Type to search

3 OG Hudson Valley Brewers on the Past and Future of the Industry

Share
Photo courtesy of Tom Crowell

Tom Crowell of Chatham Brewing, Scott Vaccaro of Captain Lawrence Brewing Co., and the late Tommy Keegan of Keegan Ales share their insights.

– Tom Crowell –

Co-Founder, Chatham Brewing

Chatham Brewing, in Columbia County’s Chatham, was founded after Tom Crowell and Jake Cunningham were introduced through their wives. After more than a decade, the brewery has multiple accolades on its belt, and pumps out a full menu and over a dozen beers on tap from its Main Street location.

Why did you decide to open in the Hudson Valley in 2007?
An opportunity came our way to purchase a three-barrel brewing system at a great price. [Co-founder] Jake Cunningham and I had both worked for other microbreweries, and it seemed like a good opportunity to test the market and see if there was room for another craft brewery in the Hudson Valley. At the time, there were less than a dozen, [including] Keegan, Brown’s, C.H. Evans, and Captain Lawrence.

Was the general public enthusiastic about the brewery?
It definitely took some educating. One of our early beers was Czech’rd Past, which is a pilsner. We joke about that being a gateway beer to transition from the typical, Budweiser-style lagers to a craft product. When we started out, we weren’t filtering our beers, and that’s what we got pushback on more than anything. Of course, now it’s the opposite. Hazy beers are all the craze.

Over the past 15 years, what have you seen change in the local craft beer scene?
In 2016, when the state passed the craft beverage acts, which opened the door enormously to the expansion of craft breweries, wineries, distilleries, and cideries — that really changed the landscape. There’s also the growth of the farm-to-table movement, which I see craft beverages fitting squarely into. There’s much greater demand for putting local products first.

Have you seen a difference in the people drinking your beers, too?
You have much greater consumer education as to the variety of styles. Back in the early days, nobody had heard of gose or sours. Barrel-aging wasn’t even on people’s radar. Now, the majority of consumers are well-educated and even know which hop varieties they’re looking for in beers. Back when we started, few people even knew the difference between malt and hops.

What do you think the future looks like for the industry here?
I think it remains strong. Last year certainly presented unforeseen challenges. Our sector was hit hard with the restaurant shutdown. The ones who are still around today are strong for it and have learned to be more flexible. There were also new breweries opening in the midst of all this. There’s definitely still that creative desire and demand.

scott vacarro

Photo courtesy of Captain Lawrence Brewing Co.

– Scott Vaccaro –

 Founder, Captain Lawrence Brewing Co.

Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. is Westchester County’s largest craft brewery, producing over 28,000 barrels of beer a year. A year after its founding, Captain Lawrence won eight Great American Beer Festival medals for its beloved sours and barrel-aged beer. In October 2020, Vaccaro opened a second location in Mount Kisco.

Why did you decide to open in the Hudson Valley in 2006?
I grew up in Westchester, then I went to school in California with the specific intent of becoming a brewer. After brewing at Sierra Nevada to get my degree at [The University of California] Davis, I knew I wanted to come home. I landed where I had the most support, which was Westchester, and opened a brewery to fill a void that I saw.

Was it hard to get into restaurants?
It was definitely challenging. The first place we went to said no. There was a small subset of accounts that understood what we were trying to do, but there was also a lot of pushback from people who didn’t understand the styles of beer we were brewing. We had an imperial IPA, a smoked porter, and a Belgian gold.

What have you seen change over the past 15 years?
Now, craft beer and local are the buzzwords. Who doesn’t have a craft beer on their menu? It’s been a wholesale shift. When we opened, New York had maybe 40 breweries. Now, there’s close to 500. The biggest change has really been the shift toward IPAs. When we opened, people were drinking our Liquid Gold and pale ale because they were the less-hoppy options. We’ve slowly seen people migrate toward more-hoppy beers. Obviously, within the last five years, that trend has accelerated and gone from hoppy to hazy, hoppy beers. How hoppy can you make it?

How are the people who come to the brewery now different than in 2006?
Our tasting room in Pleasantville was so small. It was literally 300 square feet. Now, [in Elmsford,] we have a wide range of customers. Usually, the first people to show up on a Saturday are families with strollers and young kids. The next wave is people a little older than that, then another wave of younger folks who stay later.

What do you think the future looks like for the industry here?
Our business model has changed in that we’ve transformed from a tiny tasting room to a full-blown hospitality operation. But, I see a lot of breweries opening up with a taproom model, where they’re trying to sell everything out the front door, rather than going to distribution.

Tommy Keegan

Photo courtesy of Manufacturing and Technology Enterprise Center (MTEC)

– Tommy Keegan –

Founder, Keegan Ales

Why did you decide to open in the Hudson Valley in 2003?
I was the head brewer at Blue Point Brewing Company on Long Island, and I was leaving to pursue a career in science. This building in Kingston was for sale, and nobody wanted to buy it because there was a brewery in it. I was 31 at the time. I figured if I didn’t take a chance, I would never do it.

What was the attitude toward craft beer at the time?
It was welcoming. It was something unique in those days. I learned to brew on the West Coast and people understood a little more about small neighborhood breweries. When I came [to the Hudson Valley] people thought it was cool, but they said, ‘A brewmaster? I didn’t even know there was somebody who was responsible for making beer.’ They just knew it came off the shelf at Hannaford.

How has the local craft beer scene grown up around you over the past, almost 20, years?
When I first started, I had to jump through all the same hoops as some of the biggest companies in the world. There weren’t different rules for the craft beer industry. As myself and other guys built this niche industry, it was frustrating to see the state rewarding people to compete. That being said, mimicry is the best form of flattery.

Along with the boom in breweries, have you seen a change in the people drinking your beers?
The nickname we use in the industry is ‘Rotation Nation.’ There are so many breweries, and each brewery is making more beers. It’s become expected to have something new. I’ve had bar owners tell me, ‘Man, that keg of Mother’s Milk was great. We’ve never sold a keg faster. We’ve never had more compliments from the customers.’ I’m like, ‘Great, I’ll send you another keg next week.’ Instead, they say, “What else you got? What’s new?’ That gets hard to manage.

What do you think the future looks like for the industry here?
It’s definitely something that’s going to be around for a long time. The Cornell Cooperative is investing heavily in developing raw materials like grains and hops. They really want to turn the Hudson Valley into the beer version of Napa Valley on the East Coast.

Remembering Tommy

On April 30, Tommy Keegan passed away of a heart attack at the age of 50. His death shocked the craft beer industry and his community in Kingston, a city that he helped revitalize. “He just realized that being a part of the community is also being a steward of the community,” explains Lisa Hantes, about her husband of 14 years. Below are excerpts from some of the tributes Hudson Valley received from local brewers.

 

“Tommy Keegan truly was a one-of-a-kind human who cared deeply about showing everyone around him a great time, making everyone feel as though they were a part of Keegan Ales. His dedication and commitment to community was second to none.

—Geoff Wenzel, research and development brewer, Industrial Arts Brewing

 

“Tommy was one of the guys I would call when starting Sloop for help when we were in over our head. He would always happily answer all my questions and give us good advice. He will be missed, yet he will always be in our thoughts. Thanks for everything, Tommy!

—Adam Watson, cofounder, Sloop Brewing Co.

 

“Tommy embodied the collaborative nature of the early days of craft brewing in the Hudson Valley. His go-big approach and big personality were matched only by his big heart. His loss leaves a big hole.

—Tom Crowell, owner, Chatham Brewing