Passion, Persistence & Patience: How New York’s Good Nature Farm Brewery has maintained its approach
INTERVIEWED MARCH 7, 2019 AT GOOD NATURE Farm Brewery.
New York beer–like many places these days–is experiencing a movement. In less than a decade, the number of breweries in the Empire State exploded from less than 100 in 2012 to over 400 in 2018. In line with this massive growth for the state was a piece of 2012 legislation know as The Farm Brewing Law that enabled aspiring breweries a streamlined process to acquire their proper permits for selling pints on-site at the brewery. The catch? To be considered a ‘farm brewery’ in New York, a designated percentage of your recipe’s ingredients must be grown from local farms.
And that’s where one upstate brewery was well ahead of the curve. Enter: Good Nature Farm Brewery in the small town of Hamilton–home to Colgate University. While the bill has been a great success for the state’s beer on many levels (growing breweries, but also bringing back hop growers and malt houses to support the demand for local ingredients), praise is due for Good Nature who happened to already be championing the farm-to-glass approach. And what’s even more impressive is the journey that the brewery has been on since, staying the course and growing rapidly–without a trendy draught list, while the rest of the industry lunges for what’s ‘next.’
On a recent trip through Central New York, we braved the winding back roads and corrected a couple wrong turns to make our way to their brewery, where we met with Owner, Carrie Blackmore, and Head Brewer, Chad Talboom, to discuss their place in the New York beer scene.
Where do you think the Good Nature brand fits into what's going on in the beer scene here in New York?
Carrie Blackmore: Well, what's kind of funny given that we're a very young company, but considered veterans compared to most. When we opened [in 2010] there were 60 breweries in New York State. We’ve gotta be creeping up on 450 at this point. And last year, there were 400... So there weren't very many of us. We started on a two-barrel system, in a glorified garage.
The other thing that kind of set us apart–at the time–was that we were a ‘farm brewery’. There was no such thing as a ‘farm brewery’ to most people, when we opened [Note: the designation ‘farm brewery’ was based on a bill passed in New York state requiring a specific percentage of ingredients be grown locally–and it does not in fact have anything to do with being on a farm]. Our whole business plan was built around sourcing local ingredients. Now it's like, “Oh duh!” But no one was doing it then–and actually, no one really could do it. There were only 16 acres of hops in the entire state of New York, and five or six of those acres happened to be up the road, in a place you've never heard of called Munnsville. So we started working with them, Foothill Hops. I believe they were the first post-Prohibition hop farm in New York State. They're fabulous people.
Was it Prohibition that killed the hop growing industry in New York?
CB: That was the final death knell. After that happened there was clearly no industry. But before that–I guess starting the late 19th century–there was a blight, which started wiping out a lot of the crops. So they started taking a lot of the hop growing out to the Pacific Northwest. It was Kate and Larry [from Foothill], and then there was a farm out in the Watkins Glen area, but that was it. So those were our options. And there were actually no malt houses at the time; not one in the entire state.
When was the Farm Brewing Law bill passed?
CB: They passed it in early 2013. We had moved into our current building by then.
How long did it take for these other renewed industries–maltsters and hop growers–to catch on and realize they could make a profitable business again?
CB: I definitely think the Farm Brewery Bill helped encourage some people, certainly on the hop side. Everything happened so fast. I think there's between eight and 10 malt houses now. We weren't able to get local malt not too long ago. We worked with a maltster in Western Massachusetts that had this little one-ton system in their garage, they're still doing it…
I definitely think the farm legislation helped encourage growers and brewers because it made the whole process of getting your [brewery] license a little bit easier; slightly less expensive, and it gave us some fun benefits. But we were doing the same concept before the bill was even a thing. We were fortunate to have access to any ingredients. So doing this farm-to-glass concept was novel for us.
Why did you decide on the farm-to-glass concept?
CB: My background was in outdoor and experiential education. I did a lot of work in sustainable agriculture.
You went to school in town here at Colgate University, correct?
