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In the current edition, True Brew hops into the story of Schenectady’s newest powerhouse Frog Alley Brewing.
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FROG ALLEY BREWING CO.
LEAPS ONTO THE CAPITAL REGION BEER SCENE
When you think of most of your favorite breweries, they probably have a story that goes a little something like this: Guy or Gal likes beer. Takes up home-brewing. Starts brewing regularly. Shares beer with friends and family. Friends convince said guy or gal that their beer is the best beer on the planet. Guy or Gal decides to go for it and open a brewery. Brewery starts off small, slowly growing a loyal following. Brewery expands, becomes the toast of the town. And so, on and so forth…
Well, if that defines the path of the typical brewery, then it is safe to say that Frog Alley Brewing Company will not be a typical brewery. Born as the brainchild of local architect JT Pollard, Frog Alley serves as the centerpiece for a larger vision. The brewery occupies the bottom two floors of what is to become known as the Mill Artisan District, a sprawling retail, entertainment, and apartment complex that has now sprung up on Lower State Street in Schenectady, NY.
DESIGNING A REVITALIZATION
The Mill Artisan District project was conceived by Pollard to serve as a multi-use development and is designed with a goal to help revitalize lower State Street and Downtown Schenectady. The 30 million-dollar, soon-to-be completed project will include 74 residential apartments, training space for SUNY Schenectady and their brewer’s certification program, about 20,000 square feet of high-tech office space, and other retailers such as Bountiful Bread and some other yet-to-be named retailers.
As for Frog Alley Brewing Company, upon entering the taproom at the State Street level you are immediately greeted by a very large bar. Okay, it’s a HUGE bar! It features a draft system that has 40 beer taps and seating for more than 30 at the bar itself. It fills up the left side of the entrance while a bar rail with stools lines the right-side room, allowing for patrons to look out over State Street. The large room is split by standing/sitting round-top tables with a large space on the far side that allows for bands, dancing, and events. Venture towards the back/middle of the brewery and you’ll find games such as corn-hole and a giant connect four. Beyond that still and a few steps up brings you to an area referred to as “the landing”, that sits looking directly over the brewery and the canning and bottling lines below. Here, the air becomes thick with the smell of boiling malts and spicy hops. Pretty much the best smell in the world (unless you are hung-over). The Landing serves as a great private event space that allows guests to get the true experience of being in the brewery. Beyond the landing is another large event/education room.
Back in the main bar taproom, the left side of the room is lined by 5 large pods which will eventually serve as mini-tasting rooms for start-up and tenured breweries that contract brew their beer at the Frog Alley brewery. The pods are each ½ inside the taproom and ½ outside of the taproom, making them accessible from the immense patio that lies on the other side. That patio also features ample seating for patrons and event space for private parties and live music.
It’s a huge and aspirational project. And, the fact that it was conceived by a non-brewer might make some business insiders and craft beer traditionalists nervous. So naturally, we felt compelled to get the story. As I am waiting to meet the brewery founder, JT Pollard, I belly up to the busy but comfortable bar and order a Frog Alley Captain Ellis Porter. It’s rich and dark in color, approaching black with ruby highlights. This brew has strong roasted notes of the malt bill balanced perfectly with gently hop notes. This is a Robust Porter that weighs in at 6.4% ABV and 40 IBUs. I should note that Porters are my favorite style of beer and The Captain Ellis comes in as near perfect. Straight up delicious!
Before long, Pollard comes down, joins me at the bar, and we get into a discussion about a non-brewer opening a brewery. We discuss his love of beer and acute awareness of the craft beer category and how craft breweries have helped revitalize down-towns across the nation over the past dozen years. He assures me that he is fully aware of what he doesn’t know about brewing. He eludes that the first thing that he did as his vision for the project became clearer, was partner up with two experienced, reputable, and locally established brewers.
“When I conceived the idea to build a brewery, I knew that I would need to hire the best possible talent that I can find,” Pollard tells me. “As much as I love beer, I really knew very little about brewing beer or the equipment that was necessary to do it at a high level. I needed to build a team that not only knew how to brew great beer, but also understood the process, the equipment, and the logistics of a brewery. Luckily, I found Rich Michaels and Drew Schmidt!”
Rich Michaels is a very well-known brewer, not just here in the Capital Region, but across the state and much of the nation. He started brewing beer commercially in the Capital District over 25 years ago when, in 1992, he knocked on a on the door of the then Brown and Moran Brewing Company in Troy with a six pack of home brewed beer and asked for a job. The beer was good enough to get him in the door as a brewer. He got started on his brewing career at Brown’s and worked their until the mid-90’s when he departed to become the Brewmaster the formed Big House Brewery in Albany.
