The first time I tried West Kill Brewing’s beer, I was at Spruceton Inn, literally a stone’s throw from the brewery, five miles down a seven-mile road in the Catskills that dead-ends at hiking trails.
Brett Kozinn, the managing innkeeper, pours drinks at night from a tiny bar in a room the same size and design as the guest rooms. There are two taps. On a frigid early November night, after a long drive, I sat at a table and was overjoyed to try West Kill’s seasonal, rye-based IPA and then a chocolate porter. Both were delicious. (And I’m not really a porter guy.)
“Honestly,” Kozinn says, filling another glass, “even if the beer was mediocre, we’d probably still serve it. Lucky for us, their beer is insanely good, and they keep churning out good stuff on a regular basis.” Everyone who lives or works on Spruceton Road knows everyone else nearby.
Spruceton Inn has been serving from West Kill kegs since early June and plans to carry cans and bottles once those are produced in greater number. Steven Weinberg, who owns the inn with his wife, Casey Sciezska, is an author and illustrator. He will be designing many of the labels.
West Kill’s taproom debuted the first Saturday in November. Before construction was finished, locals and tourists would drive up on weekend mornings and buy crowlers from the adjacent brewing facility and drink them outside, sitting or standing around a nearby fire pit.
The brewery has been almost five years in the making.
Michael Barcone and his wife, Colleen, decided they wanted to build it in 2013. In 2014, they formed an LLC and began surveying land and working through logistics “to find out even if we could do this,” Barcone says. They hired a lawyer in 2015. They hired engineers. They sorted through permits. They began construction on the actual brewery in 2016, finished it this February and produced their first kegs in time for Memorial Day.
“It was a long process for Mike and Colleen to get the business up and running,” Kozinn says, “and, naturally, we were super eager to be able to tell guests, neighbors and friends the brewery was officially open.”
A significant part of West Kill Brewing’s origin story, Barcone explains, is the fact that both he and Colleen lost their fathers a few years ago, in quick succession, and instead of just talking about turning a passion into a business, they actually needed to do it.
“They were both totally physically fit, healthy guys, and it just snapped us to say, ‘Life’s too short, let’s do something where we’re happy, something we want to wake up and do,’” says Barcone, leaning back on a bench on the taproom’s outdoor deck. “That’s when the brewery took form.”
Originally, Barcone was planning for a three-barrel system, “a smaller, farm-brewing kind of thing,” just sourcing local ingredients. He soon realized that some raw materials, especially hops, would have to be sourced elsewhere, and scaling everything up into a full-blown, 10-barrel microbrewery actually made the most sense. In for a pint, in for a gallon.
Those 127 acres have provided the backdrop for an untold number of hunting & fishing & hiking trips.”
Barcone, a longtime home brewer, took some Siebel Institute courses, volunteered at other breweries, and did a few collaborative beers with producers in Wisconsin and Oregon. But he also still wanted West Kill to have a full-time, experienced brewmaster, so he hired Patrick Allen, who’d brewed at Keg & Lantern in Brooklyn, to “really help with fine tuning things,” Barcone adds. “As a home brewer, you keg, but you don’t keg. You don’t clean 80 kegs and then keg off a batch."
“He had more experience than I thought we were going to get for the position. We hung out and met a few times, and his personality, my personality, we just clicked. We had the same palate, and we definitely connected on what we thought a great vision would be for the beers we push out of this place.”
What’s striking about West Kill is that each of its beers is good. Some are great. None are duds. Most breweries, even the best, have a few beers I’ll avoid. Not here.
In addition to the rye-heavy, 6.5% autumnal IPA, West Kill’s double IPA is far too easy to drink at 8.7%, as are its American pale ales, which clock in a shade under 5%. The chocolate porter, at 6.2%, has exactly the right amount of sweetness without that cloying, heavy, medicinal mouthfeel that can haunt a lot of darker beers.
The house beer – “I hate the term flagship,” Barcone says – is a farmhouse saison that’s light and flavorful and crisp, and it’s named in honor of his great, great aunt, Leona, who, almost 90 years ago, bought the land on which the brewery and taproom now stand. Those 127 acres have been in the family ever since, and they’ve provided the backdrop for an untold number of hunting and fishing and hiking trips.
“The outdoors is a huge part of what we do,” Barcone says. “We have a really great core customer base of hikers,” many of whom may be returning from nearby Diamond Notch Falls or Hunter Mountain, or from one of at least a dozen other trails within a half-hour drive.
If pre- or post-hike drinking isn’t an option, West Kill beer is available elsewhere. Barcone’s self-distributing for right now, mostly to local bars and restaurants, but his brews have made it as far away as The Ginger Man in Manhattan, Earl’s Beer and Cheese in Harlem, and Brouwerij Lane in Greenpoint. He’s considering if and when to expand into Boston or Philadelphia, but, at least for now, he’s plenty happy just to be pouring beers alongside Colleen or taproom manager Benjamin Horn, as locals and tourists alike crowd the bar and chow down on locally produced deer jerky.
“This is a really special place, and I would not settle here to build a family if it wasn’t,” Barcone says. “I say this as humbly as I can, but I think we have one of the best views of any brewery on the East Coast. It’s pretty unbelievable. I know we’re on a five-mile, dead-end road, I know we seem out of the way, but I can guarantee you you’re going to have a nice experience.
"You’ll say, ‘Wow, this was totally worth the drive.’”