Black Dirt and Pristine Liquor

Brewers and Distillers in the Hudson Valley’s Black Dirt Region

There’s a new generation of farmers and entrepreneurs who see the black dirt not just as a gold mine for edibles, but for drinkables. A change in state liquor laws and a booming interest in craft beverages have rejuvenated a once-thriving industry wiped out by Prohibition.

John Glebocki is a fifth-generation farmer who grew up farming onions with his grandfather. Golden-haired and lean, Glebocki still farms the same property that his great-great-grandfather bought 120 years ago, but because of the high cost of labor was on the hunt for something else to do with the land. “Alcohol is the best bang per pound of anything you could grow in this black dirt,” he said, wiping the honey from his hands to greet me at Orange County Distillery, which he opened with Bryan Ensall in October 2014.

The two got serious after New York passed the Farm Distillery Act in 2007, which dramatically slashed the licensing fee from the high thousands to $128. The license allows farms not only to produce 35,000 gallons of liquor a year (as long as it’s made with 75% NYS ingredients), but to sell it right on the premises, helping turn the farming region into a destination for libation lovers.

Photo Credit: Damon Jacoby 

Goshen NY Farmer, John Glebocki, works a field for Orange County DistilleryGoshen NY Farmer, John Glebocki, works a field for Orange County Distillery

Goldmine. In Goshen, NY, fifth-generation farmer, John Glebocki, works a field for Orange County Distillery

Barreled whiskey aging at Orange County Distillery in Goshen NYBarreled whiskey aging at Orange County Distillery in Goshen NY

Wood, whiskey and time. Barreled whiskey aging at Orange County Distillery.

Farm-to-Bottle Bourbon

Glebocki handles the dirty farming while Ensall gets his fingers deep in paperwork. But they overlap tasks like any small business: mashing, fermenting, distilling, aging, bottling and marketing their booze. A true farm-to-bottle operation, the distillery operates in a 100-year-old red barn, right on the black dirt where they farm, and their small size gives them flexibility to experiment and craft spirits at their own pace. Glebocki started out growing rye, barley, corn, then realized the sugar beet was a good place to start, because he could treat it like a fruit and distill vodka from it. While aged spirits take anywhere from months to years, clear alcohol can be made in the blink of a week. Once the duo had a good grasp on creating mashes and the fermentation process, they were ready to tackle aged spirits. They became the first distillery to sell at the farmers markets in NYC.

How does the farming community react to a fifth-generation onion farmer getting into the hooch biz? “For them to see someone like me, that has been farming produce for so long, change directions to alcohol, it’s kind of caught people off guard,” said Glebocki. For the young farmer, who started growing wholesale single-crop onions, then transitioned to retail produce, and then hit pay dirt with alcohol, there’s no looking back, especially as a bottle of OCD bourbon retails at $37. “There’s no way I’m going to put twice as much work into a can of tomato sauce for $6,” said Glebocki.

Craft beer at Pine Island Brewing in Goshen NYCraft beer at Pine Island Brewing in Goshen NY

Dirty Cool. Mike Kraai enjoys a cool one at Pine Island Brewery.

Stout-style craft beer at Pine Island Brewing in Goshen, NYStout-style craft beer at Pine Island Brewing in Goshen, NY

Black Dirt Brews

Former accountant Mike Kraai searched high and low for a place to open a brewery. That’s when he discovered an old firehouse in Pine Island and transformed it into a brewery and tap room, Pine Island Brewing Co., which opened in 2015.

Kraai said the beer and spirits scene is “very new in the area. We’re the first brewery in the Warwick area.” The black dirt is the backyard of the pub’s outdoor beer garden.

Alongside the microbrew staples, there’s one black sheep of a beer that he brews in a nod to the region: Drowned Lands Saison. Infused with local Candy onions, a sweet variety that he gets ¼ mile from his brewery, the ale is brewed during harvest season when the fields are full of onions. “We just had to do it because it’s our local ingredient,” said Kraai. The beer was well-received by locals, even if they were “afraid of it at first. People loved it. We sold out quickly.”

Kraai handles distribution himself, driving around kegs in his VW Golf. “When we first opened people thanked me, because there’s not much else around,” said Kraai. “This has been good for the community as a whole.”

New Wave Black Dirt

While sampling the Pine Island brews, I talked with carpenter Mark Negersmith, who told me that his first job, at age 12, was on an onion farm. “I show up and they give me a basket of onion bulbs.” His job? To push them into the dirt with his thumb. “Have you seen the length of these fields? Exactly.” Negersmith called it “very honest work. I made $80 that week and I was so proud of that money. After that week, I told myself, ‘I’m never doing that again.’ I’m a carpenter now, and it’s very easy compared to that,” he said, downing the last of his beer, sitting in a stool firmly atop the rich black ground.

Cheryl Rogowski reminisces about the days when “you looked across the valley and saw and smelled nothing but onions” yet is excited about the changes in the region. While driving through Pine Island recently she noticed a local cidery’s barrels in the back of the truck, and a hop farm being put in down the road. “I think like anything, people are trying to survive but in ways they enjoy.”

She knows as well as anyone the role innovation and diversification play in long-term farming success. “To see that farmers are trying new things to thrive and succeed so they can be here 20, 30, 40 years from now and hopefully their great-grandchildren can farm and be successful at it, gives me hope for the future.” And just like everything comes around eventually, she added, “It could very well be that those kids go back to onions.”