people come in and say they don't like beer. So I ask, what kind of beer have you had? And they say, whatever I had in college... Maybe they just don't like light, watered down beers."

Bandwagon encourages customers to try new things, offering a few different flights of five beers.  And after 10pm, all Bandwagon brews on tap are $3 a pint.

Bandwagon Brewery Flight
The little brewpub is moving to a new, bigger brewing facility right off of Route 96 in Interlaken. The bigger equipment and production space, not to mention cooler temperatures, will allow for bigger batches and wider distribution- which may mean less time for experimentation. As distribution increases, explains Mudrak, consistency will become increasingly important, as opposed to coming up with new and interesting varieties. But don't worry, he assured me, Raspberry Jalepeno isn't going anywhere- and he has some new tricks up his sleeve as well.

In the future, Mudrak plans to continue the small batch experimentation using unconventional ingredients. "I love bananas," he says, "so I would love to make a beer using banana as some of the fermentables. It would probably be a nightmare to brew, but I'd like to give it a shot." Another idea for the future is an electrolyte-fortified beer, intended for runners like Mudrak. In the meantime, while those bigger projects are in the works, he also has some ideas for the more immediate future. "I'd love to experiment with quinoa and chia seeds," he says. "And I want to try making a double IPA fermented with hefeweizen yeast, so it would be a big, hoppy hefeweizen."

Brian and Lars
And really, Mudrak says, he's not all that concerned about the consistency thing. After all, Bandwagon is a craft brewery. "I used to be more self-conscious about it, but really if people want the same light pilsner every single time, there's places for that. If they want local craft beer, that's the crowd we're going to cater to. If they want to taste the difference in the beer, this is their spot."

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