Photos by Leif Zurmuhlen
Down a little dirt road, under a bridge, past rumbling construction equipment, next to the bubbling Walloomsac River rises a red brick structure with a jutting, angular smokestack. It looks like it might almost be part of the river bank. Built around 1854, the structure was originally home to a wallpaper company. It’s the kind of building you might expect to see broken and abandoned on a long trip down a winding country road. But this building is brimming with life–and hops.
Today, you can smell one of the many flavors of beer that is brewed here; a newly installed canning machine has left some packages damaged, sending beer spraying across the factory. Staffers are still mopping up the floor. But the smell is welcoming, and although the spill was unwanted it is actually a sign of something good.
Brown’s, after crafting and bottling their selection of beers here for a decade, shut down their antiquated bottling machine and purchased a $1.2-million canning system from German company Leibinger. Six engineers from the company spent a week installing the system.
Brown’s popular line of beers–Oatmeal Stout, IPA, Cherry Razz, Vienna Lager–have become ubiquitous at bars and grocery stores across the Northeast. Their “Revolution Series” of 16-oz small-batch beers is known to go quickly. Currently, Brown’s features a “Double Oatmeal Stout” and a “Burst IPA.”
Those beers are now available in 8-oz cans, as Brown’s discontinued the use of bottles in April. But the bottle machine won’t lie still forever. There are plans to use it for one-off creations developed at their R&D brewery in Troy.
This is just the latest step in a grander plan Garry and Kelly Brown have been following since 1993, when they started Brown & Moran Brewing Company at 417 River St. in Troy. Brown’s currently employs a staff of around 120 between its two taprooms and at its brewery.
For the last two decades the Browns have been bringing their dreams to life–like seeds grown out of the banks of two local rivers, Brown’s Troy Taproom and Walloomsac Taproom in North Hoosick Falls have taken root as important parts of both communities. As Brown’s has grown over the years, expanded from a bar in Troy to a regionally distributed beer line, Garry Brown has kept his eye on the future while working with the local community.
In 2006, Kelly Brown says, her husband toured the Walloomsac property and saw something. “He told me, ‘We have to buy it.’ And so we did.” In 2013, the facility opened as a 20,000-barrel production brewery. In 2014, they added the taproom. And in coming years they plan to extend a drinking area over the river. Garry expects that a piece of property just a short walk across a metal bridge from Brown’s will be used for festivals and shows.
The Browns took a similar gamble with their investment in another riverside property in the early ’90s. The renaissance that has made Troy the Capital Region’s little Brooklyn was a decade or more away when Gary first saw the property that would eventually house the region’s first brewery/restaurant.
“I don’t think we really knew what we were getting into when we saw this building that was about to be torn down,” says Kelly. “We swooped in, and I think for Garry, seeing it on the majestic Hudson River, he knew that it was invaluable. At the time, though, we were talking about $60,000.”
Kelly recalls the futility of presenting what she jokes might have been a “600-page” business plan to banks when trying to secure loans. “They didn’t walk away from us, they ran!” But thankfully friends and family came to their aid. It took about three years to get the property in working order.
She laughs–it seems almost silly now that there was doubt that the investment would pay off, as Brown’s has become a pillar of the community, a tentpole around which the rest of development in Troy has occurred. Meanwhile, taprooms and breweries are all the rage.
“It’s been great to watch the rebirth of Troy,” says Kelly. It does mean more competition for us, but in the same regard it is bringing more people into the city, and to be quite honest we’re always excited and ready for that regrowth of a city like Troy that is so beautiful and has got everything right there. So our feeling hasn’t been ‘How bout us,’ but how can we see growth with our new businesses? And the new places popping up–many of them are carrying our beer as well.”
Success doesn’t mean things have become simple for the Browns. Every day is hard work, and they keep their humble roots close to their hearts. They say retirement is still decades away.
Garry, who worked as a photojournalist for Schenectady’s Daily Gazette, and Kelly, who worked as a flight attendant before they started their brewery, have been known to share recipes with upstart brewers, cut deals on equipment and work to foster the local craft-brew community. “It’s really been quite a journey,” says Kelly. “It’s thrilling to see so many new breweries popping up–you’re always very excited to try something new as a brewer.”
Kelly recalls early trips out west in the early 80s and how inspirational they were to their dream of opening a brewery. Garry at the time was home brewing. Imported beers were the main attraction for beer aficionados; Becks was in vogue. “It really enlightened Garry to what people were doing. I remember we took a trip out there in the late ’80s on Highway One. We stopped at some local places and we were really blown away by the beer. We thought, ‘We can do this! We can do this at home!”
The Northwest was far ahead of the Northeast in terms of brewing and brew pubs at the time. And with good reason–hops were readily available.
“The ingredients were there. The resources were there, and the craft brewers were going nuts with it,” says Kelly. “We were really like, ‘Wow, this is what beer tastes like–fresh hops and a few of them in a beer!’ It really gave us a taste of what was to come.”
Over two decades later Kelly surveys the stainless steel vats on the second floor of the brewery. Behind her is a nicely stocked lab for R&D. Garry is back and forth preparing for a the launch party for their new cans. They both acknowledge it’s a little sad to see their bottling machine at a standstill; it’s been a part of their lives for a long time.This brewery is more than a business for them; it’s where their children have played, a place for their friends and residents of a town hard hit by the economy and circumstances beyond their control can come for a good drink, something the community can be proud of.
“It seems a little sad,” says Garry of the machine. “It used to be the hub of the entire place.” The new canning machine sits still at the moment as well. Its computer screens, lights and smooth edges certainly make it look like the future. It’s clear that the future is on the minds of both Garry and Kelly. They’re leery of being labeled an institution. “We want to stay relevant, because we’re talking 24 years ago that we started. So we’re kind of the old kids on the block, but we like to surround ourselves with energy. Our two brewers running the brew house in Troy are running it as research and development, and they are just loving it. This is the future of our industry, and we’re always always investing in those people and inviting them to join us.”