It was just an idea. One afternoon, retail salesman Terry Vestal and
real estate appraiser Dan Cleary were kicking back a few cold ones. “We
were drinking beer in the garage,” Cleary remembers. “Just a couple of
guys drinking and dreaming.”
From that dream, the Cortland Beer Company (CBC) was born. It made sense. Vestal had experience with retail beer sales, and Cleary had the time to develop a marketing strategy. Plus, there wasn’t a true microbrewery in town. On Feb. 23, Central New Yorkers swigged the company’s first beer, Crown City Kolsch, at Cortland’s Chill-A-Bration winter festival.
Cortland suds factory: Although the beer is brewed in
Otsego County, Crown City Kolsch was created and will eventually be
produced in Cortland. Jordan Edwards photo.
Cleary describes the brew as a crisp, golden pilsner. “It’s a very drinkable beer,” he says, “the kind you can enjoy in late spring and drink throughout the summer.” Vestal adds that the taste was modeled after classic kolsch beers that came out of Cologne, Germany.
A brewery doesn’t build itself; to get off the ground, support from community leaders is needed. For a boost, Cleary and Vestal turned to Lloyd Purdy, Cortland’s city manager. Cleary and Purdy knew each other from 40 Below Cortland, a group of young professionals who devise business plans for the city that sits about 30 miles south of Syracuse.
“When Dan shared this idea with me, I knew it was something worth pursuing,” Purdy explains. “He’s the right guy for the job.” Purdy liked the idea of a local brewery, and made the push for CBC to debut their beer at Chill-A-Bration.
A plan was in place, but major roadblocks threatened to kill the company before it was born. First, a worldwide shortage of hops has slowed beer production in even large breweries. Some estimates put the price of beer’s key ingredient at $35 a pound as opposed to $3 this time last year. To combat this limitation, the guys teamed with Chuck Williamson of Butternuts Beer & Ale in Garratsville. For the time being, the Otsego County-based facility will brew all of the beer distributed under the CBC name. With supplies limited, Vestal saw no other option for CBC. “It just made more sense to contract for the first year or so,” he says.
Cleary doesn’t mind trusting production to Butternuts, either. He estimated startup cost for tanks, equipment and materials can fall somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000.
After agreeing to brew the first beer, Williamson encouraged Cleary to start out with a pilsner—something that would be a hit with local college students and everyday beer drinkers. “Once you have that flagship product, you can go anywhere you need to go,” Williamson says.
The other hurdle CBC faced was Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s recent enforcement of existing liquor and distribution laws. “It’s getting tough to promote yourself in New York state,” Cleary says. “They’re really starting to clamp down.” That includes limits on things like who can pour beer and how many materials, capped by a dollar amount, a brewery can give to an individual bar or restaurant to promote their product.
These obstacles have been hard to overcome, but Cleary and Vestal predict a bright future. CBC has already caught the attention of the small but passionate “hop heads” that chat up brews across the Internet. Posts about CBC have popped up on sites like www.beeradvocate.com and www.probrewer.com. “It’s a grass-roots community,” Williamson, explains, “but it’s not live or die.”
That community lends the kind of support that makes all the red tape and long hours worth the trouble. “It’s a fun job,” Vestal says. “Everyone’s really nice. It’s not a cutthroat business.”
After the final license from the state is in hand, CBC plans to shop the beer to businesses up and down Cortland’s Main Street. Eventually, they hope to open their own brew pub and expand to Ithaca and Syracuse. Growing the brand means self-promotion, tastings and selling the beer to bars one bottle at a time. It’s a process that drains the mind as much as the pocketbook. “It’s very time-consuming. You really got to do a lot of research and get your ducks in a row,” Vestal says.
With the beer community buzzing, CBC plans to release another product by the end of the year. But all those hopes don’t mean anything if the beer isn’t good. “Once you taste it, and it’s crap, you’re done.” Cleary notes.
For now, the men of CBC stand by their suds as they make the transition from beer lovers to full-time beer makers. Cleary thinks the brewmaster hat fits just right. “I’m the kind of guy who can’t work for anyone else. I’m always kicking ideas around.” ❏