LEDYARD | Aurora Ale & Lager Co. is the fourth brewery Cayuga County has yielded in a little over a year.
Conceptually, though, it looks like the first — a transitional step from the local beer scene's bigger, more well-established cousins in the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail. Mark Grimaldi and Joe Shelton's 2.5-barrel hilltop barn brewery not only overlooks Cayuga Lake, it neighbors Long Point Winery by less than 100 feet. With King Ferry Winery five miles down Route 90 in the other direction, Aurora Ale & Lager is in one fertile position.
Additionally, Grimaldi brings a background in making and wholesaling wine to his and Shelton's new brewery. The two met about six years ago when Grimaldi, then living downstate, began dating the best friend of Shelton's wife. With Shelton being a print salesman and Grimaldi a potential client, they soon found themselves knocking back beers together. Shelton, a homebrewer since 2005, also introduced his new friend to the craft of making them.
"I'd come up here and Joe'd be like, 'Dude, let's brew a batch of beer while you're up!" Grimaldi said. "And every time we brewed one we were like, 'We gotta do this!'"
Then, in the middle of a batch late last year, Grimaldi abruptly decided to go to the bank and ask for a loan. It wasn't until he and Shelton were approved in January that the reality took hold: Aurora Ale & Lager was happening.
The two at first explored setting up shop in the village of Aurora, but rent was too expensive, they said. They found help from the late Douglas Bates, a family friend, who offered them his barn three miles south of the village for $100 a month. Despite the barn being filled to the brim with garbage they'd have to clear, they moved in.
The 10-degree days of cleanup and setup tested Grimaldi and Shelton's resolve early. But they maintained momentum, securing a farm brewery license from the state and beginning test batches in February. As of today, they've perfected the carbonation part of their system up to 90 percent — the construction of a cold room in the barn will lift them that last 10 percent in the next couple of weeks, they said.
"The biggest difference between doing it at home and doing it on this kind of scale is that everything has to be temperature-controlled, and everything is pumped," Shelton said. "Every little thing with home-brewing where you'd go 'No big deal'? It changes the flavor of the beer."
As the farm brewery law stipulates, holders must make their beer with a rising minimum of New York-sourced malts and hops. Aurora Ale & Lager is ahead of the game: They've already lined up grain from Scipio grower Kenny Post, and use Aurora water they run through a charcoal filter to remove the chlorine.
Grimaldi and Shelton have concerns about the quality of New York hops given the law's mandate that they comprise 90 percent of their total hops by 2024. Regardless, the farm brewery license's speedier approval process and perks like being able to sell New York wines and cheeses on site made the choice to apply an easy one.
That kind of potential is a theme at Aurora Ale & Lager. For now, the pair is sticking to brewing its strengths of IPAs and farmhouse ales (saisons). Their current beer list of Ruckus IPA and CTRL-ALT-DEL German altbier reflects Shelton's hoppier preferences and Grimaldi's drier, subtler ones. But they plan to experiment, whether it's with the plums growing on the property or the pinot noir aging barrels they recently shipped in.
Grimaldi and Shelton envision their tasting room leading through double glass doors into a grassy terrace where visitors can have their pints with a view of Cayuga Lake. For now, Aurora Ale & Lager is only open every other Sunday — brewing days — but the pair hopes to hire an employee and expand to regular Friday, Saturday and Sunday hours by fall.
The plan is also for Aurora Ale & Lager beers to be available well beyond its barn doors. For now, supply is limited. But Grimaldi and Shelton want to have their beers poured in Aurora and Ithaca restaurants, Thirsty Pug Craft Beer Market and elsewhere before long.
To drive demand to a place where their plans become feasible, the pair has been selling at the new Aurora Farmers Market and taking appointments for tastings and growler fills. Grimaldi and his family are also moving onto the property soon, which will allow him to open the barn at a moment's notice. However, he and Shelton are still two adults with full-time jobs and families, they stressed — so Aurora Ale & Lager's beer will never flow too freely.
"It'll still be limited hours. We're not a bar; we'll never be a bar. If Mark's living here he doesn't want 20 drunk people driving in," Shelton said. "We're going to get that anyway from the wine trails."