If you have followed this blog and its companion Facebook page for any amount of time, you probably get the idea I have spent more than a few evenings at Swiftwater Brewing on Mt. Hope Avenue in Rochester. My friend Dave Scheiderich introduced me just a few months after they opened in 2015. I liked the homespun atmosphere, and the bartenders steered me towards great beers during each visit up and down the tap list.
I have enjoyed watching the tasting room experience expand to include appetizers and later a full-fledged kitchen that features a bread program that would be the envy of most restaurants. The frequently rotating selection of beers is presented by a fun and friendly staff that will mark you down as a regular after your third visit. I dare say I might be smitten with Swiftwater, which is why I have been reluctant to write a review for so long.
It was never my intention to start a blog that simply reviews beers and breweries. Instead, I always hoped to create a resource that would help give people looking for a way to discover new locations to enjoy this wave of new craft brewing currently washing over our region. It is my hope you’ll use my articles as a starting point to form your own opinions and enjoy new experiences.
Since my first visit in 2015, I gradually made Swiftwater my weekly stop on Wednesdays. I had attended last year’s First Anniversary party, which was held on a Thursday. Doors opened at 4:00 p.m., so I got dressed up for the occasion and headed over as soon as the doors were unlocked. A fun evening was spent with friends as we helped close down the bar and put a successful first year of Swiftwater into the books.
Swiftwater’s Second Anniversary would be observed on a Saturday, and David and I made plans to be there for the entire day. This meant participating in an eleven-hour marathon, as doors would open at noon. I was up for the challenge, and once again donned my gray-on-black suit for the occasion. My original plan was to wait in line with the gathering crowd at the door, but owner Andy Cook invited me in a little early so I could record the preparations his staff was making to get ready. The chalkboard was being updated with big beers, the kitchen was prepping breads and sauces, and Andy himself was in the back cleaning one of the tap lines again because it wasn’t quite to his liking.
The doors were unlocked at noon, and the first few customers trickled in. Within minutes, just about every seat at the bar was taken. I picked a flight of four of the big beers on the list, starting with One (first anniversary barleywine aged 15 month, 11.6%), Barrel Aged One (aged in Black Button Distilling whisky barrels, 11.6%), Two (second anniversary Belgian strong ale, Brett-aged eight months, 9.1%), and Barrel Aged Two (aged in pear brandy barrels from Apple Country Spirits). They’re called “big beers” for a reason, and they are meant to be sipped and enjoyed. Barleywines and strong ales are styles that are going to be at least double the ABV of your average beer.
If you put the words “barrel-aged” in front of a beer, you always have my attention, because more often than not we are talking about a rich beer that is going to be full of complex flavors. The Barrel Aged One did not disappoint. Even though One on its own was a sweet blast from the past, the barrel-aged variation brought in wonderful flavors from the whisky barrels they sat in for so long. The “brett” in Two refers to Brettanomyces, a strain of yeast found most often in fruit peels, and lends a flavor to beers that ranges from tropical to funky. Searching around, I read this “wild” strain of yeast has found its way into new craft brews over the last ten years or so as brewers rediscover its unique qualities. I don’t always care for its strong flavor, but I still enjoyed my sample of Two. The Barrel Aged Two replaced the Brett funk with complex flavors gained from the pear brandy barrels. So began the eleven-hour marathon at Swiftwater.
During the second hour, I ordered a burger and potatoes off the menu for lunch, and indulged in 10 oz. tulip of 2016 Barley One (10.3%), a re-brew of the first anniversary barleywine. I enjoyed this sipper tremendously, as it was rich, malty, sweet, and just a hint of “boozy” essence. Brewmaster Pat Meehan really outdid himself with this selection of big beers for the anniversary. Andy was so proud of it, Barley One has been bottled and is available for purchase from the brewery.
Big beers come with a price, however. David and I quickly decided if we were going to last the entire eleven hours, we would need some serious hydration to augment our libations. He made a quick run to the gas station next door for some Gatorade, because that’s how we roll. We got a few amused looks from some of the patrons, but the bartenders knew we were in it for the long haul.
As hour three approached, a tour bus discharged its patrons for a scheduled visit to Swiftwater. The bar became crowded with the new arrivals who were anxious to try a little bit of everything. The tasting room was pretty full, but not uncomfortable. Andy took a moment to share a cheers with us. I asked him if it felt like two years had passed. “Some days it feels like it has, some days it feels like not at all,” he said. Andy explained that previous to opening there was 15 months of buildout for the brewery and tasting room. Even before one sledgehammer was swung, there was at least nine months of business planning prior to purchasing the space on Mt. Hope. “That doesn’t count the months and months of dreaming before hand, of course.”
More friends joined for hour five. This time I went for a tulip of Barrel Aged Two. We ordered some appetizers as the sun had dipped behind the apartments across the street. Spicy sriracha hummus dip with bread and veggies accompanied by the cheese board provided plenty to snack on as we contemplated dinner options.
I had done a pretty good job of pacing myself as hour six rolled around. Since we had reached the half-way point, I decided I would “slow down” a bit and enjoy an IPA 9 (7.0%). This India Pale Ale recipe has become one of their flagship brews, making appearances several times throughout the year, and bottled for sale at the brewery and beyond. I find it to be a very solid IPA, with the grapefruit flavors balancing the slight hop bitterness nicely.
I was a little too slow ordering dinner, as the kitchen had run out of the kielbasa entreé, so instead I opted for the House Salad. A few minutes later, a beautiful combination of greens, tomatoes, olives, boiled eggs, and bacon had arrived in front of me. This light and refreshing salad was a perfect compliment to all of the rich flavors I had been experiencing all day. Bill slipped out of the kitchen briefly to distribute two small slices of birthday cake to everyone. One was rich chocolate, the other was a sweet buttery cake. Both were the perfect punctuation to dinner.
The crowds ebbed and flowed throughout the day, and by hour eight the regular Saturday night patrons began to arrive. I had switched off to the 2 oz. tasters by this time, finding this the best way to regulate my intake of very tasty and very potent beers. More friends trickled in to join us. Many of the people I was talking with were folks I made friends with because of repeat visits to Swiftwater. One of the stated goals on the brewery’s web site is to provide a place where people feel encouraged to make friends, aside from making great beer.
Some of the staff that had been working the afternoon shift was now taking a break on the other side of the bar by hour eight. The official gathering place for the Swiftwater crew is the far end of the bar closest to the kitchen. Even first-time visitors are quick to recognize the close bond the staff has with one another. It even feels weird to call them “staff.” If you talk to Andy, they are family, and no, that’s not a corny reference. Talking with bar manager Chris Perri, he attributes the camaraderie to having a great “clubhouse” environment, much like how a great baseball team will perform when the right people are in the mix.
There were still quite a few people at Swiftwater as we reached hour eleven. Patrons began to say their goodbyes. Glasses were cleared, tables were cleaned, and chairs were straightened. We began to murmur our plans of meeting up after closing to celebrate a successful day. “The faster you leave, the fast we can join you!” some of the staff playfully teased. (We’re pretty sure they were teasing.) Another successful year was in the books.