Empire Brewing Company: Raising the Bar on Agritourism

David Katleski has always been one step ahead of the game in the craft beer industry.  He launched his first brewpub, Empire Brewing Company, in downtown Syracuse, New York, in 1994 when craft brewing was in its infancy.

In 2003, he founded the New York State Brewers Association (NYSBA), when there were only 38 New York breweries. There are 288 today, and the association is at the center of a thriving industry that has gained the attention of their state lawmakers.  “I think the NYSBA is the envy of many guilds in the country,” Katleski told Beverage Master Magazine, “because we have an administration in Albany (Governor Andrew Cuomo) that is a friend of craft breweries, and they recognize the major economic impact that we have on the state.”

In 2007, Katleski was one of the first to jump on the sustainability bandwagon, teaming up with nearly 40 local farmers to buy products for his brewery and restaurant.  Working with Blue Rock Energy, he helped create a 100 percent New York State-produced renewable energy product. His efforts paid off at the state legislative level when Governor Cuomo signed a Farm Brewery law in 2012, offering tax benefits to small breweries utilizing primarily locally-grown farm products. Katleski shared that, since the bill’s passing, 102 farm breweries have begun operation in New York, and the state’s craft beer industry now generates $525 million a year in tourism, generates 11,366 full-time jobs, and has a total economic impact of $4 billion.

Katleski is crossing the threshold of yet another venture with the opening of the new Empire Farmstead Brewery just south of Syracuse in Cazenovia. This state-of-the-art brewing, bottling and farm-to-farm facility is located in the historic heart of hops country.  And, as one of the largest farm breweries on the East Coast, it’s primed to be a major player in the agritourism industry.

He looks at this latest enterprise as a reflection of Empire Brewing Company’s maxims, “Eat Where You Live™” and “We Grow Beer™.” The brewery, which opened this summer, sits on 22 acres of virgin farmland, with two acres of recently planted hops and three acres of barley.  Katleski sees eventual self-sufficiency for the farm, supplemented as needed by local growers.  He has already built an apiary for honey production.  Meadows Farm is right across the street, where they raise cattle on Empire’s spent grain to provide the American Wagyu beef for the company’s restaurants.  There are plans to plant herb gardens, including the lavender and Thai basil used in their beers, as well as a possible peach orchard.

The building housing the new Farmstead brewery is 42,000 square feet, and was constructed entirely with products from New York State, from the bricks to the brewing equipment.  The front of the building, with three turrets reminiscent of a castle, is actually designed to pay homage to the old hops house architecture prevalent in the area during pre-prohibition.  The tall conical roof structures were part of the old kilns, allowing the heat to rise and then escape through a rotating cowl.

The brewery itself is a 60-barrel facility, as classified by batch size, and will allow Empire to quadruple their production. There is also a packaging facility with a bottling line that can process 60 bottles a minute.  For the first time, Empire will distribute in bottles as well as kegs.

The Farmstead Brewery’s restaurant and tap room has seating for 100 people inside and another 100 on the patio. Like its sister destination restaurant at the Syracuse brewpub, the Farmstead’s menu features farm-to-table dishes inspired by Katleski’s love of the culinary arts, and includes a variety of sandwiches, burgers, pizza and salads.  If ingredients are not grown at the Farmstead, they are sourced from local producers.

Education and agritourism are both equally important to Katleski.  Farmstead will offer organized and self-guided tours of the beer gardens, and will include an educational program to encourage even more visitors. “I wanted to create a flagship farm brewery for New York State that would be a very strong educational center with an agritourism component,” Katleski said.  “I used to provide insurance to breweries all over the country, so I’ve seen a lot of them, and I think this is one of the nicest ones in the country, if not the world.”

The award-winning beers that have put the brewpub in Syracuse on the map, including Skinny Atlas, East Coast Amber, their American-styled Slo Mo’ IPA, and Black Magic Stout, will all be produced at the Farmstead Brewery.  Tim Butler, Director of Brewing Operations, told Beverage Master Magazine that Empire will use the Syracuse location for producing smaller batches of seasonal beers, such as Summer Ale and Roasted Pumpkin Ale. “We have a portfolio of 40 different beers at our Syracuse location, so we can dip into that as well as play around with newer styles.  If we like the batch and it is successful, we’ll brew it at the farm.” He also shared there are 32 tap lines at Empire’s Farmstead Brewery and 24 downtown.  “We can change them out and trade back and forth. This gives us a lot of flexibility.”

To Butler, brewing at the Empire Farm Brewery is like having a new playground. “I’ve been in the brewing industry for 17 years, and I am living a dream right now,” he said. “I like to brew stylistically accurate beers, but I also like artisanal styles where I can dabble in unconventional ingredients that grow around us. Our White Aphro is a Belgian beer infused with lavender and ginger, and has become a kind of cultish beer.  The same is true of our Deep Purple, a beer with a Pilsner base that’s brewed with New York State concord grapes. When we find something that’s esoteric and unusual, people really like to try it.”

The next big leap for Butler and Katleski is the production and distribution of Two Dragons, a one-of-a-kind “east meets west” beer that combines American craft brewing techniques with the history and precision of China’s Jing Wei Fu Tea producers.  It all started when Katleski took a trip to China with a group of New York businessmen and met the founder of the tea company.  “I hit it off with the owner,” said Katleski, “and he suggested that I make beer with his black tea. We were born 31 days apart in the Year of the Dragon, so I recommended it be called Two Dragons.” Katleski added that Two Dragons is unusually healthy, as a study by Cornell University determined the brew has 440 times the antioxidants of normal beer.

Empire is already selling Two Dragons at its Syracuse brewpub and Cazenovia tasting room and, according to Butler, it’s very popular. “There are enough hops in the beer to balance the malt sweetness, but the tea flavor replaces the flavors of the hops.  It’s definitely tea-forward.  It has a beer flavor, but on the finish it tastes like tea.”  Butler said he’s heard of a few beers infused with green tea, but nothing like this.

Empire will begin distribution domestically in New York and New Jersey, and then internationally in China this summer.  “U.S. craft breweries are really not focusing on the mainland Chinese beer market,” Katleski remarked.  “This is perfect — it’s a niche product and no one else is doing it.”  A full-time import/export specialist has been hired to assist with Empire’s efforts to enter the global market.  “The Chinese have 1.7 billion people, and they are 25 years behind us in craft brewing. The young people and the hip and the worldly have figured it out, but we need to educate the balance of the population just like we have done here in the States.”

Empire Brewing Company is also continuing their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint.  For example, they are working on installing solar panels at the Farmstead, as well as capturing and utilizing the heat from brew kettles and recycling carbon dioxide.

Katleski told Beverage Master Magazine that he expects the Farmstead Brewery to eventually attract 350,000 visitors a year.  And, with more and more wineries, breweries, distilleries and cideries popping up around Cazenovia, the area is poised to becoming a major agritourism destination.  “It’s all about local,” said Katleski. “Local is here to stay.”

For more information on Empire Brewing Company, visit their website at www.empirebrew.com.