A quiet revolution is happening in Rochester. Last September at Foodlink's Savor Rochester: A Festival of Food fundraiser, every table had a bottle of beer on it -- and they all bore the label of the Honeoye Falls craft brewery Custom BrewCrafters. Custom brews a lot of beer, producing specialized varieties for bars and restaurants in Western New York, and three beers under its own label. This was something different: a saison, a French-style farmhouse ale that is enjoying a growing popularity among craft brewers (among the first successful saisons in the market was Cooperstown-based Brewery Ommegang's Hennepin saison ale). The Savor Rochester saison, called Pierre, was one of the first of a series of "signature" ales produced under the Custom BrewCrafters label since 2009, when Bruce Lish became head brewer at the 13-year-old brewery.
Shortly after Savor Rochester, rumors circulated about a new craft brewery in Canandaigua, Naked Dove, owned and operated by a brewmaster who had worked at all three of the biggest players in the Rochester brewing scene over the course of his career: Rohrbach Brewing Company, Custom BrewCrafters, and High Falls Brewing. In early December, three guys from Brighton, who styled themselves as Three Heads Brewing, surged into the market with four beers: an English pale ale, two India pale ales (referred to as IPAs by beer snobs), and a coffee porter. And then, just as 2010 was coming to a close, two young RIT grads started renovating the former VFW hall on Union Street, intending to open a brewery and tasting room. In what seemed like little more than a month, the number of breweries in our area nearly doubled.
Beer is big business in New York. In 2010, according to the Beer Institute of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, there were 73 breweries in the state with more than 2000 employees, generating $1.5 billion in income. Closer to home, the aggregate impact of the beer industry on the economy of Western New York -- including production and distribution, not just breweries -- was $370 million, accounting for nearly 2000 jobs in the region. Looked at from this perspective, the entrance of a couple small-scale brewers into the local market and the rebranding of a local standby could be seen as small potatoes. But in the space of a few months their impact has been disproportionate to the size of their respective businesses.
It's an unusually warm Saturday night in early April, and the patio in back of the Tap & Mallet on Gregory Street is packed with people attending a roll-out party for Three Heads Brewing's Java Sutra porter. Near the center of the crowd is Geoff Dale, the gregarious public face of Three Heads. Described by one local bartender as a "big hippy guy who rolls into the place and starts buying people beers," he looks and sounds like the St. Nicholas of beer, or perhaps a modern Falstaff. But he's only one aspect of Three Heads.
As with all of the most recent beer innovators in our area, Three Heads started in someone's house, in this case in partner Todd Dirrigl's kitchen where he, Dan Nothnagle, and Dale started home brewing a little more than two years ago. Beer snobs all, the trio spent many pleasant hours hunting for the perfect beer, but at some point they had a light-bulb moment which, as Dale tells it, amounted to "screw tryin' to find it, we should make it."
For two years, Dirrigl, Nothnagle, and Dale tinkered with recipes. Some, like their Skunk IPA, Nothnagle thought they got "right from the giddyup." But others, like the Blimey English Pale Ale -- which recently received an A+ rating from the Beer Advocate, the Consumer Reports of the beer world -- took time; almost one and a half years, according to Dale. Finally, Nothnagle says, the trio reached a point "where we would reach for the homebrew first," and decided to enter the market.
But starting a brewery from scratch was out of the question. "We aren't 22 years old," Nothnagle says, and the prospect of "raising $1.5 million, going broke, and ending up at ground zero at age 40" was neither appealing nor feasible for these three family guys (both Dale and Dirrigl are stay-at-home dads).
Instead, Dirrigl visited the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago (think of it as Craftbrewing University), took a course in the logistics of contract brewing, and enlisted Custom BrewCrafters to brew their beer. Three Heads is available at Wegmans, and at beer stores like Beers of the World. Local restaurants like The Owl House on Marshall Street and the Tap & Mallet have dedicated taps for their offerings. At the Tap & Mallet, Three Heads beer is wildly popular: when the Kind IPA is on draft the restaurant easily goes through a keg of it in a day, according to owner Joe McBane.
