From Bombers to Brewers

By Molly Sheets '24, September 23, 2022

Alumni open malthouse and brewery after winning college competition.

This is the scene outside of Subversive Malting and Brewing on any given autumn or winter night: customers surround crackling outdoor fires drinking beer, wine, and ciders. Inside the taproom, other patrons chat and enjoy burgers and pretzels. Despite the cold weather outside, everyone remains warm and enjoys the beverages made from floor malted local grains.

Those customers, huddled together in Catskill, New York, probably don’t know that the co-owners of Subversive, Zane Coffey ’15 and Max Ocean ’15, kickstarted their business in 2015 at the second annual Ithaca College Business Plan Competition, which allowed students to pitch their business ideas in hopes of receiving funding. That’s when Subversive, a brewery and malthouse concept created by Coffey, Ocean, and fellow senior Daniel Minogue ’15, took home the first-place prize of $20,000.  

“We definitely surprised ourselves coming away victorious,” said Ocean, who was a journalism major. “I think we were the only team that participated that didn’t have at least one business major involved.”

Nonetheless, Ocean felt that the group’s presentation highlighted a new, “niche” market that helped them stand out from their competitors: sourcing everything locally. 

“I think the judges saw how serious we were about our idea and [were impressed by] the way that we sort of honed-in on something that was a developing industry in New York State,” Ocean said. “Specifically, the supply chain side of local craft beer, not just the customer facing and brewing manufacturing side. It was a unique idea at that point, and it certainly still is.” 

“The competition and the faculty support around it, and the fact that the prize was as substantial as it was, were definitely motivators for us. Without that, and the money that we won, I don’t think we would’ve tried to make this a reality.” 

Max Ocean ’15

Three years later, Subversive Malting and Brewing officially opened their doors. The brewing company began as a small operation produced out of a barn in Livingston, N.Y. Within a year, they expanded their production operations and moved into an old mechanic’s garage located in Catskill. An on-site taproom was added in early 2020. 

Max and Zane holding their check at the business plan

The pair keep the reward check they received from the Ithaca College Business Plan Competition behind the bar to remind them of the event that helped kickstart their careers. (Photo submitted)

While it’s grown over the years, the company’s roots can be traced to winning the business competition at IC. That helped the three take their idea even more seriously, Ocean said. 

“The competition and the faculty support around it, and the fact that the prize was as substantial as it was, were definitely motivators for us,” he said. “Without that, and the money that we won, I don’t think we would’ve tried to make this a reality. It bought some critical components of our original brewhouse.” 

To remember the award that fostered their career, Coffey and Ocean keep the reward check close by. 

“It still hangs behind the bar,” Ocean said. “People love it, and we get asked about it all the time.”

While the check is a conversation piece, it’s the drinks that keep people coming back. For Subversive it’s the malting component of their drinks that make the business different from other breweries. 

Malt is one of the four essential ingredients needed to produce craft beer; providing color, aroma, flavor, and body to ales and lagers, and it is made by converting barley, the preferred grain for making beer, into malted barley.

Typically, that process is done at a very large scale, often at factories in the Midwest, which then sell that product to establishments. However, by doing their own malting in-house, Coffey and Ocean ensure support for their local supply chain. 

“We really care about a local supply chain and supporting local farmers,” he said. “This model enables us to buy grain directly from farmers and have a hyperlocal supply chain. In the Hudson Valley, where we grew up, the farm to table scene really started exploding while we were in high school. This model made a lot of sense to me and helped me explore the intersection of craft beer and local agriculture.” 

“Having a combination malthouse and brewery is what makes us unique,” Ocean said. “The way that we make beer is the same way it was made in the beginning of brewing history.” 

“There is a lot to be said for the energy, enthusiasm, and confidence you can gain from a liberal arts college experience. What I enjoyed in my college experience was being able to take on projects and make them my own. I think that is the same mindset that we bring to this business, it’s problem solving at every turn.” 

Max Ocean '15

Coffey, who was an environmental studies major at IC, and Ocean both attended the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School in Ghent N.Y. and played on the same sports teams. However, their friendship truly blossomed while attending IC. It was there where the two began homebrewing together on Cayuga Lake after classes and during the weekends. The ritual eventually snowballed into their business idea, which now has turned into a career. 

“[Zane] introduced me to brewing,” Ocean said. “He’s the brewer and the more technically minded one, and I’m the one who brings a more creative imagination to the business.” 

In addition to deepening his connection to his business partner, Ocean said that the liberal arts education he received at Ithaca College has taught him important life skills that lead to his future career. 

“There is a lot to be said for the energy, enthusiasm, and confidence you can gain from a liberal arts college experience,” he said. “What I enjoyed in my college experience was being able to take on projects and make them my own. I think that is the same mindset that we bring to this business, it’s problem solving at every turn.”