By David Diehl
Photo by Heather Ainsworth
Part of the Finger Lakes region’s charm will always be its embedded history. For self-proclaimed history enthusiast Steve Shaw Jr., this is especially true.
Born and bred in Elmira, NY, Shaw has emerged as a leader in the factory town’s resurgence. He knows what Elmira was, what it is today, and how it could be revitalized.
“Elmira was a great town to grow up in, but it’s also experienced some hardship,” he says. “They call it ‘factory flight.’ A lot of these towns, like Elmira, relied a lot on manufacturing and at the height of Elmira in about 1950, there had to have been several dozen factories. “It was approaching 50,000 people in population. Personally, I love history. I love to investigate what has happened and where we are going.”
Doing his part in the potential renaissance of his beloved hometown, Shaw’s most recent venture has him bringing beer to the relaunch—Elmira’s beer.
“When it came to beer [in the early days], everything needed to be consumed quickly and locally. Every town had a brewery,” he says. “You couldn’t have a national brand because you didn’t have the refrigeration to transport the beer. The [local] list goes on and on: You have Knickerbocker beer in New York City, National Bohemian in Baltimore, Iron City in Pittsburgh. At one time Briggs beer was the beer of Elmira. It was in production from 1866 to 1919 or 1920 … and was basically killed off by Prohibition.”
With fabled beers and whiskeys now making a comeback throughout the beverage world, Shaw felt that upstate New York should join the party as well—and why wouldn’t he choose the beer that represents home? In 2019, Shaw bought the Briggs beer name and reinserted the brand into the game. Based on his lifelong knowledge of the beverage industry and awareness of current trends, Shaw believes that Briggs will bring a strong light onto upstate beer history and back onto the town of Elmira.
“Cream ale is a native to upstate New York. What differentiates cream ales is the addition of corn, which is abundant here; it’s all over the place.”
“I grew up in the alcohol business. My mother and her family own a liquor store in Horseheads, NY. My father has had vineyards since I was a kid. I’ve grown up in the aisles of a liquor store and the vines of a vineyard,” Shaw explains. “The story of Briggs is fascinating to me because it’s this Elmira brand that had died out. Combined with the retro whiskey thing, I work in the spirits industry as well, and all of these whiskeys are coming back. With the success of brands like Pabst Blue Ribbon and Genesee coming back, why couldn’t Briggs come back?”
When Shaw acquired Briggs, he needed a place to make the beer. Currently, Briggs is being contract brewed at Northway Brewing in Queensbury, NY, but the ultimate goal is to erect a brewery and taproom in Elmira. He envisions it as an anchor, and although he knows it won’t happen tomorrow, he believes it will be a welcome addition to the town and to its economy.
“Things like Briggs and the current restaurant rebuilding can really help bring the city back to its thriving days,” he says. Unsurprisingly, Shaw and Briggs beer are focusing their campaign around the historic and uniquely Upstate New York Cream Ale. The Briggs Cream Ale debuted in 1866, long before some of its current shelf-mates. The recipe is a classic and it highlights one of upstate’s most abundant crops and the style’s most distinguishing ingredient: corn.
“Cream ale is a native to upstate New York. What differentiates cream ales is the addition of corn, which is abundant here; it’s all over the place,” Shaw explains. “I think that definitely contributes to ‘liquid geography.’ People use what they have available. In Mexico, they have agave [and hence tequila]; in the Caribbean, they have sugarcane [rum]; in Canada they have rye [rye whiskey]. And in upstate New York, we have corn.”
“With the name ‘cream ale,’ one would imagine that there would be some sort of dairy or lactose to it,” he continues. “And that’s totally understandable. It does not taste like that, however. It’s a light, refreshing style of beer and it is experiencing a resurgence. It is upstate New York’s baby.”
Shaw is determined to remain true to the history of this classic: in its recipe, in its origin, and in its presentation. So its revival seems more like just resuming after a 100-year pause.
“I did a lot of research about what the labels would have looked like and I found a historic coaster —an actual marketing piece that would have been in an Elmira tavern. An Elmiran would have put their beer down on this coaster,” he imagines. “Briggs Cream Ale would have been served in glass bottles at the time that it was produced. But we are using cans. The current Briggs packaging is based on this coaster.”
Staying true to the history of Briggs beer and its roots in Elmira are clearly imperative to the business model. These efforts tell a story and hope to contribute in revitalizing a town through beer. Starting with the beer creates the buzz. Along with quenching thirst, Briggs beer may be satisfying some curiosities. And with a final destination in sight, for Briggs it’s not going forwards – it’s to go back where it belongs.
“Basically, at this point, Briggs is a virtual brand. It’s a labeled liquid, and, no, I don’t have a brewery or tasting room yet, but I felt it important to get this brand back out there,” states Shaw. That’s where it starts, and the Briggs brewery and tap room in Elmira is on the corn-filled horizon.
Briggs beer can be found at Grand Central Beer, Hammondsport Grocery, Wegmans, Tops, Dandy Mini Marts, Finger Lakes Beverage Center in Ithaca, Aces and Eights Convenient Store and Finger Lakes House in Elmira.
David Diehl is a Hobart & William Smith Colleges alum. You can follow his work at FLXWORDS.com.