Extraordinary origins of American brewery amid Chornobyl ruins
Crafty fox, craft beers
In 2014, the Lenchuks bought industrial-grade brewing equipment which they set up in the town of Eldred in New York. They named their enterprise the Shrewd Fox Brewery — derived from a fox called "Lys Mykyta" (Mykyta the Fox), the hero of a children's story penned by Ukrainian poet and author Ivan Franko.
Mykyta is described as “khytryi” — a Ukrainian word sometimes translated as cunning or sly. “To me that implied an underhand quality to Lys Mykyta, whereas I always thought of him as a smart, playful character like Bugs Bunny,” Lenchuk said. “Mykyta isn’t bad — he’s a shrewd fox.”
The brewery produces 12 varieties of craft beer and two ciders. This year Lenchuk expects to brew 200 barrels each containing 31 gallons — a total of around 23,400 liters. Each beer and cider has a distinct, full flavor and names to match, such as Kutya Osela Winter Farmhouse Ale, using buckwheat and honey, Baba Yaga Harbooz Pumpkin Ale and Kozak Porter.
The Eldred location also houses a bar which began serving customers in 2015. Eldred was chosen because it’s just a few kilometers away from the little town of Glen Spey, nestled in the picturesque Catskill Mountains scenery, where decades ago Ukrainian-Americans, including Vasyl Lenchuk’s parents in 1975, started building weekend homes for breaks away from the bustle of places like the cities where they worked, mostly in the states of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Gradually, more UkrainianAmericans moved in and started spending the entire summer there. They built a Ukrainian Orthodox and a Greek Catholic church and a summer camp for their children. As the years passed, holiday homes turned into primary homes and facilities for retired people.
The whole area now has a strong Ukrainian flavor. Blue-and-yellow flags abound, there is a monument to Ukrainian World War II freedom fighters and streets are named after Ukrainian historical figures. Annual cultural events and summer camps draw thousands of visitors of Ukrainian descent.
When a lease on a suitable building in Glen Spey became available last year, the Lenchuks snapped it up, re-investing the profits from their first “tap room” in Eldred into the far larger new facility, which has a restaurant and can seat around 100 people.
Its splendid wood-paneled interior and imposing bar began their life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the 1920s, when America outlawed alcohol during the years called the Prohibition Era.
Illicit, secret bars called “speak-easies” sprang up to slake thirsts and, after Prohibition ended in 1933, someone bought and transported the hidden architectural gem to Glen Spey.
“In our business model, the enterprise is primarily a brewery rather than a bar,” Lenchuk said.
The plan is that customers will buy a third of the brewery products for home consumption, another third will be sold to other bars, restaurants, wholesalers or alcohol retail outlets and only one third will be drunk “in-house.”
“We make craft beers sourced from local ingredients, grown to avoid using chemicals, additives and preservatives and with a view to sustainability,” Lenchuk said. “We use pure Catskills water from wells and weave in a Ukrainian twist. All the spent products from the brewing process go to farms for feeding livestock. None of the waste goes into landfills.”
He said large breweries use huge industrialized farms providing little employment: “They bury the little guy (small business). By contrast our model preserves small local farms and puts money back into the local economy.”
The tap rooms serve traditional Ukrainian fare like varenyky (stuffed dumplings) and a variety of smoked sausages that make a perfect, cholesterol-boosting accompaniment to the beers and cider.
The Lenchuks care deeply about events playing out in Ukraine, keenly following the war and recent elections. They hope that, along with the Ukrainian food and folksythemed beers, customers will also imbibe some of Ukraine’s history and culture.
Last autumn, the couple held an “Uktoberfest” — the first they hope of an annual Ukrainian Catskills take on Munich’s famed beer festival — featuring bands and other entertainment.
On April 20, as the thirty-third anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster approached, Lenchuk gave a talk to an audience in the Glen Spey tap room about the nuclear explosion.
He explained how it not only spurred demands for Ukrainian independence but also caused a chain reaction of imagination leading to the creation of the Shrewd Fox Brewery.
The Ukrainian-American Shrewd Fox Brewery in Glen Spey, New York produces 12 varieties of craft beer and two ciders. (Courtesy)