SCHENECTADY — Schenectady’s newest brewery debuted its first beer this week, with a little help from a neighbor.
The kettles and tanks are in place and ready to go at Frog Alley Brewing Co., as work rushes ahead on the upper levels of the building. But the utility lines aren’t hooked up yet, and the building is mostly unenclosed.
So that first batch of beer — an India pale ale dubbed Mad Frog — was brewed two blocks away, at Mad Jack Brewing Co. on Union Street. The Frog Alley brewers and project developers gave a tour and a taste to other members of the brewing community Thursday.
That evolved into a show-and-tell for the larger project, a major undertaking that is transforming the entire block on Lower State Street into the Mill Artisan District, at a cost approaching $30 million.
The district was conceived two years ago as a food and beverage nerve center, of sorts, with wholesale production, retail sales, and education and incubator space all focused on fresh food and craft beverages. Planning is far along, and many details are now finalized.
Developer JT Pollard of Re4orm Architecture shared some of the highlights:
- Frog Alley Brewing will occupy much of the ground level of the old Mill Lane Apartments building, formerly Breslaw’s department store and originally a factory. (The area bore the name 'Frog Alley' in the early 1900s.)
- A large food production/restaurant operation will occupy the ground floor of the new wing along State Street; that deal is in final negotiations, so the identity is not being disclosed yet.
- A wood-fired pizza restaurant will occupy space behind the old firehouse facade, at 134 State St.
- Seventy-four upscale apartments, mostly one-bedroom units, will occupy the levels above the brewery and restaurant.
- Training areas for the culinary and craft beverage programs at nearby SUNY Schenectady County Community College will be installed in the lower levels.
- The top level will be the new offices of the Jahnel Group, a software developer that has outgrown its space in the nearby Stockade neighborhood.
- A barbecue restaurant will occupy the historic blockhouse at State and South Church streets.
- The last few buildings near the blockhouse on South Church Street will be demolished shortly and a distillery built in their place.
- Mill Lane is no longer a city street -- it no longer even exists -- but it will be reborn as a cobblestone pedestrian path separating the brewery and distillery.
- Structural steel will be erected starting Monday for the new wing to be built on State Street.
The project has doubled in scope and price. Pollard initially put the cost at $14.1 million and planned to reuse a string of low-rise storefront buildings along State Street. But they proved to be in such poor condition that he demolished them instead.
All told, he eventually bought 17 properties so the Mill Artisan District would have a large impact on transforming the neighborhood. He wanted it big enough to become a destination.
At the heart of it all is the beer.
“The brewery was the engine for this area,” Pollard said at one point.
The best estimate now is that brewing will start on-site in October.
Master brewers Rich Michaels and Drew Schmidt narrated Thursday’s tour as it passed through their new work space, the brewhouse.
It’s greatly overbuilt for a startup craft brewer, because it’s much more than that. It’s also going to be a training facility for students, a contract brewing/bottling/canning site for other brewers, an incubator for startup brewers and the mash maker for the distillery to be built next door.
Some of the details:
- The brewery capacity is 14,000 barrels a year. That could be expanded significantly by adding more tanks, which are the only limiting factor — all the other equipment could handle much greater production.
- There are actually two brewing systems — a 4-barrel system for experiments, training and limited edition brews, and an 18-barrel system for large-scale production. (One barrel of beer is 248 pints.)
- The brewhouse will be enclosed in glass, allowing clear views of the entire operation.
- A mash filtration system is in place to speed the brewing process while making it more flexible and up to 98 percent efficient.
- Canning and bottling machinery will be installed.
- Automated temperature controls will improve product consistency.
- The brewery will use flash pasteurization, yielding a more stable product, particularly for varieties such as sours.
- The downstairs taproom will pour Frog Alley products exclusively.
- Upstairs, the Six Pack Taproom, with balcony and roll-up walls, will feature Frog Alley’s own bar and six shipping containers for other brewers.
The shipping containers are an innovative form of incubator space that Pollard first saw used at a Denver restaurant. Each will be an 8-by-20-foot micro-taproom with short bars facing into the main room and onto the deck.
One will be occupied by a distributor that will change its tap lineup on a weekly basis. Two will go to established craft brewers that want to expand their capacity and geographic reach. The other three will go to startups, typically hobby brewers looking to dip their toe into expanded production and retail activity, with help and guidance as needed from the team at Frog Alley and SUNY Schenectady.
“They can build a package, have a product and go to market with that product,” Pollard said.
Michaels, a 25-year veteran of the brewing industry, said it has been gratifying to see the sector grow so extensively in New York state during his career. The number of breweries here has more than quadrupled to more than 400 just in the past six years.
Michaels is also an instructor in SUNY Schenectady’s craft brewing program, which now has 25 students and is drawing sustained interest.
Michaels said Frog Alleyl is designed not just to bring in revenue through contract brewing, but to bring people into the neighborhood.
“One of the things that people love is a good beer festival,” he said. “Our concept is kind of ‘beer festival every day.’ There’s a lot of beer tourism now.”