SCHENECTADY — Frog Alley Brewing has added a new production line, helping prepare potential employees to work in the region’s many breweries and distilleries.
SUNY Schenectady County has offered non-credit brewing courses for six years, but this semester marks their debut on-site at Frog Alley, a stone’s throw from the college at the foot of State Street.
After a COVID-related stretch of remote learning earlier this semester, a SUNY Schenectady workforce-development class is now meeting in the brewery, where students are gaining hands-on experience toward a new career option.
Small-scale producers of alcoholic beverages have rapidly proliferated over the past decade in New York, particularly beer breweries. The roster of breweries has jumped from 95 in 2012 to 490 in late 2021, second only to California, according to the New York State Brewers Association. New York also has among the highest numbers of wineries and distilleries of any state.
In the Capital Region, the number of craft beverage producers has jumped 48 percent just from 2019 to 2021, the Center For Economic Growth reported in September. There were 164 active licenses in the eight counties and 11 more pending.
Many of these producers are small and have only a few employees, but collectively, they have a significant workforce. Between growth plans and natural attrition, there’s a need for more employees who know what they’re doing.
Christian Ryan, master distiller at Springbrook Farm Distillery in Queensbury and an instructor for the SUNY Schenectady classes, said he helped create the workforce development program there because of the lack of skilled job applicants.
He had the same problem almost a decade ago when he was head brewer at the Blue Point Brewery on eastern Long Island.
“I made a program to get people up to speed internally,” Ryan said.
Frog Alley Brewing Company owner J.T. Pollard said the hands-on learning on the industrial scale that the SUNY program provides is as valuable as the classroom work.
“We’ve had a couple of people out of the program now, and they’re more prepared coming out of that program than if we hire a homebrewer,” he said.
Pollard’s brewers take the lead on hiring decisions but he sits in on the interviews and has gained a sense of how the right skillset develops through experience. A well-rounded workforce development program fills in the gaps, covering everything from cleaning out fermentation tanks to marketing the beer they produce.
For their part, students gain not just skills but entry to an employment network, Pollard said. Brewers and distillers hire by ones and twos, not by the dozens, so it’s hard to guess where an opening will pop up.
“Our brewers have a pretty vast network of people and other breweries that are looking for folks,” he said.
Also new at SUNY Schenectady this year: The college’s Workforce Development & Community Education Division has created a new brewer/distiller apprenticeship. It gained state Department of Labor approval this summer.
This sort of vocational training in partnership with academia was part of the original vision Pollard laid out for Frog Alley several years ago. A confectionery lab went into service on site this autumn, also in cooperation with SUNY Schenectady. There’s some discussion but no decision on a future academic baking program on-site, in conjunction with Bountiful Bread, the artisanal bread bakery on site.
Maria Kotary, associate for workforce development and community education at SUNY Schenectady, said the brewing program is similar in function to other workforce development efforts the college undertakes, including those for assorted medical skills.
They too involve on-site training and employer involvement in curriculum development.
But the difference between an aspiring brewery technician and a future EKG technician is that the brewer may have experience making beer in his basement.
Kotary said she’s seen both professional and recreational aspirations in the college’s brewing program, but it’s now attracting more people interested in brewing as a career than as a hobby.
Ryan said that’s intentional.
“We target it toward the professionals,” he said. “Anything you learn here you can use at home but that’s not really what we’re geared toward.”
To the west, Fulton-Montgomery Community College is trying to bridge the same workforce skill gap.
“We have a unique setup over here,” said Dan Fogarty, FMCC’s director of external partnerships and applied learning.
It entails individual study certificates earned in a year, partly through classroom work and partly through hands-on training with specific employers.
“It’s more designed for adult learners who don’t want to sit in the classroom for the majority” of the program, he said.
There are five certificates this year, including craft brewery management, which is done in collaboration with Great Sacandaga Brewing and Stump City Brewing. Other certificates include cannabis, with industry partner Vireo Health; emergency dispatcher, with local sheriff’s offices; and patient care and phlebotomy with Malta Med Emergent Care.
Each certificate is designed to produce a qualified applicant for a specific employer and a particular industry, and each is fine-tuned to the student, Fogarty said.
If there are 30 students in the cannabis certificate program, there may be 30 different individual courses of study, he said, each adjusted based on the work and academic experiences of the student and the expected needs of their job.
“Even the coursework they do with us is not the typical English and math,” Fogarty said.
Most of the students in this session of the SUNY Schenectady craft brewing program at Frog Alley enrolled together as a cohort that has named itself Black Wealth Brewing. That may not be the name of the venture they hope to form when they’ve completed their training, but it’s the goal: a Black-owned craft beverage producer that generates an economic benefit for the Black community.
Kaciem Swain of Albany, who recruited the other four members, said the plan is to educate a workforce and give it a place to work in an industry where people of color are underrepresented.
“We want to build a business that not only can the participants in this class grow and learn with, but if they decide when they graduate they don’t want to work for Frog Alley or Albany Distilling they can come work for us,” Swain said.
