Reed Antis demonstrates how to brew your own beer from a kit. He owns a homebrewing and wine-making shop in Saratoga Springs.
Months ago, Jeff Flagg was brainstorming ways to get people to Raquette Lake’s Great Camp Sagamore at a time when the black flies tend to rule the forest.
The program director of the historic Vanderbilt family complex decided a weekend centered on craft beer might be the answer.
Based on the reactions from the 60 or so visitors who attended the first annual Black Fly Beer Camp June 29-July 1, he was right.
“This is so much better than a traditional beer festival,” said Tim Smith, who drove up from near Cooperstown for the two-day event. “They are crowded and always have a bunch of drunk kids. This was more mellow, like, ‘Let’s talk about beer.’”
There were demonstrations on how to brew beer from kits and from scratch and a brewing tutorial by Saranac beer’s master brewer Rich Michaels.
There was a dinner on Friday night in which beers were paired with foods like pork with walnuts and apples, green beans and rice and beans.
There were samplings — lots of samplings — with beers flavored with everything from peaches and blueberries to maple syrup and coconut. The first sampling session allowed home brewers from all over the region to share beer with others, and to seek feedback from experts.
Reed Antis, who sells home-brewing supplies at Saratoga Zymurgist, was one of the experts. He liked Queensbury rookie brewer Justin Gray’s American amber flavored with chocolate, although he said it wouldn’t win a competition because it wasn’t true to the genre.
“It’s not good as an American amber, but you and I would sure enjoy drinking it,” he said.
Matt Whalen, co-owner of Good Nature Brewing in Hamilton, liked Ken Bosen’s peach-flavored ale saying it was a “nice summer beer.”
After the group tasting, it was time for the pros like Michaels and Whalen to offer samples of their commercial offerings at various stations throughout the great camp.
John Carr, owner of Adirondack Pub and Brewery in Lake George even shared a porter that had been aged in used bourbon barrels that sold for $120 a case.
By nightfall, it was off to the Playhouse, where Glens Falls area musician Joe Defelice serenaded visitors and staff members alike with vocal help from Gray and guitar and harmonica assistance from Whalen.
While he played, there were old soda kegs filled with various beers from a crème ale to one flavored with maple on the porch, all made by Kyle Kelliher and Donia Conn, longtime Sagamore volunteers who met there years ago.
There was a vibe at the great camp that is hard to describe. It was one of those rare moments where a group of people were all in sync, engaged in good conversation, good beer and an amazing setting.
There was even a family with two young kids — although they didn’t know their annual trip to the Sagamore this year fell on a beer festival weekend.
“When we found out there was a beer fest, we were like, ‘ohhh,’” said Syracuse area reident Matthew Cavaliveri, flanked by 6-year-old Sophia who was icing down black fly bites. “But the people have been great.”
Cavaliveri, over a bonfire later Saturday, revealed he was secretly psyched to hear that the beer festival coincided with his annual trip there.
As Saturday night headed quickly toward Sunday morning, the bonfire crowd got younger and younger including both college-aged staff and guest’s visitors.
On Sunday, folks woke up, ate their breakfast and said goodbyes, vowing to return for next year’s round two.
Flagg hopes subsequent events can add more variety, like maybe ciders, cheeses and foods made with spent grains from the brewing process.
“I see it as a rubric for living simply,” said Flagg, also an adjunct professor at Siena College. “And Sagamore is a natural magnet for this kind of people.”
Michaels, the Saranac beer representative, said he’ll be back, and, according to Flagg, he wants to help increase the food-beer pairing effort.
Whalen, who just got married and was kind of honeymooning on the trip, said he and wife Carrie Blackmore will be back too.
“It’s a great idea,” Whalen said from under what must be his trademark fedora. “It’s a great time for education, relaxation — and beer. That should be the slogan.”
Asked what the Vanderbilts would have thought of the animated Flagg and his beer camp infiltrating their glorious estate, Sagamore executive director Beverly Bridger was quick with a response.
“They never came up until July after black fly season, so they wouldn’t care,” she said with a laugh.