By Julia Burke, Beer Editor

BeerAdvocate, perhaps the most respected voice in
the craft beer world, publishes a list of the “Top 50 American Breweries” as
chosen out of 1,400 breweries and brewpubs across the United States. In 2007, a
small Western New York brewery appeared on the list amidst the Russian Rivers
and Stones of the world — Southern Tier Brewing Company in Lakewood, New York.

Exciting as it was, the listing came as no surprise to the devoted band of
followers Southern Tier has earned over the years — fans who will drink
whatever Southern Tier brew is on tap at the local bar, who love the original
lineup (especially the classic IPA) but also enjoy the brewery’s long list of
creative, innovative and sometimes downright insane specialty beers.

Word travels fast, and as Southern Tier has made a name for
itself in bigger, more offbeat brews, demand has increased in New York and
nationwide. To meet this demand Southern Tier has just completed an expanded
brewery facility. Considering its pre-expansion popularity, extra production
could put this off-the-wall, no-holds-barred producer in the running to surpass
Brooklyn as New York State’s most beloved and critically acclaimed

534232416_1888233544_0 I toured the new brewhouse last week and was blown away by
the seamless, spotless production facility and the sheer volume brewed.
Southern Tier is now up to 30 turns through the brewhouse — which yields about
8,000 gallons — per week, making it one of the largest craft breweries in the
state. On a brewing system that is “almost entirely people-powered” rather than
automated, says brewmaster Paul Cain, four brewers supervise a brewing cycle
that runs 24 hours a day Monday through Saturday.

A threefold increase in
output is a tremendous expansion, but Cain is confident that his brewery is maintaining
its integrity. “We’re completely quality-driven, and no matter how much we
expand this place, that will always be the case,” he says as he checks on a
whirlpool tank of Simcoe and Cascade hops for a batch of the new Double IPA.
“We’ll plateau here pretty soon and not produce any more beer, just focus on
quality. We’re not at that point now though. We’re installing a new bottling
line in a month or two.”

The new bottling system will double bottling speed to
130 bottles per minute.

534278701_1888408869_0 These developments in the brewhouse are impressive, but Cain
is most excited about his new storage area. Pictured at right, this cooler
represents two weeks of production. At
these staggering levels, keeping the finished beer cool and in top shape before
shipping is crucial. “We built this building and spent millions and millions of
dollars, but this cooler is going to do more for our beer than anything else,”
says Cain. “These bottles used to sit on the floor until they’d ship. To spend
all this time and money in the production area being meticulous and then to let
it sit [in poor conditions] — it was kind of futile.”

Increasing volume of beer ensures that more people will get
a chance to try Southern Tier, but Cain says the Southern Tier grassroots
philosophy hasn’t changed. “We’re not going to push our beer. If people want
it, they’ll find us. We do have a sales staff but it’s bare-bones: we count on
the product and word of mouth. Frankly, we can’t make enough beer, so we’re not
really trying to push.” Distribution will increase, however. Now in 60-70%
of the United States, Southern Tier is opening up in the southern states and
sending more beer to Europe.

With over 30 beers currently in production and new
seasonals, specialty beers and local-only brews, Southern Tier will never be
accused of boring its fan base. “We make a lot of beers, and that’s one thing
that sets us apart,” says Cain. Longtime standbys such as porters and pales
have a devoted local following, but it’s more unique offerings such as the
Crème Brulee Stout and the beloved Unearthly Double IPA that have won over more
adventurous craft beer drinkers around the country. I ask Cain where he and his
colleagues get the idea for such beers. He replies, “We have a meeting of the
minds, usually over a few pints, and say, ‘What are we going to do next that’s
going to knock everyone’s socks off?’”

 You might expect a brewer associated with high-gravity,
intensely flavorful brews like Iniquity Black Ale, Back Burner Barleywine and
Oak-Aged Unearthly Double IPA to be drinking such beers on a regular basis. But
when I ask Cain what he drinks for fun, he quips, “I drank my weight in Busch
Lite last night!” He adds, “I like the consistency of macro beer. I think it’s
really, really impressive that every can of Busch Lite that I’ve ever drank
tastes exactly like the last…I didn’t always have that opinion. I developed it
over the years in making beer myself and striving for consistency.”

534233162_1888236402_0Of course,
Cain (pictured right) also drinks non-macro beers. “I love Belgian beer and I love all the
quirky stuff that surrounds it, the wild yeast, the bottle fermentation — I
visited Cantillon Brewery and it was like a dream come true, they were actually
brewing when I was there! I like that mystique surrounding Belgian beer and how
it’s so similar to wine. They just happen to make beer in that part of Europe
instead of wine, but they treat it the same way.”

Clean brewing and balance are keys to Southern Tier’s
success in the world of high-gravity brews with Plato and IBU digits off the
charts. When I asked him the secret to a good IPA, Cain suggested,
“Understanding what hops do, especially the dry hop; keeping a good balance of
sweetness and bitterness; knowing your varieties.” Southern Tier uses a
versatile house yeast that can withstand those high-gravity fermentations, and
employs a full-time biologist to keep problems such as bacteria and
microorganisms in check.

As the brewery grows, Southern Tier will continue its
philosophy of innovation and variety, rather than zeroing in on a single ubiquitous
“flagship” beer. “A lot of brewers are paying the bills with one beer, like New
Belgium with Fat Tire,” says Cain. “We haven’t found that. IPA is what we make
the most of, but we don’t have that workhorse that we’re just constantly

I point out that when a bar has Southern Tier on tap, it could be
anything from Gemini to Hop Sun to Raspberry Wheat. Cain nodded. “Yeah, and I
like that.”

Keeping fans on their toes and winning the hearts of craft beer
connoisseurs from San Diego to Amsterdam, Southern Tier has become one of New
York’s craft beer superstars. Now with the tools to reach even more beer lovers
and the potential for unlimited success, this acclaimed brewery can continue
doing what it does best: defying gravity.