SCHENECTADY -- A new craft brewery is taking shape in downtown Schenectady.
The fermenting tanks are already in place, and the walls were being framed out in what will open as Great Flats Brewing as early as next month.
The large open space at 151 Lafayette St. previously housed Crossfit 518, which moved to North College Street. It originally was an automobile service garage — the large glass roll-up doors that opened into each service bay still face onto the sidewalk. The Firestone 151 Bar and Restaurant and Studio 4 Hot Yoga & Pilates are the other occupants of the building.
Harry Whalen is building the craft brewery with the help of friends and family and a couple of silent partners. He took its name from the aquifer that supplies the city with its drinking water.
“Water is 99 percent of beer,” he explained.
A lot of things came together at once for Whalen, a 29-year-old Greenwich resident who will soon move to the city’s Stockade neighborhood. Craft beer is booming in popularity, state tax breaks are available for breweries that use state-grown ingredients, and a great space was available at the right price, he said.
“For a brewery, you couldn’t ask for a lot more,” he said.
There’s also the anticipated influx of visitors to the soon-to-open Rivers Casino & Resort. Even if only a few make it downtown, that’s a few more potential patrons, Whalen said.
“This looks like Schenectady has got it going on these days,” he said.
It will be one more option for beer lovers in the Electric City, which has an established craft brewery in the Stockade (Mad Jack Brewing Company at the Van Dyck) and a number of beer-centric establishments, including The Bier Abby and Wolff’s Biergarten.
Whalen is building a clean, uncluttered space with seating for about 60, featuring lots of natural light by day through the front wall and softer artificial light by night that throws a warm glow out onto the sidewalk.
The bar forms a barrier between the seating area and the brewing area, though the brewing equipment will be visible to patrons.
“This is a hotly debated topic,” Whalen said, of how closely to group production and consumption in craft breweries.
At Great Flats, the shape of the space, insurance rules, licensing regulations and practical considerations about heat and smell led to the bar and a low wall being built between patrons and brewers.
“A little separation is good,” Whalen said.
He is aiming to have staggered production in each of the brewery’s four fermenters, so new batches of different beer continually become available for consumption, as the two-week fermentation process wraps up.
The goal is to have six Great Flats beers on tap at any given time, along with a few other New York-brewed “guest taps.”
Beer styles will vary widely, with an emphasis on American beers rather than English or German styles. But whatever else is brewing, an India pale ale will likely be on tap.
“You can’t start a brewery these days without a killer IPA,” Whalen said. “I think we’ll try our hand at a number of styles.”
With two 10-barrel and two 15-barrel fermenters, Great Flats will have a decent but finite supply of its product. (A barrel is 31 gallons.) The plan initially is to serve it strictly on-premises. In time, the brewery will begin to self-distribute kegs to restaurants and bars. Ultimately, there may be some bottling, but the amount of beer being produced suggests a small number of bomber bottles holding more than 20 ounces, rather than endless cases of 12-ounce longnecks.
The restaurant next door will remain the restaurant next door — there won’t be a door through the common wall between 151 and Great Flats. The restaurant may serve Great Flats beer, but otherwise it won’t be connected. There’s a whole separate set of regulations for combined eating/drinking/brewing establishments, and just navigating the paperwork for a brewery was daunting enough, Whalen said.
Great Flats needs city, state and federal approval to operate. City approval is contingent on state approval. State approval is conditional upon Whalen's completing the facility. Federal review has been averaging 178 days, he said, and technically, the application isn’t even supposed to be submitted until the facility is complete. (The delay apparently is due to the volume of licensing requests from all the new micro- and craft breweries.)
To avoid having his investment sit idle for six months, Whalen sought help from Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen, who pointed him to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, whose office helped Whalen get his federal license in six weeks instead of six months. Which he thought was a nice turnaround.
Whalen has a degree in international relations and most recently worked at a tech startup firm in New York City.
The actual brewing at Great Flats will be done by someone with more skill and experience than he possesses at this point.
“I love beer, obviously,” he said. “I will assist, but I don’t claim to be an expert at all.”
Whalen is putting the craft brewery together with a lot of help from friends and family. His father and a friend were building walls in the brewery area on Thursday. His kegs are secondhand, a gift from Kingdom Brewing in northernmost Vermont. The mash tun — a 400-gallon vat in which hot water will convert the starches in 600 pounds of grain into sugar for the fermentation process — is a former milk bulk tank from a Finger Lakes farm. Hops — a key factor in determining a beer’s flavor — will be grown on his parents’ land in Greenwich.
New York offers special tax credits for in-state brewers who source at least 20 percent of their raw materials from in-state farms, but that requirement will increase to 60 percent in 2019, quite possibly expanding faster than New York growers’ ability to boost their crop yields — new hops vines take three years to mature and reach full production potential.
“I think those are things that will need to be sorted out,” Whalen said of the sourcing requirements.
There’s some irony in the situation — upstate New York historically was the capital of hops cultivation, but Prohibition and plant diseases early in the last century nearly wiped the industry out in the state.
Whalen thinks Great Flats is small enough that it will be able to find enough New York ingredients for now, but he hopes one day to be big enough to have a problem.