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FOOD & DRINK

Haze and hip-hop: Aurora Ale & Lager expands as its beers earn buzz

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LEDYARD — You're going to see many more beers from Aurora Ale & Lager in 2019. And if you're a fan of '90s hip-hop, you're going to recognize their names.

In November, owners and brewers Joe Shelton and Mark Grimaldi began making beer on a new system that's significantly bigger than Aurora's previous one. It not only takes them from producing two to five barrels at a time, it also gives them 30 barrels of fermenter space compared to six previously. They'll get another two fermenters this winter, they said at the brewery Thursday.

So Shelton and Grimaldi can now brew more Aurora beer, and more frequently. They estimate their annual output will rise from about 100 barrels to as much as 1,000. And it couldn't come at a better time for the brewery, whose New England-style India pale ales in particular have caught on with regional beer fans at taprooms like Thirsty Pug Craft Beer Market in Auburn.

"They're selling out faster than some of the bigger brands," Thirsty Pug owner Mike Sigona said. "I feel like they're one of the best breweries in the Finger Lakes."

Shelton and Grimaldi have focused on the popular style lately to build momentum and penetrate the market, they said. Beers like Fresh to Death and Off the Hazy use different hop bills; others, like So Damn Thirsty and Party at the Moontower, use fruit, tartness and lactose to deliver a sort of creamsicle taste. Aurora will soon debut two more New England-style IPAs, including one with Cashmere, a newer hop that can give a beer tropical aromas and be grown in New York state — "which is unheard of," Grimaldi said. The brewery sourced it from Chimney Bluffs Hoppery in Wolcott.  

But hazy and hoppy beers are far from the only ones Shelton and Grimaldi plan to make on their bigger system. On deck are a sour with blueberries, vanilla, lactose and cinnamon, as well as a brett (souring yeast) saison aged in red wine barrels. They also recently acquired both rum and Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. An upcoming Belgian quad will be aged in each type of barrel, as well as with black currants, and Shelton and Grimaldi will also make a bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout. Further down the line, they're excited to brew with Voss Kveik, a Norwegian strain from a Canadian yeast bank they recently began working with. And the new fermenter space will give Aurora the room to brew more lagers and pilsners, which take twice the amount of time it takes to make ales.

"We're trying to make cool-ass beer," Grimaldi said. "People want to try something new and unique, and follow a brewery that's really creative."

The brewery's expansion was made possible by a $130,000 low-interest small business loan from Cayuga County secured through the Cayuga Economic Development Agency, said Tracy Verrier, its executive director. Among the conditions of the loan is job creation, Shelton and Grimaldi said, which they don't expect to be a problem. All that beer means distribution, which means hiring a full-time driver sometime soon. Overall, Aurora will add two full-time jobs to its current three part-time ones, which don't include the owners and brewers themselves.

The bars asking for those Aurora kegs span as far as Buffalo, Syracuse and Ithaca, Shelton and Grimaldi said. Meanwhile, the brewery has begun working with Revolution Canning to can its beers and wholesale them to area retailers. But wholesaling may decrease in the summer, they said, when Aurora will need to keep its tasting room stocked with more beer for its increased visitors.

Shelton and Grimaldi said Aurora gets good traffic at its Route 90 location. Those on wine tours appreciate having a brewery to stop at, they said. But it's still not as much traffic as the owners would like, particularly in the winter. That's why they're considering opening a satellite tasting room — which they can do through their farm brewery license — as soon as later this year. 

For now, Shelton and Grimaldi are working to make their hilltop barn brewery more scenic and homey. Those who haven't visited since the months after it opened in summer 2015 would barely recognize what it's become. The old tasting room, with its naked drywall and rough edges, now houses all the new brewing equipment. The new tasting room is located elsewhere in the barn. And it's far more inviting, with strings of warm light, wooden finishes and a fireplace. It also boasts a view of Cayuga Lake through large windows, and a pair of leather chairs to enjoy it.

Shelton and Grimaldi said they plan to add seating to the tasting room and, eventually, expand it. Saturdays can get especially crowded: That's when Aurora books live music every other week, and also brings in Grimaldi's mother- and father-in-law, Janet and Jim Shea, to make wood-fired pizza in an oven they built this summer in a new kitchen area opposite the bar. 

The outdoor area will get overhauled with new seating and a nicer patio in time for summer, Shelton and Grimaldi said. The brewery also has a second barn — an older, wooden one — that will be available to rent in the warmer months. With lights dangling from the ceiling, a second bar and space for live bands, it's a rustic option for weddings and other events.

Aurora's pastoral location and look may put it at odds with the names of its beers, which often come from '90s hip-hop lyrics. The Wu-Tang Clan alone is well-represented, with K.R.E.A.M. (Kölsch Rules Everything Around Me), Goseface Killah and The STZA imperial stout. Grimaldi joked that he and Shelton haven't gotten a cease-and-desist letter yet, but one from Ghostface Killah would tell him that they've officially made it. Until then, the references on Aurora's tap list and cans will continue helping to add buzz to the Cayuga County brewery's name.

"People are so happy when they look at the board. You see people smirk at the bar, or mention something to the person they're with," Shelton said. "It's a connection."

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Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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Features editor for The Citizen and auburnpub.com. I also cover local arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.