For local farm brewery owners, there’s a lot on tap.
The number of farm breweries has been on the rise since 2012 legislation in New York state incentivized hops-growing and processing. “The farm brewing law,” newyorkcraftbeer.com notes, “was passed in 2012 and put into effect Jan. 1, 2013. It was designed to increase demand for locally grown products to further increase economic impact and create new businesses surrounding the brewing industry.” The law implemented tiered requirements, the site states, increasing the percentage of ingredients mandatorily grown in New York state from 20 in 2018 to 60 in 2019 and 90% in 2024.
According to a March 2022 syracuse.com article, “A decade ago, New York state was home to 324 wineries; at that time, the state had just under 100 craft breweries, plus a handful of large-scale brewers. In the last 10 years, the number of New York wineries increased at a healthy rate of 52% … (while) breweries soared 420% since 2012. The total hit and passed 500 in recent months.” New York is also, the article says, “one of the leading states in the numbers of all alcohol beverage producers.”
Jared Wood, owner and brewer at Muddy River Farm Brewery at 15544 County Highway 23 in Unadilla, said he hopped on the hops bandwagon early.
“We got started by growing hops at first back in 2012,” he said. “We quickly realized that growing hops in order to make it worth our while would’ve needed 20-plus acres and, with full-time jobs, we weren’t sure we could handle that. They pushed the farming stuff, saying that, with this new farm brewery license, it’s pretty much going to force the breweries to buy New York state products, and then there were incentives to have a farm brewery and it was easier to get the license. Much of the funding wasn’t for the farmer; they gave all the incentives to farm breweries, so we thought, we might as well become a farm brewery. We pretty much had the perfect spot to start a brewery right on the Susquehanna (River), so we gave it a shot and applied for the license in 2017 and opened the doors in 2018.”
Mike Andres, owner and brewer at Forged Brewing Co. at 1732 State Route 41 in Coventry, left life as a trucker to brew full time.
“It’s a story I love to tell,” he said. “I went to a craft beer tasting after-party and fell in love with beer. My wife bought me a kit for my birthday that year, back in 2014, and I started homebrewing and really enjoyed it. I started going to multiple breweries around and really enjoyed the vibe these places give you and said, ‘One day, I wouldn’t mind doing this.’ (My wife) said, ‘OK,’ so here we are. We put our foot in the door and got the license going in 2019 … and opened March 2021.”
Experts said it’s the crafting aspect of craft beer that keeps them brewing.
“(The best part) of brewing beer or making wine or cider, or anything in the craft beverage industry, is you get to invent things constantly,” Wood said. “So, as a person who likes to build things and has been fermenting things since I was 25 years old, so for 26 years, I really like the challenges of inventing and seeing what other people think about what we just created. I think that’s probably the most satisfying piece of being a brewer.”
“A big part of it is the making of different types of beer and creating something, whether you’ve had it before and want to try your own or you’re creating something new or taking different malts and grains and hops and just making something to see what comes out,” Wendy Andres echoed.
“The passion to do this is a drive, and I love it. I work for myself and I have a five-foot commute,” Mike Andres said, noting that he recently brewed “Keep Me Percolated,” a coffee blonde ale made with coffee from Afton’s Baristacrats and “Devil’s Sweet Tooth,” a maple-chili stout using Windy Acres maple syrup. “We are 100% New York state; everything we do comes from the state and is locally sourced as much as possible.”
And the farm brewery atmosphere, brewers said, is distinct.
“If you haven’t been to the brewery … it just seems to be a great place for community and a great place for people to get together and gather and have a good time,” Wood said. “The motto … is ‘River views and decent brews’ (because) our goal isn’t to be the No. 1 best brewery in the state when it comes to beers, but you can’t beat hanging out by the river and just enjoying the sunset.
“We have a very loyal (customer) base that comes almost on the weekly,” he continued, “but with the growing population from downstate … we’re obviously increasing in tourism the last couple years. We’ve also seen that Binghamton has finally discovered us, and we’re getting a lot of people from Binghamton. It’s as diverse as you could be in upstate rural New York; it’s anybody from somebody with a walker down to an infant. It’s a really special place.”
“I love the community we’ve created,” Wendy Andres said. “We never really thought ahead of time to, ‘Yeah, we’re going to get friends and meet new people and they’ll become part of our family,’ but we’ve created a brewery family, whether they come every weekend or every month.”
“It’s a vibe I don’t feel you can compare to other industries,” Mike said. “With the breweries or wineries or cideries, especially the farm-side ones … you’re different from a bar, a restaurant or a pub; you have a different feeling or community and it’s wonderful.
“We’ve always portrayed this as a backyard barbecue feel, somewhere you could go to find your friends or relatives and enjoy your beer and lose yourself for a couple hours,” he continued. “It’s nestled in the woods, there’s nice scenery around us, it’s tucked away and just a comfortable, easygoing location. When we look out, whether we have five or 150 people sitting out there, if they’re having a good time, I love seeing that on people’s faces.”
