Last month (yes it’s been awhile since I’ve updated my blog!) I wrote about Empire Brewery’s “12 Pack Challenge,” that my bf and I completed during New York City Craft Beer Week back at the end of February. So it turns out, we won! (Ok so he technically won but I’m sharing the credit since it was definitely a joint effort!).
Next thing I know, we’re being whisked off to Syracuse (in an Amtrak train) and put up in a sweet hotel so that we can spend the day brewing with Empire at their brewpub located in Armory Square, a trendy neighborhood in downtown Syracuse.
Being at the brewpub is like hanging out with your family: the cooks, servers, and bartenders, and the staff in general are all just a great group of people who seem to really enjoy their work. The pub serves up great grub as well as their signature beers and is definitely worth a visit (or 2) if you happen to be in the area.
While Empire brews their beer both on premise at the brewpub (where we brewed) and on contract at Greenpoint Beer Works in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn (a brewery where Kelso and the Heartland chain also brew their beer), they are about to break ground for their own farm-house brewery in Cazenovia, New York, a town about 30 minutes southeast of the city of Syracuse.
David Katleski, owner of Empire Brewing Co., and president of the New York State Brewers Association, has been super-busy with this project but was still able to spend some time with us during our upstate visit.
He was most recently awarded the F.X. Matt “Defender of the Industry,” award at this year’s Craft Brewers Conference and it is a well-deserved title for this pioneer who has had a heavy hand in aiding with the passing of some new brewer-friendly laws that were recently approved in New York state. Plus, he’s just a really nice guy who acted as a gracious host during our brief visit up there last week. I can’t wait to follow the progress of this new brewery, sure to be a state-of-art facility with an emphasis on local ingredients and resources.
So what was it like to brew at Syracuse’s Empire Brewpub? Amazing, of course. After a hearty Monday dinner at Dinosaur Barbeque (you can not visit Syracuse without eating here—it’s a definite must!) and a few beers afterward at the brewpub, Brewmaster Tim Butler reminded us to get a good night’s rest (aka don’t be too hung-over tomorrow) since we would meet him bright and early the next morning to start the brewing process.
Thank goodness for the hearty breakfast served up at our hotel, The Jefferson Clinton, conveniently located a stone’s throw away from the Empire Brewpub.
We entered the brewery (a pretty small space) and were greeted by Tim as he searched for the recipe we’d be making that day. He had a special surprise in store for us and while some home-brewers and brewmasters may scoff at the idea of brewing a simple pale ale, I believe it’s a benchmark brew that every great brewer should master. Empire does not currently have a Pale Ale on tap and brews the style seasonally (at harvest time using fresh hops from local Central New York farmers).
Nat, the assistant brewer, showed us to their storage room (where they keep their grain), requiring a walk through the kitchen. We helped him left 10 bags of malt, each weighing in at 55 lbs. (those bags were heavy!) and wheeled them back to the brewing room.
The brewing room is located behind the bar and adjacent to the dining room, so if you are having lunch or an afternoon beer at the pub, you can watch the brewers at work.
We (kind of) helped Nat empty the grain bags into the mill where a long black pipe carried the grains into the mash tun. Tim stood above the tun making sure the mash temperature was correct and stirring in the grains. While we were there to brew, I have never worked on commercial equipment before (just a stove in my kitchen) so Nat and Tim pulled the levers and set the temps while explaining the process to us.
Next we helped empty one of the fermenters, which was full of their delicious coffee Scotch Ale, Local Grind, and was probably the last of the batch for this year, since the beer is more of a winter seasonal. The fermenter yields about 12 barrels which are then stored into the cooler or driven down to NYC. The brewpub serves 10-12 of their house-made beers at any given time, but they only brew about twice a week on a regular basis.
Throughout the hours-long brewing process we watched Nat work his butt off, making sure everything stays clean and sanitized at each step along the way. The brewing room felt like a sauna, and we were told it becomes unbearably hot in the summer time.
Brewing beer is tedious and physically challenging as I discovered that day, and although the process is essentially the same as it is home-brewing in our kitchen, it is of course on a much larger scale. Time for a beer break (because we were there to drink as well as brew): I went for their seasonal maibock, Empire Strikes Bock, which seemed an appropriate beer to drink during a long day of brewing.
After mashing, the wort is piped into the brew kettle where it has to reach a boiling point. This is the fun part: adding the hops! We added a series of hops every 15 minutes or so, finishing off with Chinook (for aroma) and after 60 minutes, the brew is cooled before being blasted off into the fermenter where the hungry yeasties lie dormant, waiting for their meal.
Overall, it was a simple process, and we did a lot more watching than brewing but we enjoyed the experience fully. Nat talked us through the entire process, letting us know exactly what he was doing with every pull of the lever and every hose that he hooked up.
In a few weeks, we hope to drink our beer with the Empire crew on their next visit down to New York City!
After lunch and brewing, we went across the street to the Blue Tusk, which seems to be the spot the Empire crew hangs out at while not working at the pub and it’s easy to see why! The “Tusk,” as it is fondly referred to by the natives, has an amazing tap selection that ranges from local to rare to imports. Certainly a well-curated collection, as the owner, Mike, truly knows his beer.
Knowledgeable Brewmaster, Tim Butler, gave us a mini-tour of the surrounding area, describing a scene on the Armory’s grassy lawn where he revived a man during his days former to being a brewer. A native of Syracuse, Tim told us about the history and the architecture in the neighborhood and made a great tour guide.
After a nap (completely necessary after a day of brewing and imbibing some brews), we were treated to a lovely dinner at the brewpub and plenty of Empire schwag to take home with us, including a couple of growlers filled with their well-balanced and easily quaffable IPA and one of my personal favorites, Deep Purple.
I can’t wait until their new brewery is up and running, and the building of it is a process I will be following closely. Thanks to Tim, Dave, Nat and all the crew at Empire for showing us a good time and letting us brew at their facility! I can’t wait to try our beer…