"Genny Cream Ale was the first beer I ever drank in my life. My grandfather handed me a beer and said, 'Here, you can have a sip.' And I kept sipping it until he said, 'Hey, drink your own' and handed me another. That was Sunday afternoons of hanging out with my Grandpa, working in the garage, and drinking beer. That was Cream Ale."
Ask just about anyone from Rochester, New York, about their first beer, and they'll probably tell you a similar story. This one comes from Dean Jones, the Brewmaster at the Genesee Brew House Pilot Brewery, a small-batch operation inside Genesee's combo brewhouse, gift shop, tasting room and restaurant in downtown Rochester.
Genesee is a special kind of force in the American beer world, at least for anyone who grew up upstate. The brewery, the oldest in New York and one of the oldest in the country, was founded in 1878; they've been making their eponymous adjunct lager since the first day and their equally iconic Genesee Cream Ale since 1960. And, as Jones says, "Genesee has an emotional connection with upstate New York that is just rock-solid. Everyone who was stealing beer from their dad or grandpa – it was always Cream Ale or Genny." But nostalgia aside, today's beer world is a far cry from the brewery's heyday, and in recent years, Genesee has been in dire need of an upgrade on two fronts.
First, the large scale: most of the brewery's equipment for their core beers, which are made in staggeringly huge batches, needed to be updated from '80s-era tech and brewing practices. So in 2014, Genesee began assessing the brewery's production on all fronts: efficiency, consistency, water conservation, waste output, and batch size flexibility. Now the results of that assessment are taking shape. The brewery's $40 million "modernization project" intends to bring Genesee into a new era of brewing, allowing them to brew their namesake lager, Genesee Light, Cream Ale, and the rest of their core portfolio more easily, more consistently, and with better profit margins, which will in turn allow them to grow their markets.
But more importantly, at least from a craft drinker's point of view, are the brewery's updates to their fermenting space: they're tearing down ten of their enormous 9,000-barrel tanks and replacing them with a mix of 500, 1,000, and 2,000 ones. That brings us to the small scale, or at least as small scale as a brewery like Genesee gets: expanding their Brew House Pilot Batch series.
I have fun balancing that act of making 'real' beer and making beer that makes people say, 'Wow, that's from Genesee?'”
The series, which began in 2012, is a chance for Jones to operate outside of the brewery's core portfolio, brewing new beers that look both forward and backward at the same time. "I love, honor, and respect the German brewmasters who built the brewery in 1878," says Jones, "and that history is incredibly important. And if you snub where you came from, you're lost. So I'm not doing New England IPAs. I'm not doing double cucumber hibiscus ale with elderberry flowers, or whatever."
Instead, Jones aims for crisply rendered versions of traditional German styles – he's done a Double Bock, Pilsner, Marzen, and Helles Bock – while mixing in some less conventional recipes, like the Pilot Batch series' latest hit: Orange Honey Cream Ale, which was inspired by an orange-laden Belgian witbier and then cross-bred with a modified version Genesee's iconic Cream Ale. It's been so popular in Rochester that kegs kick within hours of being tapped, and Genesee has had to scramble to produce more in order to maintain its availability for the summer months.
"I have fun balancing that act of making 'real' beer and making beer that makes people say, 'Wow, that's from Genesee?'" Jones says.
The Pilot Batch beers are made on a small 20-barrel system within the Brew House, then scaled up to the larger production brewery once a recipe is determined to be successful. That's been difficult, though, given the enormity of the brewery's tanks. Brewing a 500-barrel batch inside of a 2,000 barrel tank is technically feasible but comes with major headaches, like loss of efficiency in the brewing schedule, or the wastefulness of necessarily huge amounts of water and sanitizing agents to fully clean a tank that was only operated at 25% capacity.
Genesee decided to get rid of those ten of their largest tanks, which were installed in the era of American beer when a brewery had only to worry about producing adjunct lagers at as large a scale as possible, and install a mix of smaller-sized tanks, which will enable them to better produce more Pilot Batch offerings that suit the modern market. The largest of these new tanks, though – the 2,000 barrel ones – while small for Genesee, are still huge by any reasonable standard.
So huge, in fact, that they can't be transported by land without shutting down entire highways.
So they figured out a solution steeped in the history of the brewery and the city itself: the tanks would be sailed to New York City, upstate via the Hudson River, and then west to Rochester via the Erie Canal. While it's rarely used for commercial purposes these days, the nearly 200-year-old canal is a quintessential part of Upstate New York's history and identity, allowing for the economic development of the entire upstate region and turning Rochester into a boomtown nearly overnight when it opened on May 17, 1821.
And while the Genesee team publicized the journey by announcing the travel dates and encouraging locals to "toast the tanks" at canal-side bars and restaurants along the way, the public turnout exceeded anything the brewery expected.
"The energy and the buzz and the number of people that have come down to the banks of the canal to watch these tanks float by has been astounding," says Mark Fabrizio, the Director of Project Management and Continuous Improvement for North American Breweries (Genesee's parent company). "We didn't have to plan anything – it sort of happened spontaneously at these different points along the way. There were well over 1,000 people as the barge of tanks floated through Macedon."
The tanks recently completed their journey along the canal and are now being installed in the brewery's new fermentation cellar. Meanwhile, Genesee is finalizing the second phase of their modernization project: an $8 to $9 million state-funded expansion of their brew house restaurant.
They're roughly two years away from any sort of ribbon cutting, but the aim is to grow the brew house into a greater destination for beer-seekers in Upstate New York by expanding the brew house's pilot brewery system, adding an event space, and creating a new classroom area that can host local homebrew clubs and other knowledge-sharing gatherings. The expansion is expected to create 128 new jobs, 64 of which are reserved for locals who have been impacted by poverty.
The modernization, from the new tanks to the new beers to the new Brew House expansion to, most significantly, the new mindset towards the modern beer market, is hugely ambitious. Craft beer obsessives may still scoff – the brewery is, after all, still a part of the old guard of beer brewing, a rejection of which the craft market was originally built upon.
But for all of the upstate New Yorkers whose first beer was a surreptitiously sipped can of Cream Ale, like Jones, the name Genesee will always carry a unique kind of weight. And to see that icon of Rochester being brought into the modern era of beer brewing should be exciting for anyone with a tie to Upstate New York – or, simply, anyone who appreciates a good Cream Ale.