You’d think brewing great beer that people love would be enough for any brewer. But not for David Katleski, founder of Syracuse, New York-based Empire Brewing Company. Katleski wants his beer to do more – from reducing his brewery’s environmental impact and supporting local businesses, to creating jobs and problem-solving the way to better beer. And he’s managing to do all of that, along with consistently answering to consumers who demand tasty beer (and who may not care about anything else).
Starting where most people would end – with a successful and beloved brewpub in a popular downtown area, Katleski has not only moved to expand his company over the 20 years it has been in business, but has lowered its impact via a number of innovative programs, from composting everything that comes out of his restaurant’s kitchens to sourcing food from over 60 local farmers (using a program the company set up for this purpose).
Empire recycles their waste materials, including water and grains, and they even buy their energy from New York state sources – something Katlestki spearheaded himself. “I live right near Fenner Wind Farm outside Cazenovia and one day I’m looking at Fenner and wondering why I can’t buy my energy from them. And I know that Niagara Falls generates electricity – I couldn’t understand why I was buying renewable energy from the Midwest,” says Katleski, who helped kick off the idea of an energy option from Blue Rock Energy that uses all New York state-produced energy. It's how he powers Empire and is now an option for others as well.
The energy story above is key to Katleski's mode of thinking and one he has repeated successfully several times; identifying a problem or a potentially better way and then working with stakeholders and the local and state government to change. In fact, it helped him make his next step not only beneficial to his business, but to those he partners with as well.
Katleski is now set to break ground on New York state’s first farmstead brewery, which takes all his previous endeavors to the nth degree – while expanding his company significantly. “It’s going to be 22 acres, which includes gardens, edible forests, and the herbs we use in the beer, including acres of lavender, which we use in our White Aphro beer. We want to grow our own hops and some malts,” says Katleski. The new space will offer brew tours and food for visitors on weekends while bringing Empire to the next level – being able to make enough beer so that they can sell six-packs throughout the region; right now they only make kegs of beer at facilities in central New York and Brooklyn.
While the original idea was to set up the brewery in a downtown location using one of the many disused industrial buildings that are remnants of upstate New York’s manufacturing past, Katleski was persuaded instead to build it out in the country, not too far from where the company was already growing ingredients. He looked into the state's past success with wineries to put the idea together.
“I saw that back in 1976 New York state passed a bill to allow for farm wineries; there were only 30 then, and now there are almost 400. With farm wineries followed agritourism. People now tour wineries in Long Island, Niagara Falls, the Finger Lakes, and it’s turned into a strong economic engine for the state. I thought, why can’t breweries have that same kind of designations? And with the popularity of craft beer, we could create farm brewed beer.” With the precedent set, he helped get a similar program going for beer.
Katleski worked with the New York state government and got legislation passed for destination farm brewing about eight months ago. He’s even trying to get farmers to grow barley in-state again (they haven’t grown the kind that makes beer for about 50 years). “I hope to get malted barley back as a staple, and grow hops production and processing. We've seen hops take off in the last five to eight years; but barley production in its infancy. We’re working with Cornell University to do research, to successfully make the transition,” he says.
How did Katleski get motivated to start thinking about the impacts – both economic and environmental – of his chosen career? It started, like it does for so many people’s sustainability journeys, with food: "Someone along the line asked me about the carbon footprint of the food we served. So, about seven years ago, we did an analysis for every single item on our menu, and we checked how far it traveled. We determined the average piece of food we served in our restaurant traveled 3,000 miles. That freaked me out," says Katleski.
Despite all the innovative and forward-thinking ideas that seem to have spring from Katleski, he says many of them come from his 70 employees – it helps that sustainability is automatically on the agenda at the company’s twice-monthly meetings. And towards that end – knowing that engaged employees make a better company – Empire is set to become an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) company in the near future.
Brewing beer has a long and storied history, but the good news is that while brewers can be competitive, they are more likely to share what they know and work together; already other New York breweries (most smaller than Empire) are looking to do some kind of farmstead brewing.
Brewing beer is as much an art as it is a science, and successful brewers know how to balance the two – Empire Brewing Company is doing so much more.
Related stories on MNN: