Tapping into Hops Farming and Craft Beer: Westtown Brew Works

westtownWessttown Brew Works: Rich Coleman, Westtown, NY

Rich Coleman moved his wife and three children under three from a one bedroom in Jersey City to a house they built in the “drowned lands” on a black earth slope of Orange County to literally tap into hops farming and artisan brewing.

Their handcrafted small batch beer brews—Wit Tail, Farm Hand Ale and Five Farms–use hops grown on his farm and ingredients grown by farming neighbors. After mostly handpicking hops grown 18 to 20 feet straight up in the air on vertical trellises, Rich follows his own recipes, using local sweet corn, marigolds for a citrusy floral taste, picking fresh lemon verbena, lavender and chamomile to mix with vanilla, wheat and hops.

With a $50,000 small business loan from Community Capital New York, Rich opened a tasting room, purchased a harvester, and plans to employ a fulltime brewery assistant, a farm and land maintenance person, bartenders, and some hands to help harvest, as he doubles his hops planting come Spring. Westtown Brew Works already sells hops to Yonkers Brewing Company, Newburgh Brewery and brew shops where hobbyists can buy their ingredients in Brooklyn, Long Island and New Jersey. If the beer and the bar–hewn from 150-year old planks from a local barn, and the stunning Valley view aren’t enough of a draw, his wife Amanda (an art history major and former manager of an Upper East Side art gallery in Manhattan) plans revolving exhibits by local artists. Most will, however, want a “growler”—a jug of beer to go. You can also find Westtown brews sold by the keg to bars and restaurants in three other nearby counties. And Rich in his garage raking drying flats of hops twice day. Once dry, they’re frozen before they’re split open and the juice is used to preserve and flavor his—and other New York–beer. http://westtownbrewworks.com/

How did you get into the craft beer business?

???????????????????????????????My wife and I always made wine tasting part of each of our vacations. I would always hear men say ‘Oh, there’s no beer?’ We began visiting the area and felt something was going on in terms of artisanal agriculture, there are cheese makers, wineries, and farming in an underpopulated and agricultural-based community in Orange County. I found this great property in Westtown, above the “drowned land” valley of black earth, with a southeast facing slope—hops like well-drained soil.

How did you get your business off the ground?

???????????????????????????????Before prohibition, New York State planted the most acres of hops in the country. Prohibition and something called Downy Mildew killed it. Now there are natural sprays with copper and phosphorous that help control the mildew. I had a three-prong plan after purchasing the property. Phase One: planting of the hops. Phase Two: the establishment of the tasting room and getting the whole site ready, and starting to expand the hops and brewing operation. Phase Three: Stepped expansion.

How did your business evolve?

raking actionThanks to a $50,000 loan from Community Capital I was able to level the site and build the tasting room, and buy critical equipment. Community Capital was the best partner in terms of expanding the business, the fastest and easiest part of the process. I have to scout the hops daily for any visible signs of mildew and spider mites. For the first two years I watered over 1100 plants by hand—it was a nightmare—and a three hour process. Now I have an irrigation system. I would harvest by hand. It would take one person an hour to do one plant. A harvester can do 900 plants in an hour. By spring, using some of my loan funds, I’ll have one; the company is just working out the kinks. Community Capital got me through Phase Two and really let me complete the tasting room project, including insulating the brewing machines so I can put a tap through the wall and just pour. I plan to grow the business. I don’t want to burden it with my salary and health care benefits and will hire before I give up my job as Director of Marketing for Kellogg. I’m going to expose my own beer slowly, gaining exposure to a wide population by selling kegs to bars and restaurants in Manhattan, Westchester and Rockland.

What’s the best advice you got along the way?

Beer is such a hot thing, that in tracking similar businesses to mine upstate, I realized that if your local beer catches on you can be overwhelmed and overrun. So I’m not going to over promote or over produce. I’m making 600 kegs in the first phase, but I have hops for four times that amount, so I sell it on.

???????????????????????????????What would you do differently in hindsight?

How to navigate through the bureaucracy of starting a business in New York State. The licensing and getting a loan from Community Capital were the easy parts. Working with the Department of Environmental Control was difficult. They had to investigate an easement issue and had no sense of urgency, no understanding that waiting periods can almost kill someone trying to start a small business. It cost me seven months and an additional unbudgeted $6,000 in legal and other fees for them to reach the same conclusion as the original archaeologist who said there was no issue with lifting an easement on my land in terms of impacting my neighbor.


What’s next?

I plan to hire people to assist in the Tasting Room, a Brewing Assistant to start teaching my recipes—every time you brew it’s a 10 hour process and in between is cleaning the kegs and taps, and a full time maintenance person for the farm and land. Next Spring we’ll double our hops planting to between three and four acres, so for the growing season I’m going to also need a full time person. We’ll market the Tasting Room by being a stop on The Little Beer Bus Tours, bringing people from Connecticut, Manhattan, Westchester and northern New Jersey in on tasting trips.