He has worked with Albany Distilling Company previously and hopes the group can partner with it to get their new venture off the ground, finishing their training by working there while simultaneously raising capital for a production facility of their own.
“We’re going to produce with them for a while,” Swain said. “In addition, an ideal partnership would be when we start to develop beer to do it here with Frog Alley.”
Virginia Rawlins of Albany works in real estate as a sales agent and also as a consultant for first-time homebuyers with her company, Building Blocks Together. She has no experience in the craft beverage industry but is intrigued by it, and by its growth potential.
“I would be coming in completely cold,” she said during a break in class Wednesday evening.
“I’ve been eating, sleeping, drinking real estate for the last few years and then Swain presented this opportunity, something new,” Rawlins said. “I also think there’s a lack of [minority] representation in the industry, especially up here, so I think it will be a good time for us to enter.”
She thinks the market exists in communities of color for the combination she sees during classes at Frog Alley: live entertainment and craft beverages.
“I think this setup absolutely would be attractive to Black and brown folks,” Rawlins said. “We’re going to learn the formula, then we’re going to replicate it. If we do it right, we could definitely make a good splash.”
Another member of the group is Markos Yarbrough.
“I’ve been in the bar industry and the club industry for years and besides pouring drinks never got to crafting them and brewing them, and just thought it was very interesting,” he said. “I’d heard of Frog Alley, had never been here, great place. Unfortunately, when the class started we were virtual.”
Yarbrough likes a glass of Guinness stout but he’s more interested in distilled spirits than beer.
“I want to take the intro to distilling right after this, continue with my education,” he added.
BREWING AND DISTILLING
That’s an easy transition, said Ryan, the group’s instructor because there’s significant overlap between brewing and distilling.
“Brewing is the same as distilling right up to the end,” he said. “It’s all identical until you take that liquid and throw it into the still. Everything’s the same theoretical process — you’re fermenting a starch.”
Pollard has installed a distillery alongside the brewery to build on the synergy: It will give Frog Alley a second product line produced with the same employees and much of the same equipment and ingredients. It just needs a separate license, which hasn’t come through yet.
During the hands-on portion of Wednesday’s class, Ryan took the students down to the brewery floor for a refresher on the filtration system, which uses diatomaceous earth to render clear beer. Unfiltered beer is everywhere these days, but if you’re going to filter it, you need to do it right.
As Ryan spends 30 minutes just on the filtration system, it’s soon apparent why the in-person, on-site learning is so important: Because there’s so much to learn and it’s so specific to the equipment.
Hold the connecting hose with both ankles to free both hands for the clamping process.
Don’t throw the hose around, because each bump and bang nicks the metal lip and each nick is a hiding place for bad bacteria to grow.
Watch both pressure gauges.
On and on Ryan goes, sharing the rules and tricks he’s learned in 14 years of professional brewing and distilling.
Each misstep has consequences — usually only the loss of a batch of beer and the waste of several hours of labor, but some are more serious.
Crawling into a tank to clean it without first purging it of carbon dioxide is a quick ticket to unconsciousness, for example.
Kotary said enrollment in SUNY Schenectady’s brewing program sagged during the pandemic, possibly because in-person classes were halted. The college is hoping for a rebound in 2022.
Paul Leone, executive director of the New York State Brewers Association, said his members are short on all types of employees, like so many other employers in New York state.
The shortage of waitstaff in taprooms is one big problem, he said, because it limits sales where most craft brewers derive the majority of their revenue.
But the deficit of brewery skills is also limiting.
“For the brewing industry it’s super-important to have any sort of candidate have some sort of experience before starting,” he said.
New York’s craft distilling industry has grown as quickly but not nearly as large as its craft brewing industry. It got a later start, said Albany Distilling Company co-owner John Curtin.
However, distillers’ workforce needs are similar: Albany Distilling recently moved to larger quarters and is hoping to expand production in 2022 with four additional employees. Curtin said he’d like them to have some sense of what the job is about before they start.
But while craft brewers can rely on home brewing to provide some basic training, there’s not a similar farm system for distillers.
Home distilling, also called moonshining, is illegal.
Curtin was part of the coalition of brewers and distillers that helped shape the SUNY Schenectady program.
After its next stage of growth is complete, Albany Distilling would like to host workforce training the way Frog Alley is hosting now.
“There’s a need for skilled labor across the board,” he said. “One of the things we’ve seen is that there isn’t any formal background training for this stuff. … Whenever we hire someone we anticipate training them into the role. Any sort of leg up they have is super helpful.”
Everyone makes career decisions for their own reasons, Curtin said, but his own opinion is that people who want to go into brewing and distilling should have a personal passion for it or at least a keen interest.
Albany Distilling had done very well retaining its employees, he said, and “one of the reasons behind that is we’ve found people who are passionate about distilling and spirits.”
Taking that interest and fitting it with a new skill set, like Swain and his cohort are doing, is a great combination, Curtin added.
“I wish I’d done that — I just kind of dove in. It was trial and error, emphasis on error.”
Curtin added: “It’s really great to see that these programs are popping up. The more skilled and passionate producers there are, the better the industry will be.”