In 1997, he left the Capital Region to complete his education in Chicago at the Siebel Institute of Brewing. The Siebel Institute, founded in 1868, is the oldest and most reputable brewing school in the United States. While in Chicago, he met up with a few guys who were working to open a brewery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After finishing his diploma, he went to work as Brewmaster at Founders Brewing Company. As the first employee, he was responsible for recipe development, brewing and packaging. (Editors Note: Little known fact, Michaels was the brewer that developed Founder Porter. We are not huge on ratings at True Brew Magazine, but Founders Porter is rated 100 by Ratebeer.com, and it’s damn good. Might be a good idea to try Frog Alley’s Porter!)
In 2001, Michaels left Founders and moved south to brew beer at Walt Disney World for the Gordon Biersch Brewery Group. Later, Rich also owned and operated Dutch Ale House, a craft beer bar for three years. Most recently, Michaels worked for FX Matt Brewing Company (Saranac) as the quality and innovation manager. He was responsible for product development, brewing quality and process innovation.
Rich also teaches a brewing program at Schenectady County Community College, which focuses on educating students for successful employment in the craft brewing industry. The program provides brewing knowledge and hands-on training in commercial brewing practices.
It’s safe to say that when Pollard scored Michaels, he scored indeed! “When I first met JT, I thought his vision for this project was a bit of a crazy idea.”, says Michaels. “The concept of an anchor brewery supporting 5-6 other breweries and actually allowing them to pour their beer in their taproom was not something that we have seen here on the east coast. When I met him, I was working at Saranac and running the Brewery Workforce Development program at SCCC. Lots of driving back and forth. I wasn’t actively looking for a change, but the more I got to know JT and understand his vision, the more I became intrigued. In 2017, he showed up at the Craft Brewers Conference in Washington DC and I realized that he was serious and was moving forward with his plan. We got to talk more in depth and ultimately, we agreed for me to come on board as a partner and brewmaster.”
Drew Schmidt began his brewing career early on in the Craft Brewing revolution. In 1992 he started as an assistant brewer at Zip City Brewing Company, New York’s second brewpub. In 1993 he left Zip City to attend the Siebel Institute and graduated with a diploma in Brewing Technology.
Upon graduation, Drew moved to the Baltimore area and became the Head Brewer at the Oxford Brewing Company. During this time, the brewery shifted its focus from traditional English style ales to American style beers and quickly expanded to Maryland’s largest microbrewery.
In 1996, Drew settled in Albany where he worked alongside Rich Michaels at the Big House Brewing Company. At the time, the Big House was the largest brewpub in the nation, producing 2,000 barrels of beer in a single location. Drew became known for his IPA at the Big House, and his raspberry wheat beer. After a brief hiatus, Drew returned to brewing as a Shift Supervisor at Olde Saratoga as well as the lead brewer at Mad Jack Brewing Company. Most recently, you could find Mr. Schmidt at Shmaltz Brewing Company in Clifton Park where he acted as the Production Manager. Drew left Shmaltz in 2017 to focus all of his energy to the construction and planning of Frog Alley Brewing Company.
“Rich and I worked together at the Big House in the ’90’s but had become sort-of separate and disassociated for about 15 years. We became reacquainted after I got back to the region and, as he and I got more familiar with JT’s vision, it became a no-brainer for me to come on as a brewmaster/partner as well.” explains Schmidt. “It’s awesome that after more than 25 years in the business that we have circled back and are working together again. We are vested. We are in it! And we are looking forward to turning out some really good beers”
“How would you define your brewing style and what consumers can expect when they come into Frog Alley Brewing?” I ask.
“As far as ‘brewing style’,” Michaels responds, “you’ll find a nice mix of beers that are brewed authentically to style and beers that are experimental and creative. With 40 draft lines, once we get going, you’ll likely see 10-15 creative beers.
“We have a 17-barrel brewing system that allows us to produce our ‘everyday’ beers very efficiently and very consistent, which is important,” says Schmidt. “One thing that enticed Rich and I to get involved with the project was that we knew that JT would invest in top-of-the-line equipment. And he has! Most breweries run at about 65-80% brewing efficiencies. We run at more than 95% efficiency. This leads to us using less energy, less raw materials, and less waste.”