Like the Three Heads guys, Chris Spinelli and Jonathan Mervine -- the founders of Roc Brewing Co., slated to roll into the market in May 2011 -- started out as home brewers. Roc Brewing will eventually produce beer that is, in the buzz of the trade, sessionable -- beer that "you can actually drink a couple, or more than a couple...and not feel like you've scraped off your taste buds," Spinelli says. Spinelli says that Roc Brewing will produce beers that aren't "crazy," but that are "well balanced with great malty aromas and the sweetness of hops."
Unlike Three Heads, the founders of Roc Brewing weren't risk averse, but cash poor: at 25 years old neither of them had the resources to start a brewery, but both Spinelli and Mervine radiate optimism tempered with a certain devil-may-care attitude. As Spinelli put it, "we are 25 years old, we don't have anything to lose." But they definitely have a plan. Spinelli, at least, has a singular ambition. "I want to spend the rest of my life brewing beer," he says. Young, and with "enough flexibility and room to experiment," the pair decided to go all-in, seeking investors in their venture and acquiring a former VFW Hall on Union Street that they are nearly finished converting into a tasting room (they plan for it to serve their beer along with an assortment of "really good grilled cheese sandwiches," Spinelli says) and a single-barrel microbrewery scheduled to open in June 2011.
The decision to open a brewery downtown struck them as logical. As Mervine says, Union Street is close to the center of a vibrant "beer culture downtown, and we wanted to put the product where the people are, and increasingly the people are in the city." In many ways, the pair couldn't have picked a more perfect spot: a short walk from both the weekend action on East and Alexander and the bars and restaurants on Lower Monroe, Roc Brewing is right on the glide path from one neighborhood to the other, or a nice break from either of them.
Spinelli and Mervine have location, but what they lack at this point is beer in quantities large enough to sell. They have contracted with Rohrbach to brew their golden ale for distribution to restaurants and bars in the area. And they are already brewing Irish red ale, stout, IPA, and what Mervine described as an English dark and mild ale -- a beer with a nice, malty profile that weighs in at only 3 percent alcohol by volume -- at their Union Street Brewery. But very few people have had a chance to sample the goods. Roc Brewing has sponsored a handful of beer events in the area since at least last November, most recently acting as the hosts for a beer-pairing dinner featuring all five of their brews at Donnelly's Public House in Fairport in April. But it remains to be seen when and where you'll be able to find Roc Brewing beer on a regular basis.
Not all of the new names in the local beer scene are starting from scratch. A few learned the trade from inside the industry and are just now starting to strike out on their own, or taking old companies in new directions. Dave Schlosser, founder of Naked Dove Brewery in Canandaigua, is a good example. He started working for Rohrbach in 1993. In 1997, he attended the Seibel Institute. Returning to Rochester as a certified brewmaster, Schlosser was head brewer at Custom BrewCrafters until 2000, when he became the brewmaster at High Falls Brewing Company. But he always wanted to go out on his own, he says. In April 2009, Schlosser acquired a former truck-repair garage on the outskirts of Canandaigua and converted it into a brewery.
Schlosser is already producing beer, turning out three varieties, an IPA, an amber ale (which he describes as a "beer and pretzel" beer), and a dark, creamy porter, all of which he describes as sessionable. Like the beers that Roc Brewing aspires to produce, Schlosser says his ales and porters tend to be lower in alcohol and less aggressive than some of the other craft beers on the market. Naked Dove beers debuted quietly late last year, selling to bars and restaurants and drawing off growlers for customers who stopped by the brewery in Canandaigua. But Schlosser emphasizes that he's done almost no advertising: Naked Dove has grown by word of mouth. "It's usually people who are calling us these days," he told me when I visited him at his brewery and tasting room in early April.