CB: Yes. It's a very traditional place. I studied history and German, there wasn't an outdoor ed. program there, but it was an interest I’d had before I even started at school. And I've always been a really big foodie–the whole farm-to-table movement, farmers markets–that was the world I was living in before we did this.
So it seemed like a really obvious approach. The farm-to-table thing’s really cool, and there's definitely a market for it. People are more interested in knowing where their food and beverage comes from. But we hadn't really seen it applied to craft beer.
But why a brewery?
CB: Well, for one, because beer is really fun. Craft beer is such a fun culture to be a part of, and to just witness all of the change over the last 10 to 15 years. It's just exciting to be a part of it. It's a very creative place to be. It's a very welcoming and open place to be. We feel fortunate, because not only do I like coming to work, I like our customers. I like our vendors. I like other brewers, I mean, it's just a great community.
And from your perspective–having started well before most of the NY breweries–you've been able to see a lot of these vendors flourish, as well as other breweries.
CB: That's been kind of the neat thing, because this wasn't here. I mean, there was not a craft brewery within 40 miles of here, we were the first brewery in the county. So we've gotten to grow with our vendors and we're all in it together, which is neat.
Can you tell us about the property? You've been here how long now on the site.
CB: It's been a little over two years since we finished construction on this space. We weren't fully operational–production and retail–until April 2017. So it's still pretty new for us.
How did you make a jump from the original brewspace to this significantly larger facility?
CB: Quite honestly, I would have been smaller if we could have. But part of the struggle of this property was, even though we were close to utilities, we had to bring all of the infrastructure out here, we had to run three-quarters of a mile of water, sewer, natural gas… We had to invest in a pre-treatment facility for our water. Quite honestly, I walked in here, and I was like, “We could put the brewery in this little existing building over here.” And we very quickly realized that in order to even just do that, we'd still have to build all this infrastructure. So, we went bigger than we wanted to go at the time.
Does that, in-turn, account for a bigger distribution footprint?
CB: Yep. And a larger retail space on-site, focusing more on events and bringing in larger crowds.
When you opened, were you a production-only facility?
CB: We had a 200-square-foot tasting room with a little standing bar. And legally we could only do samples. And so the rest of the business was was distribution then, yes.
Have those laws since changed?
CB: Honestly, that's what the farm brewery license did for our business. Initially, farm breweries were the only breweries in New York state that could offer their beer by the glass, if you weren't a brewpub.
So when the law change, we jumped on the license and that's what really helped spur our growth ever since.
Alright Chad–what was your background prior to you brewing here?
Chad Talboom: So actually, this is my first professional brewing job...
I was previously at Empire Brewing Company down the road in Cazenovia, at the packaging level. And that was my first professional job in a brewhouse in New York state. I'm from Connecticut originally, but I've been in the area about two and a half years.
What made you make the move to Central New York?
CT: My wife is a PhD student at Syracuse University. When she got into the program, we moved up here in fall of 2016. I was working a desk job, which was the most soul-sucking job I've ever done in my life! I was working from home too. So here I was: I'm in a new city, I don't know anybody in New York and I’m in my apartment all day. It was awful. I just had to talk to my cats–like Tom Hanks in Castaway.
So I’m guessing you already had an interest in beer then?
CT: Yeah. I started homebrewing when I was 21 or 22. Kind of at the behest of a co-worker. He was giving away his homebrewing equipment. I was like, yeah, yeah. Why not? That seems pretty cool. I started working for a shop that sold homebrew equipment, and then I started teaching homebrewing at the shop. I wanted to get into the brewing industry in one way or another. We all start out as homebrewers, don’t we...?
So a career shift was in order?
Well, my department got dissolved at the desk job I was working, so I was out of a job. And I was already doing brewery tours for Empire on the weekends at this point, just because I wanted to get in the industry somehow. And I badgered Empire–pretty much non-stop–until they're like, “Fine will get you a job in packaging.”
I left that job after about a year, though, as they were experiencing some some hard times. I was the last guy on board, but they let me go. After that, I pretty much sent out my resume everywhere. I had experience in a brewhouse, even though I did't have traditional brewing training–but had been homebrewing forever.
