October 26, 2021

Beer inspires big passion in local brewers

Sam Feeley/sports reporter

James Ulrich, a Cortland High School teacher, shows off his home brewing equipment.

There has been a drastic change in the culture surrounding beer since the turn of the millennium.

Twenty years ago, the terms “beer snob,” “beer garden,” “craft beer” and “home brewing” would sound like a foreign language.

But beer has evolved from something you drink at a ballgame or a bar or the obsession of a Barney Gumble-like caricature into something people take great pride in making themselves, and even making a living out of it.

Brian and Erin Bullard of ONCO Fermentations in Tully got their start when Erin bought Brian a home brewing kit 17 years ago. In 2010, their operation took off and became ONCO. Their ascent wasn’t without difficulty, however.

“I’m my own worst critic,” Brian Bullard said. “I know it can be better and I can’t stop playing with the recipe. The hardest part is separating yourself from your creation. It’s a constant battle.”

“I still find myself falling backwards into the ‘love of the creation’ without separating myself from it, which in my viewpoint, is a big mistake on my part,” he added. That came back to haunt him when a sub-par batch made it to the taps and drew a few comments one weekend. “That following week we did a sensory analysis and it wasn’t right. All kegs were immediately dumped.”

But the Bullards’ persistence paid off, and now they are winners of the New York State Governor’s Cup for their “Richard, or is it Dick” session NEIPA.

But not every homebrewer aspires to scale up their operation, however. Some are quite content brewing their own batches for their own consumption.

James Ulrich, a science teacher at Cortland High, had home brewing come into his life at the same time some of his friends were heading out.

“My wife, Elaine Norris, is big into organic gardening and she had good friends Morris and Jody Lacey who grew a small plot of barley and then harvested it and roasted it,” Ulrich said. “Morris wondered if I would like to help him make a batch of beer. I had been interested but never had the gumption to start by myself.”

“After making that first batch Morris mentioned that they were moving back west to California and didn’t want to lug all the materials back with him,” Ulrich said. “So with all the gear I needed given to me, I started brewing myself and now am up to a total of 60 batches.”

Ulrich saves his brewing activities for rainy days when he’s not teaching or painting houses. Most of his brews are brown ales with hops grown at his house, but during maple syrup season he’ll brew a batch with maple sap instead of water. He hopes to branch out into IPAs and stouts as well.

The Bullards have experimented with their brews, using wild yeast, waffle cones and graham crackers — though Brian Bullard insists those ingredients are “nothing too daring.”

For those aspiring to make their own brews, Ulrich suggests reading “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing” by Charlie Papazian. For equipment, he suggests a seven-gallon food-grade bucket and at least a four-gallon kettle.

Brewing your own beer doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby. “I can generally make two cases for $15 to $20,” Ulrich said. “I see kits these days anywhere from $35 to $60.”

Ulrich added: “It is nice that CountryMax has started a small section of brewing supplies. I used to have to go to Syracuse or Ithaca to get my supplies.”

Sam Feeley/sports reporter

A selection of home brewing supplies at CountryMax on Route 13 in Cortlandville.

Summerhill Brewing in Summerhill started its operation in 2014 after 16 years of homebrewing, scaling up to 200gallon batches from five. Still, the brewers use a 20-gallon system to experiment and brew seasonal beers.

“Do your research, talk to brewers, read, read, read, buy a kit, try it out, have some friends over to get feedback and have some fun!” said Sallee Ten Eyck of Summerhill. “It also gives you a greater appreciation for the craft breweries and craft beers they brew.”

The most important part of homebrewing, at least to Bullard, is to have fun.

“Focus on process with extract and move up from there,” he said. “Without understanding the process, everything else becomes more difficult and you won’t improve the quality of your end product. … Always ask questions of other homebrewers and pro brewers. You don’t need to go and buy the best equipment to get started and hooked.”