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Craft Brewer Couple Master Art and Science of Entrepreneurship
Twenty-three years ago, Kelly and Garry Brown’s wedding toast was made with a different drink than traditional champagne: Garry’s home-brewed beer. Although Kelly was a flight attendant and Garry was a newspaper photographer, their passion for craft beer inspired them to start the first brewpub in the Capital Region a few years later.
“We bought an old, dilapidated building in Troy in 1990 because it was a great location on the Hudson River and it was affordable. We spent the next three years renovating it. Garry would work on the building during the day and then work nights at the paper. I continued working for the airline and we were able to use my miles towards research trips to the West Coast and Europe to see how beer could really taste,” said Kelly.
The startup went through a few name evolutions, opening as Brown and Moran, changing to Uncle Sam Pub & Brewery the next year and finally changing to Brown’s Brewing Company in 2006. The Browns wanted to open just a brewery but realized that the concept was too new to succeed in the local marketplace without food. Opening a brewpub with a full scale menu including nachos, wings, burgers and sandwiches was the right choice, customers came in the doors, giving the Browns the chance to build their brand and beer reputation.
The Browns haven’t stopped making beer since and today loyal Capital Region patrons count on their ‘Dependable’ ales and lagers. Brown’s Brewing Company’s 25 beers range from traditional Pale Ale to earthy Pumpkin Ale, available only when locally grown pumpkins are ripe in the fall. At the company’s Taproom, customers can enjoy a dozen or so different beers on tap made right below the floorboards. The two-level interior has a traditional bar, stage for musical performances, and a windowed view into the brewing operations where brewers create Brown’s award-winning beers. Outside, the large deck area and beer garden offer an expansive view of the Hudson River.
“We discovered that Troy has wonderful water quality which has really helped our brand. All of the hand-crafted beers are made with water from the Tomhannock Reservoir, and we decided to give back. Garry serves on the Rensselaer Land Trust board that works to preserve watersheds in the region. Our company does several fundraisers for RLT such as an annual Oktoberfest event. We also donate a portion of proceeds from our Tomhannock Pilsner sales to the Trust,” explains Kelly.
Innovative marketing ideas have helped Brown’s Brewing Company ride the rising tide of awareness and appreciation for craft beers. The large beer corporations have noted the increasing popularity of craft beer as their brands lose market share, and often purchase small breweries or repackaging existing beer lines to look more homespun and less commercial. Customers might not know independent looking beers brands such as Blue Moon, Batch 19, and Shock Top are really owned by Coors, Miller, and Budweiser. To separate their beers from the crowd, Brown’s Brewing holds “Beer 101” classes to demonstrate what the big beer companies actually make beer with, including surprising ingredients such as corn, rice, and corn syrup, compared to Brown’s traditional craft beers made with just hops, yeast, barley and water.
The Taproom’s beer-paired wild game dinners and other special beer-themed events became so popular the Browns moved into the building next door to add catering and large event capability. Named Revolution Hall, the European-style beer hall setting can accommodate up to 300 guests for weddings, private parties and community events. The Browns added a prep kitchen in the second building to provide more kitchen space for catered events in the hall. The couple has developed the pub and catering menus to reflect the top-quality of the beers and ales; hiring Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Chef Luca Brunelle has broadened the fare to include gourmet flavors ranging from burgers with cherry raspberry ale barbeque sauce to pan-seared sesame tuna with wasabi risotto.
“Over the past six or seven years, we’ve doubled sales at the pub alone. With experience, we’ve learned how to put better controls in place for our 125 employees. At our Troy operation, our general manager, Paul Minbiole, is also a CIA-trained chef and having someone who knows the line well has been invaluable to making the restaurant side of the business function smoothly,” says Garry.
The growing company made enough beer to keep up with demand at the Taproom, but operating only one brewing tank limited their ability for regular distribution to retailers. Kelly and Garry realized the time was right to find a larger production facility. Staying in Rensselaer County was important to the Browns and in 2011 they found the right property at a 19th century empty hydroelectric power plant in their hometown of Hoosick Falls. The 40,000-square foot building complex has plenty of space for four brewing tanks, a large bottling assembly line, and even a tasting room for the public in the future.
Garry and Kelly scoured online listings nationwide for used equipment from other breweries to keep costs down, saving $4 million on the project. The Browns were able to support most of the expansion costs, and the final piece of their financing puzzle was an SBA 504 loan through Pioneer Bank and the Empire State Certified Development Corporation. Beer production will increase to 20,000 barrels of beer per year from 3,200; the dramatic increase will enable Brown’s to increase distribution from the Albany area to southern Vermont and western Massachusetts. Brown’s head brewer Peter Martin and a team of 10 will work at the Hoosick Falls operation, with more anticipated employees when the tasting room is opened.
As any business owner learns the hard way, the sailing isn’t always smooth. In 2011 Hurricane Irene hit the Northeast, causing flooding in both the Brown’s riverfront locations. Though 30 miles apart, the Taproom is directly on the Hudson River and the production facility is next to the Walloomsac River.
Garry recounts the tale: “During the hurricane, the Walloomsac River rose and came into the new building, with two-and-a-half feet of water coursing through the downstairs level. We had a crane come in and move all the equipment we purchased to higher ground. Then we realized that all the water in the Walloomsac was heading right for Troy because it feeds into the Hudson River. The next day there was seven feet of water in our Troy location. Fortunately, with the help of our employees and customers we were able to have the Taproom brewery and restaurant back up and running just seven days later.”
The recovery from the hurricane demonstrated to the Browns how vital the new production facility was for their business. Renovating the property over the past three years has been a labor of love for both Garry and Kelly, and though they have built a successful business from the ground up, neither is ready to hit cruise control. The large-scale brewery operation represents a dream fulfilled for two newlyweds 20 years in the making and they are passionate about the future for the company.
Twenty years later, the couple lives with their three daughters on their farm house in West Hoosick where they farm some of their own hops. Kelly sums up their entrepreneurial experience: “We had our light bulb moment. It’s a calling. To be your own boss and do your own thing is so empowering. It thrills me when I see one of our six-packs on a store shelf or someone orders a Brown’s beer at the table next to us.”