DUANESBURG — Schenectady County’s newest craft brewery is in some ways its oldest.
Back Barn Brewing makes its beer in a reclaimed 1700s barn and serves it in an adjacent 1800s barn along Route 20, one of New York state’s earliest through routes.
Owner Brenda Schworm opened the tap room Feb. 23 after more than three years of preparation. Brew master Klaus Kuhland put the first batch in kegs Feb. 15, after more than a quarter century with brewing as either a hobby or a job.
“I have two passions,” Schworm said. “One is old barns, the other is good craft beer. And I wanted to bring them together.”
As of Tuesday, Back Barn had four beers on tap: two IPAs, a brown ale and a wheat beer — each a very traditional style but each with some tweaks and variations that make them stand out from others of their kind.
There are four more taps behind the bar, disconnected for now. A stout, a pilsner and a dunkelweiss maturing in the fermenters will soon flow through them.
Schworm, 64, is a fourth-generation Duanesburg native who left her hometown decades ago but returned recently with hopes of building a brewery after two other careers. She served 23 years in the U.S. Air Force in communications and computers, retiring as a lieutenant colonel, then worked in business development and program direction in the defense industry.
She traveled extensively in those years, including to the Rocky Mountain and West Coast regions, where craft beer’s popularity took hold long before it did in New York state. The realization: “There’s other kinds of beer and it didn’t taste like the Buds and the Coors.”
In late 2015, she bought the two barns. In 2016, she moved back to town and began working on them.
Town officials have been very supportive of her project, she says, but had they not, she would have made the barns into a house instead of a brewery.
“Doing the renovation of both barns was one big aspect of this,” Schworm said. “All the wood that’s on the walls in here comes from the barns.
“Those are panels out of the horse stanchions,” she said, pointing to a shelf behind the bar. “It’s where the horses would put their heads out to feed.”
The bar itself is a 16-foot hemlock floorboard.
“We found big slabs of this over in that shed,” Schworm said.
Rough-hewn elements of the past remain visible in the barns, which are thoroughly modernized for sanitary production (and comfortable consumption) of beer.
“So to me it’s been a labor of love. A lot of work but a real labor of love. I cringe when I see barns falling into the countryside.”
When the weather warms, Schworm plans to improve the parking area and add a patio space.
As much as she likes craft beer and is interested in brewing, Schworm concentrates on running the business and plays a supporting role to Kuhland with the brewing.
“I have done some, but you certainly need the attention to detail that somebody like Klaus brings to it,” Schworm said. “I bring the business background and the running of the business side. I know guys that do both. It’s very difficult, I think, to do both sides of the business.”
Kuhland said: “I had aspirations of doing just what [Schworm is] doing, running the whole show with my wife. She was going to be the business end, I was going to be the brewing end. Because we figured right from the get-go, ‘Man, this is going to be too much work for one person.’ You could do it, but could you do it justice?”
Kuhland, a Queens native and now Princetown resident, also came to beer as a vocation after another career — cancer registrar.
He started home brewing in 1992, eventually went to work for a commercial brewery, then became a consultant. Bill Newman, former proprietor of a long-defunct Albany craft brewery, introduced Schworm and Kuhland to each other and the partnership clicked.
Back Barn has three full-time workers and five part-timers — an assistant brewer and four bartenders.
Along with being one of the few craft breweries based in a 200-year-old barn, Back Barn is one of the few wholly owned by a woman.
Schworm and Kuhland have the same fairly straightforward goals: make good beer, serve it in a pleasant setting and have fun in the process.
“Our business model really is to bring people here — into Duanesburg, into the brewery, to enjoy it here,” Schworm said. They plan self-distribution to local bars, but have no desire to can or bottle the beer for retail sale.
“You start running into scale issues once you start doing canning,” Schworm said. “It’s more people, reduced margins, all that good stuff.
“Maybe it’s because we’ve got some years behind us and experience that we say, this is the niche we want to fill in the craft beer world.”
That’s an increasingly large world: There are more than 430 breweries in New York state, many within an hour’s drive of Back Barn.
Schworm said the market may reach saturation point but she expects some brewers will suffer more than others.
“If you’re not producing good-quality, fresh beer, you could be a casualty,” she said. “It’s interesting to hear some of the comments in the tap room.”
The craft beer industry in Schenectady County is notably collaborative at this point, with brewers treating mass-market factory-made beers as the competition, rather than each other. The six breweries are linked on the Schenectady County Ale Trail, and as new brewers have prepared to open their doors, some have gained guidance or assistance from those already established here.
Back Barn also hasn’t run into shortages of ingredients as all those New York brewers compete for the finite supply of New York-grown products.
Kuhland said they secured a good supply of hops from a Cherry Valley farm that’s growing some excellent varietes, and the dunkelweiss now in the tank contains wheat grown on a Schoharie County farm.
He noted that with increased demand by 430-plus breweries, there has been increased quality of ingredients, as farmers see opportunity for greater payoff.
“Now they’ve put the time and made the investment in growing higher-quality products … you’re starting to see the repercussions of that. I love the malts. I’m feeling very good about it.”
As Kuhland is brewing, he’s teaching — explaining the process to the rest of the Back Barn crew and having them taste the brews at every step of the fermentation process.
“I want the employees to be involved in everything so that they know what’s happening,” Kuhland said, “especially on the tasting side.
“We are on this journey together, and we have to develop our palates,” Kuhland said. “You never know who’s going to have a better sensory profile than you might. I’m pretty good and I’ve cultivated my tastes. So, I know what I’m tasting. But some people may have better taste buds. If we do, I want to tap into that. I want to know if somebody can pick out a very good flavor or an off-flavor better than I can.”
The best-selling brew so far has been Newman’s Winter Ale, an English brown ale from Bill Newman’s old recipe, and second-best has been Blankety Blanc, a dry-hopped wheat ale that’s distinctly crisp, a bit like a sauvignon blanc wine.
Rounding out the first run at Back Barn are two types of IPA, the hoppy style currently in favor with the craft beer community.
Along with the pilsners and stouts and lagers, the playlist at Back Barn will include an amber ale, Schworm’s favorite variety of beer.
A portion of profits from the amber — which will be dubbed Beat Cancer’s Ass — will go to cancer research, said Schworm, a five-year cancer survivor.