Mike and Seth Weisel own Galaxy Brewing Company in Binghamton, NY. Mike was a home brewer for nearly 40 years, practicing and experimenting in his spare time. Seth gained an interest from his dad and then went on to the Master Brewers Program at UC Davis. He got his start as the brewer at Roosterfish in Watkins Glen. They opened Galaxy Brewing Co., a brewery and restaurant, in 2011. We sat down with Mike and Seth at the brewery to chat about hops and grains, buying local and the growing craft beverage industry in NYS.
Taking the leap from home brewing to a micro-brewery and restaurant:
Two of the key factors for Seth and Mike to turn their love of brewing into a viable business were start-up funds and consistency. To be a successful craft brewer, “there’s a lot of science involved, and in order to be consistent and efficient, you have to use that science and understand the process. It’s not the same for a home brewer, who has time and is not trying to make money.”
On buying local:
Mike and Seth’s goal is to buy local whenever they can. In the past, they have worked with Regional Access in Ithaca. “Closer to the Heart Farms and Shared Roots Farm are two farms we’ve worked with who are about as local as you can get.” In addition to NYS hops and grains, local honey from Joel Babcock is used in the Smoked Honey Stout, Honey Lemon Mate, and the Ghost of Christmas beers. They find value in the simplified system of buying from local farmers, and they believe in the higher-quality product associated with local foods. “We can buy local things at competitive prices. It cuts out the middle man, and the cost associated with transporting things a great distance is not there…it’s a ‘pick it, drop it off’ model.”
Galaxy has created a unique and mutually beneficial relationship with one local livestock farmer. The process is simple: “The farmer feeds his pigs and cows with our spent grain, and we buy it back.” Spent grains are the leftover malt and adjuncts after the mash has extracted most of the sugars, proteins, and nutrients. Mike and Seth buy the meat back from the farmer to use at the restaurant, creating a cyclical process. Because the farmer has access to less expensive feed, he is able to sell high quality, locally raised meat to Galaxy at a competitive price. “It’s a benefit to him, and he passes that benefit right back on to us, which we then turn around and pass on the consumer.”
Their staff shares their dedication to local products. “Chef Brian Lovesky is very good at catering our summer and fall menus to what we can get locally. Bethany [Galaxy’s Manager] does a lot to promote the local produce for us. She’s phenomenal. We have some good people who take what we’re passionate for and make it happen. That’s Bethany and Brian.”
Challenges of buying local for the brewery, and the relationship between grower and brewer:
Mike and Seth are committed to supporting the growing hops and grains industry in NYS and feature 100% NYS beers several times a year. While both industries have seen growth in recent years, they still lack economies of scale that would make them price competitive with the large, mechanized operations from the Pacific Northwest. Revived hops production is relatively new, and malting-grade barley production is still in its infancy in New York. As more farms work to grow malting-grade barley for brewers, Seth and Mike stress the importance of an ongoing dialogue between the two to establish a successful market for malting barley.
The evolution of hops in New York:
Hops production in New York has steadily increased in both quantity and quality in the past few years. In 2014, New York had the second-highest number of new breweries opening. “The number of breweries has doubled, tripled, quadrupled.” Still, farmers growing hops and grains in New York State are at a disadvantage to Northwest growers. “The varieties of hops and grains have been developed to maximize yields in a climate altogether different than New York State.” Seth and Mike explained that high-yielding varieties of grain and hops that thrive in New York and produce desirable flavors need to be developed. Until recently, the USDA did not focus on hop varieties that craft brewers want to use.
To fill us in on the reason why New York farmers struggle to compete with the Northwest market, Mike told us the story of hops in New York. “In 1880, 90% of the hops used in brewing were grown in New York. Then two things happened: The blight, otherwise known as powdery mildew, and then prohibition. When the prohibition ended in 1932, the hop industry was reinvented in the Northwest because they didn’t have powdery mildew, until about 20 years ago, when they got the blight. At that point in time, USDA and places like Cornell, University of Washington, University of Oregon…they took on the challenge of trying to produce mildew-resistant varieties of hops.”
The privatization of hop varieties that are best for craft brewing left New York farmers out of the equation. “If a new hop variety is developed by the USDA, it’s public domain, so any farmer who wants it can grow it. If a private company develops it, it’s patentable and therefore grown only where the patent holder pleases it to be grown. The popular hops right now are private, patented hops that are grown under contract in the Northwest. Not a single contract here in New York. Often, farmers are at the whim of big seed companies. A lot of seed companies won’t even sell them certain grain varieties if they are unsure of their potential to grow well in New York State.”
Recent development in public domain hop varieties:
So, what’s to be done? High-yielding varieties of grain and hops that thrive in New York and produce desirable flavors need to be developed, and in the past few years, the USDA has come up with 4 new varieties geared toward craft brewers.
Tahoma is a new USDA variety that is very appealing to New York growers and brewers. “A local farmer is growing some Tahoma’s for us. Last year was his first year, so we may have a sample next year and a yield in the following year.” Centennial is a variety that is struggling with drought conditions out west, but it thrives in New York growing conditions. Cashmere is not growing well in New York, but Cascade does well both here and out west. Seth also likes Mt. Hood, which is used in their award-winning St. Stusan Ale. Fuggles, an English variety, is grown by Capt. Dan Vale, who is a local firefighter and has a hop farm in the Afton area. Newport is a high-alpha hop with a clean bitterness, great for an early kettle edition.
Local brewery community:
“There’s Water Street Brewing Co., Binghamton Brewery in Johnson City, North Brewery in Endicott, and Farmhouse Brewery in Owego…there’s 5 local breweries, right here.” Competition isn’t an issue among the small brewers—at least, not with each other. “We don’t see each other as competitors. We’re all friends. The difference is, we’re competing against big beer.” Seth and Mike believe that the idea of local is really gaining traction, and local brewers are benefiting from a consumer appreciation of craft beer.
Coming up at Galaxy:
Galaxy produces three or four beers a year that are made with 100% New York State grain. There are two being released in the coming months. New York Attitude is made with 100% New York State malt and hops that’s aged in rye whiskey barrels from Finger Lakes distillery, which will be out in about two weeks. Far Star is a Belgian-style Saison with 100% New York State malt, hops, and currants. “It’s aged in red wine barrels from Wagner Valley Brewery, with a bunch of funky yeasts we threw in there to make it crazy.” Stay on the lookout for Galaxy beer dinners to talk about beer flavors and how they pair with food.