The company's website is spartan to say the least, and until I ran into Naked Dove beer at Tap & Mallet, I'd never heard of it. Naked Dove's 45 Fathoms Porter and its rather hop-forward Starker's IPA are regularly featured at local beer bars, and Schlosser anticipates that his summer beer -- a raspberry-infused ale dubbed Berry Naked -- will help build brand recognition and expand his market in the coming months.
He already has a bottling line in place at his brewery, and there are two gigantic 30-barrel fermentation tanks lying on their sides on the production floor, all of which seem to point to a vastly expanded production and marketing effort in the near future. But Schlosser's in no hurry to move in that direction. Unlike Three Heads, which seems to be riding a publicity rocket, Schlosser takes a more strategic approach to his business, expanding slowly but steadily so that he doesn't overreach his capacity to produce quality beer. While he aspires to produce 5000 barrels within five years, he wants to do so without compromising quality, creating "a regional brand with a solid reputation for quality" one customer -- almost one pint -- at a time.
Dave Schlosser's Naked Dove is producing beers that have wide appeal, beers that a beer snob can enjoy, but that he can also hand to "Uncle Bob when he comes over to watch the game without having to explain what it is he's drinking," Schlosser says. Producing beers and ales that have such appeal has been a successful business model for Custom BrewCrafters since 1995, but subtle changes are happening at the brewery where Schlosser once served as head brewer. In 2009, Custom hired Bruce Lish, who served as brewmaster at Rohrbach from 2007 through early 2009, to brew beer for them.
Lish learned the brewing trade from the inside. In 1998, as he tells it, Lish "pestered" Rohrbach's owner John Urlaub until he hired him to work at the Buffalo Road brewery, where he worked until 2002. He took a brief hiatus to go to music school, and returned to Rohrbach in 2007. Lish says that he and Rohrbach amicably parted ways in 2009, and he was scooped up by Custom, where he was tasked with helping the company to develop Custom BrewCrafters' brand beers distinct from the ales and lagers which the company currently brews for bars and restaurants throughout Western New York.
The new beers that Lish is producing are a novelty for breweries in our area: the first beer produced under the CB Signature label was a witbeir, a white ale flavored with juniper berries that was appropriately called Barry. Others in the series so far have included an Imperial rye IPA (Imperial in beer circles is shorthand for a brew that is bigger or richer than its parent-style), the Pierre saison that was offered at Savor Rochester, and most recently a Baltic porter. Other New York breweries, including Brooklyn Brewery, Ommegang, and Southern Tier, have been producing small batch one-off beers like these for years. Breweries distribute these beers, often described as "seasonal" or "special," to a select few bars and restaurants in order to build brand loyalty and test the waters for new products. Over the past five years, an ever-increasing number of these same beers and ales are showing up on the shelves at beer distributors and grocery stores in 22 oz. bottles (commonly known as "big beers") or 25 oz. bottles complete with champagne-style corks that attest to their "craft" status.
This growth in the craft-beer market -- the wave that companies like Three Heads, Roc Brewing, and Naked Dove are trying to ride -- made it possible to do innovative and interesting things at Custom. "The emergence of a lot of people making big beers," Lish says, presented Custom with the opportunity to expand the number and variety of beers marketed under its own name. In Lish's opinion, the craft-brewing revolution "opened up doors for us to do what we wanted to do." He is quick to point out, though, that these CB Signature beers are not his work alone -- "the ability was there before I got there," he says, "but the idea wasn't yet viable."
Looking to the future, Lish is optimistic about the prospects for craft beer in Rochester, and in the region as a whole. Lish suggests that expansion in the number and variety of craft beers available on the market is good for the trade as a whole, and that competition only leads to better product and value for consumers. When asked about the possibility that Three Heads, currently Custom's largest contract account, could eventually outgrow Custom's capacity, Lish didn't seem at all concerned. Such growth, he said with a smile, "benefits both of us. Because they are growing, we are growing."