Were you living in Syracuse at the time?
CT: Yeah, still living in Syracuse. It's a little bit of a hike from there to here, in Hamilton. I started working for Matt Wayland–who is the old Head Brewer here–as his assistant. I started middle of February 2017. Matt left the company in September of that year, and it's kind of been my shift ever since.
In the time since you have taken over, have you done anything differently?
CT: Yeah, definitely. The big thing that I wanted to do was really hone down my technique. Under Matt, we were doing things one way, and I started to run into problems as far as efficiency and the system really working in a way I was comfortable.
How intimidating was that–going from mostly just homebrewing, and then getting into a large scale production brewing role?
CT: I mean, it was definitely intimidating. It's totally different. You have to understand that it's going from homebrewing to professional brewing, and on the system like this... Brewing is the same conceptually, but it's way different from working with a pot on a turkey fryer out in my driveway to working on a system that's 200 times larger. Everything I control is all from this touchscreen system, so I have to be aware of basically how everything runs here, but also how it corresponds to the touchscreen system. So there was definitely a learning curve...
But as far as the way that I learn; once I kind of understand the what and the why, I’m alright. Like, why does it go from here to here? And what’s the purpose of every moving part of this equipment? Then it starts to make sense to me. After that, it's just kind of business as usual.
Describe the core beers here that are regularly available.
CT: So we have our Good Natured Blonde Ale, which is basically the easy-drinker. That's your backyard beer; really simple malt bill, 4.5% ABV–just a nice crisp, clean malt character, nicely balanced beer. When we get people who are your Coors or Labatt drinkers, this gets ‘em into the shallow end of the pool.
Then we have Blight Buster, which is our ‘normal’ house IPA. It’s 6%, and we use Hallertau Blanc hops in it. So that's kind of a-typical from your Citra-Mosaic hop combination. Hallertau Blanc is a nice German-American crossbreed with these funky melon characters. There's still a little bit of that citrus character on it as well, though. That's probably my favorite IPA that we do.
We have an American brown ale. It's called…American Brown Ale. It's exactly what it says it is, and sits at the higher end of 6%. It’s really malt-forward, very robust, and almost closer to like an American porter, because of its robust character and it's chocolate notes. That's my favorite beer period, that we make.
We've got Non-stop Hop Onslaught which is our session IPA–so a little below 5%. A little bit more malt balanced than the Blight Buster, and a little bit less hop-forward because of that low ABV. But that's a nice hot day sipper if you want an IPA.
Lastly, there’s Annie, which is our Imperial IPA; 7.7%, very bold, tropical, Citra-Mosaic... It doesn't drink like a beer at that ABV, but it's got plenty of body. None of the bite like a high-ABV beer might bring typically.
And now you've been able to build in some of your own personality with the 16oz releases?
CT: Yeah, we did a white IPA for our ‘late winter’ beer. But late winter is like ‘til May here, hah. It kind of differs from your typical IPA. It is supposed to be traditionally like a Belgian IPA, but I'm not a huge fan of Belgian styles, personally. So, I took my favorite parts an American wheat, and Blight Buster and combined those with an Amarillo hop bill, which gives more of an orange citrus character than just a general citrus.
It's tough to do my favorite styles, because I love German styles–I love lagers. Unfortunately, they take absolutely forever to brew and the market isn't insane for lagers right now. We have to keep up with the demand, which means: IPA, IPA, IPA.
Is it weird to juggle that because personally you are drawn to certain things, and you're the brewer. But the market is saying otherwise?
CT: I would love to be able to brew just the beers that I want to brew. But at the end of the day, I love the work. The work is the most fun part–I love brewing beer. So even if I was brewing styles that I didn't really want to brew, I like brewing as a job. So it's cool. It doesn't mean that I can't insert some of my personality into what we do, even if the styles aren't my favorite. But, this job beats every other job I've ever had. So as long as I'm doing the work, man, stylistically I'll brew whatever you want!
What is the reputation of Good Nature, either to the region or the state?
