Friday, July 20, 2007

A Visit to Empire Brewing Company

If memory of five years' past serves, the subterranean environs on Walton Street occupied by the Empire Brewing Company are slightly more inviting on a typically snowy Syracuse evening in January than on a picturesque, blue skied July afternoon. Nevertheless, our schedule (and consummate journalistic dedication) dictated that this was the time for our long-awaited return. It took a few minutes to adjust from the bright sunlight of the street above to the considerably dimmer surroundings at the bottom of the stairs leading to the bar's entrance. At first, the overwhelming sensation was merely that of loud noise. Surprisingly for a Monday at just after noon, there was a live blues band playing, and they were plenty loud. As we became more comfortable in the surroundings, it became apparent that the band was merely a duo, and a pretty solid one at that. It also became clear that there was plenty to take in beyond the music. The wall that runs behind the bar is brick, with several glassed archways revealing the stainless steel and copper beer tanks in the busy brewing area. The rectangular, three sided bar is made of darkly polished wood with stools for fifteen or so lucky souls. We were seated in the dining room adjacent to the bar area, which contains a couple of booths and maybe a dozen tables. Handsome portraits of full pint glasses in varied settings decorate the walls and serve to whet the appetite, and a row of windows on the far end of the room give a worm's eye view of the sidewalk above. The Empire seemed to be doing a pretty healthy lunch time trade, mostly business types, and a couple of families with young children, though few seemed to be sampling the house specialties, given the hour. We laboured under no such teetotaling limitations, however, and ordered the sampler straight away. A minor complaint is that no proper beer list was provided, with a chalkboard affixed prominently on the wall of the dining room serving as our only clue as to what beers were available on draught, and no descriptions of those beers. There was no indication that any of the promised guest taps were available, although that was hardly of interest on this visit. The sampler consists of seven 4 oz. glasses, five regulars and two rotating seasonals (we could tell because the paper tray liner was pre-printed with this info) and is quite reasonably priced at $6. Full pints sell for $4.


  1. Skinny Atlas Light - Light (shocker!) and easy to drink, but with a surprisingly pleasant sweetness and bite. Better than expected
  2. Amber Ale - Supposedly their flagship, this was easily our least favourite. Not bad, but not very interesting either. None of the hoppiness that they claim. All the beers we tried seemed a bit thin, with this being the biggest offender. Just okay.
  3. Pale Ale - Not a sharp hop flavour at all, but it improved as it warmed. A very enjoyable drinker.
  4. Black Magic Stout - Creamy and smooth, but without much of the chocolate or coffee flavours that should have been more apparent. Again, a bit thinner than we'd like.
  5. Downtown Brown - A little malty, a little sweet, plenty good. A very solid regular offering.
  6. Hefe-Weizen (seasonal) - Beautiful, cloudy yellow colour, with a nice banana-y thing going on. Maybe the best of the lot, though the weather on this day certainly did not hurt.
  7. Golden Ale (seasonal) - Likable enough, with a pleasant sweetness to it. Probably not the follow-the-sample-with-a-pint type, though.
Overall, the beers were very drinkable and well-made, but there was nothing of the "blow my skirt up" variety. Some of this might be attributable to the legend built up in our mind, some to waiting for more than a month past opening to be legally able to serve their beers. It was disappointing that the sampler did not include two of the more interesting sounding beers available, the Mightly Fine Barley Wine and Blueberry Wheat. A sampler should live up to its name and offer a tasting of every house beer available, pre-printed tray liners be damned. We are usually reluctant to judge a place based on one visit, and this place is even more of an exception than the norm. The beers were good and were guessing they'll only get better.

A definite bright spot is the eclectic menu and its popular prices. We were thrilled with our choice of the Andouille Po' Boy ($8), a deliciously spicy, grilled sausage topped with fried onion straws, hot mustard and smoked gouda. We also heard plenty of positives about the Angus Cheddar Burger ($7.50), Thai seasoned Turkey Burger ($8)and the seasoned fries. The menu also includes such intriguing selections as Fish Tacos ($7.50), Indonesian Beef Lettuce Wraps ($8), Catfish Burrito ($14), and, of course, the Empire's formerly famous Gumbo ($4). The food alone is reason enough for a return visit, even without the distinct possibility of great beer. With the ownership, brewing experience and history involved here, average beer is not a long term probability. We're planning another visit to the Empire soon, and judging by our working lunch companions' jealous looks at our sampler, we won't be the only ones.


Willie Moe said...

You paint such a picture it's like I was there! Well, I mean I was there, but, well you no what I mean. Do you know what I mean? Bah! Anyways, well done Jables, well done! Bottoms Up!

Bill said...

I was THIS close to quitting my job just so I could have some of that stuff.