Zane Coffey (left) and Max Ocean (right) / Photo by Dianne Stredicke
New breweries seem to pop up like dandelions these days, and that was a concern for Max Ocean and Zane Coffey. Acquaintances since their Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School days in Columbia County, they became friends at Ithaca College and amateur home brewers when they lived on Cayuga Lake. “We didn’t even know what kind of beer we liked,” Ocean says. “We just thought it was a cool process.”
Coffey wanted to start a real brewery. “I was like: ‘That’s a dumb idea, everyone is starting a brewery. We don’t know what we’re doing,’” Ocean recalls. Then, he had an epiphany. A big part of the cool brewing process involves barley malt. The barley that goes into beer needs to be soaked in water to start germination, then heated to stop it, in order for the starches to ferment. Ocean thought of combining a brewery with a malt house. “That was even more ambitious, so I’m not sure why I thought we could do that, either,” he laughs.
But with only a handful of malt houses in the region, he saw potential. “No one was talking about where malt comes from. No one was talking about the supply chain, only about where the beer was brewed,” he says. “That seemed absurd to me. The ethos of craft is about creating a better product and being part of your community,” including the suppliers of the products that go into good beer.
Subversive band photo by Miriam Angelo
Thus was Subversive Malting and Brewing Company born. Why Subversive? A little beer history is in order. After Prohibition, laws were enacted to prohibit brewers from vertical integration — they couldn’t own the production, distribution, and retail sides of the business, the so-called Three-Tier System — which is why there are no Budweiser Bar & Grills or Coors Package Stores. But craft beer laws practically encourage small brewers to do all three themselves (as many do). “We are subverting the supply chain,” Ocean says. “The name refers to everything about how we source and sell our products.”
In 2015, they won a $25,000 grant from the Ithaca College Business Plan competition by identifying craft malt as a market with a lot of potential. “We won, even though we were the only group in the competition to my knowledge that didn’t have any business majors in it,” Ocean says with more than a little pride.
They used the money to buy equipment and knowledge. Coffey enrolled in Hartwick College’s Advanced Craft Malting course, and they built a malting system from scratch at their production facility in Germantown. In December 2018, they opened their brewpub in Catskill.
“Our beer recipe creation is entirely different from 99 percent of breweries, because we work only with our own malts and New York hops,” Ocean says. “It is an ingredient-driven process rather than a style-driven process.” Their most popular beer is a keller lager they call Drinkenbier, which sums up what he hopes to achieve with Subversive: “I am passionate about bringing craft beer back to the general public, for Greene County locals who want to have a beer and talk to the other locals.”
Subversive Café photo by Miriam Angelo