Brewery owners said they’ve seen growth bubble up.
“We started off with a system when we first opened where we would make one kind of beer, thinking it would be an easy, chill spot and we’d keep up, but we quickly realized we had to increase our capacity,” Wood said. “So, we’ve done it four times in four years. We’re still having trouble keeping all our beers on our eight-tap system, so we’re thinking of doing it again. My cousin Dusty and I both brew now, and he just started picking up brewing to keep up with demand last year.
“One of the biggest challenges for us is, when and how much do we want to grow,” he continued. “The Sidney-Unadilla location, we don’t want to expand that anymore than it is; so, the question is, do we take that leap of faith and look for a second location and go bigger and leave our jobs? Is the craft brewing industry going to keep me stable for the next 20 years? That’s a thing I struggle with constantly.”
“I hope it will never go away, though that’s every business owner’s outlook,” Mike said. “It’s hit a little plateau here and there, but there’s another surge that will come along, so there are always good ways to get around a curve and try something new and different. There will be periods where you have to push forward, but I don’t see a ceiling for this business. The growth is there.”
“Customers love it, people love coming out to these places and they love the beers and that’s not going to go away,” Wendy said. “People are not going to say, ‘I’m going to stop drinking beer.’”
Mike Andres noted that, earlier this year, they finished an addition that “doubled the inside space” and are working on a “huge patio deck, soon to be happening, along with a parking lot.” They’ve also partnered with Better Days Winery and will offer wines made on-site with “all New York state ingredients,” providing “one more avenue for people to enjoy.”
And while breweries are on track for continued growth, experts said, brewery ownership, specifically through the COVID-19 pandemic, has its hurdles.
“We’re very fortunate, because 85% of our space is outdoors, so we were one of the only places to be able to provide a safe place throughout the pandemic,” Wood said. “The biggest challenge has been that a lot of the rules would roll out on a Thursday night, and we’d have to try to comply with all the New York state changes in a 24-hour period, so that was very difficult. Monetarily, during the shutdown, we lost about 30% in revenue, but we knew that was coming. We kept careful with our budget and just pushed through, because the community needed a safe place to be, and we were lucky enough to give it to them.
“We brew every other week at this point, sometimes every week,” he continued. “On top of brewing, there are other demands, like cleaning the kegs, cleaning the brewing system, kegging the beer, making sure the taproom is ready every weekend. So, we probably spend three to four evenings during the week just prepping for the weekend. It’s pretty wild; it’s crazy amount of work.”
“Having it outdoors helps, but it hurt our opening, because we couldn’t have anybody taste or test anything, so the whole pandemic held us off one year,” Mike said. “But it was a blessing in disguise, because we were able to fine-tune some things and get our feet a little wetter.
“Depending on what I’m making, it’s anywhere from six to eight hours a day out there, and that’s the actual start process, from setting up the recipe through cleaning and finishing the yeast,” he continued, noting that Forged features a 12-tap system, with 10 Forged beers and two guest ciders. “It’s a full day while doing it, and other days it’s transferring, kegging, carbonating — always something.”
“Everybody hurt one way or another (during the pandemic),” Wendy said. “But I feel like breweries definitely expanded as part of the pandemic, because people wanted to go out and drink and, once they were able to go out and do stuff, people were excited.”
While Wood said he foresees style changes within the industry, the feel and appeal of farm breweries is here to stay.
“Everything has been so strongly IPA-based,” Wood said. “Everybody in the past 10 years has been about who can make the best IPA, and now it’s into hazy or New England-style IPAs. On top of that, the canning industry has become a big situation, so now there are brewers and breweries such as us who can’t buy 10,000 cans at a time or don’t have the space to do it, and there’s a huge can shortage. So, I’m not sure where the industry is going to go when it comes to the next step, but I do predict that IPAs are going to change again. We’ve been focusing more on different styles from the ‘90s — beers from the ‘90s are going to come back — like our Catskill Uncommon, a California uncommon ale, and IPAs that are a little more on the West Coast side, not hazy or citrusy, but going back to a milder IPA and darker brown ales. We’re playing around with different styles, and I feel like there’s an IPA fatigue happening in the industry, so if we can mix it up, that helps keep us be a little different from the others around.
“But I think that small breweries in New York state are going to continue to grow,” he continued. “I think it’s the new social venue for people to meet up with friends and family. Most people don’t want to sit at a barstool at a common bar; they want a more relaxed, chill atmosphere and I think small, New York State breweries are doing that.”
Forged Brewing Co. is open year-round, with on-site food or food trucks most weekends. Forged is open 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 2 to 10, Sunday. Find events and information on the “Forged Brewing Co” Facebook page, visit forgedbrewing.com or follow @forgedbrewingco on Instagram.
Muddy River is open from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and noon to 8, Sunday. For more information and event dates, visit muddyriverfarmbrewery.com, find “Muddy River Farm Brewery” on Facebook or follow @muddyriverbrewery on Instagram.