Michaels continues, “While we have a creative side, beer lovers should expect to have a super-premium beer experience here at Frog Alley. When it comes to brewing to style, look for our beers to be technically excellent. Drew and I both possess the knowledge to produce a beer that we know will taste the way that we intended for it to taste”
MORE THAN JUST A BREWERY – A DESTINATION
While Frog Alley Brewing certainly aims to put themselves on the craft beer map by producing consistent and technically awesome beers, the Mill Lane Artisan District, including the brewery, also aim to become a downtown destination for great beer, great food, live music and special events. The brewery has recently hired local special events guru to manage the event and entertainment schedule. AJ Bodden, the brainchild of events such as America on Tap, Saratoga Beer Fest, and scores of other local, regional, and national events over the past15 years, has come on board for Frog Alley as their Business Development Manager and has already led the charge to bringing large crowds into the brewery’s event space. “This space is prime for great events and for live music,” Bodden explains. “Inside alone is designed perfectly for optimal sound and viewing but, once the patio opens in the spring, watch out!”
This summer and fall have been proof-positive that Frog Alley is already making noise as an event destination. The brewery hosted numerous events including live music by Skeeter Creek, Shake-Rattle-Roll Dueling Pianos and Thirsty Thursday’s Country Night. Throw in the occasional paint & sip, cornhole tournament, or local rock band and you’ve got yourself a good time.
“Not only is it a great time,” says Schmidt, “it’s a great time with great beer. It’s been interesting to see how the type of live music that we’ve hosted have influenced the types of fans that we have had in, and the types of fans have influenced the styles of beers that we poured on a given night. Typical non-craft beer drinking consumers are coming in to enjoy the live music and are getting turned on to craft beer while they are here. We’ve found that the older crowds soak up the Pils and the Cherry Wheat style beers while the younger generation is more into IPA’s, Sours, and experimental beers.”
As Frog Alley heads into the winter season, there is no plan to slow down on production, nor on events. Last year the brewery signed on with Saratoga Eagle to distribute their beer and the distributor has come out focused and aggressive with Frog Alley. The brand is all over the Capital Region and is receiving raving reviews for the beer itself. Frog Alley’s brews can be found on draft in about 90 different local bars and restaurants. The brand has also found its way onto store shelve in 16oz cans at retailers such as Price Chopper/Market 32, Hannaford, Stewarts, most local beverage centers and more.
“For events, Frog Alley is hosting a couple of big ones coming up,” says Bodden. On Saturday, January 25th we’ll be hosting The Frozen Frog. The event is scheduled to be from noon-7pm, but I expect the party to go on into the night! We will be featuring a Limited-Edition Can Release of Morad NEIPA in honor of WEQX legend Jeff Morad. There will be an Ice Bar featuring Frog Alley beers, Tito’s and Casamigos Drinks in the Ice Luge! The patio will be rockin’ with live music on the outdoor stage by Swimmer, SixFoxWhiskey, and Run River North.”
“Then, on Saturday February 8th we are going to be hosting BREWMAGEDDON BEER FESTIVAL 2020. There will be a VIP hour from 2-3pm and then a general session brewfest. This event will take place throughout the entire brewery including areas not open to the public giving attendees a sneak peek at all the exciting things happening here as well as a chance to drink beer where beer is brewed!”
According to Bodden, BREWMAGEDDON will feature:
- 40+ Breweries from throughout the Northeast Beer direct from the breweries themselves
- Beer poured BY THE BREWERS
- Special releases
- Food Vendors
- Live music by The North & South Dakotas
VIP Tickets are on sale now for $65 and include 1 Extra Hour of Sampling, Mingling and Chatting with the brewers + Souvenir Sampling Glass + a Frog Alley Souvenir + 1 Token for a Pint of Frog Alley Brew in the Taproom. GA Tickets are $45 and include 3 hours of Sampling + Souvenir Sampling Glass.
We’d like to welcome Frog Alley Brewing Company to the great Capital Region craft beer scene and encourage you to take a trip down to Schenectady to check them out. Make an afternoon/evening of it. Check out the brewery, grab a bite to eat and a fresh, local beer, and enjoy innovation. The Mill Artisan District and Frog Alley Brewing are located at 108 State St in downtown. There is plenty of parking behind the brewery.
Monday: 4-8 pm
Tuesday: 4-8 pm
Wednesday: 4-9 pm
Thursday: 4-11 pm
Friday: 4-12 am
Saturday: 12 pm – 12 am,
Sunday: 12 pm – 8 pm