CT: Not being here from the beginning–so coming from somebody looking from the outside, in–knowing that Carrie and Matt started with just a vision in a garage and built this customer base, and built this following and this brand... That's kind of everybody's dream. I can just say, as a consumer, that's super cool. You want to see local places flourish. And in an area like Hamilton, NY, where everybody knows everybody–you want that success for everybody even more because they are your neighbors.
Good Nature has built a reputation.
People know Good Nature for quality. We're not trying to like chase down crazes. Like, everybody wants to brew hazy IPAs. Now, I know we just said that we will brew what the market wants… But at the same time, I'm not just going to brew New England IPAs just because we can sell New England IPAs. We built a following based on our core styles, it is amazing how much we're able to move blonde ale. It’s a blonde ale! Nobody's buying blonde ales in droves–it's not sexy at all. But it's a beer that's been brewed since the beginning, and brewed well. And it's a beer people like, so people are going to buy it. It's not flashy, it is what it is. I think that's kind of what Good Nature is. We put a lot of love and passion into the beer that we brew, even if it's not oak-aged imperial whatever, with vanilla and mango. We’re a brand known for quality.
Do you like those styles?
CT: No, honestly. I mean, my favorite brewery in the world is Jack's Abby in Massachusetts–they’re specializing in lagers. My fridge is just full of them all the time. They do a Pilsner, Post Shift Pilsner, and it's just…a Pilsner. I could drink that beer for the rest of my life, it's just so delicious.
Do you take any inspiration from them?
CT: When I'm brewing at home, yeah, that's what I want to do–just clean, simple executions. Which isn't to say that the beers that we brew aren't clean and simple. We do have two foeders that we do sours in. We do dip our toes in the water with those. We also do an imperial chocolate stout called Great Chocolate Wreck, every September. So we don't not do stuff like that, they just don't take over the menu. I have a very simple concept of what beer is: it's just water, malt, yeast and hops. That's my life–just really simple stuff. So that kind of informs the beers that I like to brew. I just love simplicity. I think you can get a lot of quality of simple stuff.
And it’s often not understood how difficult it can be to execute ‘simplicity.’
CT: Absolutely, it is the hardest. And it's also easy to say like, ‘Oh, this is just a one-off,’ and never have to replicate it. I have no problem with that. Heck, we do one-offs–it's a fun way to screw around and experiment and gauge what the market wants or just to do something fun. But I think that's one of the things that we bring to the table–we have this really solid core lineup still. When people drink Blonde, or Blight or Annie, they know what they're getting because they've been drinking it for years. I have to approach every brew knowing that we’ve got to make sure everything's the same…every single time.
Do you think that makes you a better brewer?
CT: I think it does. I have to make sure that my process for each beer is always on point. And again, do I want to mess around with some stuff? Yeah. But at the same time, I don't want to disappoint our customers who are fans, just because I wanted to hop a beer differently. It's doing a disservice to the people who liked our beer. And that's one thing I think, that I liked the most about brewing, it's the same reason why I like cooking. I just like making people happy. When somebody tells me like, ‘Oh, this, this is awesome.’ That's just the best feeling in the world. That's why I do it.
You mentioned Jack's Abby–anything else you're drinking when you're not drinking Good Nature’s beer?
CT: I just go to other breweries in Syracuse. I hate to say that ‘I like to go to the breweries that my friends work at,’ but that's really what I do. So, Stout Beard Brewing, they primarily do…stouts, which is kind of a novel concept. They do a lot of really fun stuff, so I'm there a lot. Willow Rock Brewing–we actually did a collaboration with them called Sheep's Go to Heaven. So now we're formulating Goats Go to Hell. Local 315 is another, in Warners, NY. Josh Mersfelder is another great brewer there, and a really good friend. So really, those three are the places that I'm typically at drinking. Not being from here and seeing Syracuse beer–Central New York beer–just get increasingly better…in such a short span of time, that’s so cool.
And now to be a part of that? That is really awesome.
Photographed and authored by THR’s Nick Costa.
A huge thank you to Chad and Carrie for showing us around the impressive facility and to the Brew Central NY for partnering on this trip to Upstate New York.