Farm to Keg

By Dan Verderosa, August 7, 2019
Alumni-owned Subversive Malting & Brewing crafts truly local beer.

Four years ago, Ithaca College students Max Ocean ’15 and Zane Coffey ’15 entered the college’s Business Plan Competition with an audacious idea: to launch a brewery that would use all local ingredients and malt its own barley. Today, Subversive Malting & Brewing offers a diverse array of lagers and ales at its beer cafe in Catskill, New York, and is on the verge of expanding across the Hudson Valley.

At the height of the farm-to-table movement, Ocean and Coffey are betting that customers care just as much about where the ingredients in their beer come from as they do about the ingredients in their entree. That was the winning pitch they made to the business competition judges. “I think they saw the market opportunity that we saw,” Ocean says. “And we made some home brew and brought that in for samples,” Coffey adds. “That was a fun thing.”

And while some may think that local breweries necessarily use local ingredients, that’s not usually the case. Ocean and Coffey say that ingredients like hops are often sourced from farms thousands of miles away, and sometimes even overseas. They chafe at the name of the latest style to gain popularity among craft beer enthusiasts: the New England IPA. “None of the ingredients even come from New England,” Ocean says.

A large check hanging above steel tanks

The novelty check Max Ocean and Zane Coffey received after winning the 2015 Ithaca College Business Plan Competition hangs in Subversive Malting & Brewing’s production facility. (Photo by Diane Stredicke)

Subversive sources all of its ingredients from New York State. Their version of a New England IPA, dubbed “New York Nectar,” features Cascade, Chinook, Michigan Copper and Tahoma hops grown in New York. “You have to learn how you can elicit a lot of those big, juicy flavors with a different agricultural product than most people brew with,” Coffey says.

In addition to being 100% New York grown, Subversive also sets itself apart by producing its own malt. Malting is the process by which barley is germinated and dried in kilns, developing enzymes that turn starch into fermentable sugars. It also plays a role in developing flavors. “Just like with bread, if you bake it really light you get light flavors,” Coffey says. “If you hit it really hard, you get big, dark, rich flavors.”

The vast majority of breweries purchase their malt from large-scale producers. Subversive is only one of a handful of breweries nationwide that does its own malting. It’s more work, but it gives greater control over the final product. “We can really dial things in and make some really interesting flavors,” Coffey says.

And while some brewers might find malting their own barley and using all local ingredients limiting, Ocean and Coffey see it as a challenge to embrace. Their beer cafe regularly features a diverse lineup of styles, from IPAs to brown ales to wild sours. “We consider that a badge of honor, to showcase the possibilities that there really are,” Coffee says.

Because so few brewers malt their own barley, Ocean and Coffey faced a steep learning curve starting out. Using some of the $25,000 they won in the business competition at IC, Coffey attended an advanced course on malting technology at Hartwick College. They also relied on advice from some of the few craft maltsters in the area, like Valley Malt in Hadley, Massachusetts.

Ocean and Coffey used the rest of their competition winnings to build their own malting equipment and purchase brewing equipment, including a five-barrel brewing system that they still use today.

Ocean and Coffey say entering the business competition as two non-business students — Ocean studied journalism and Coffey environmental studies — was daunting, but pushed them to consider aspects of the business that weren’t previously on their minds, like calculating how much money it would take to start the brewery or how much revenue they’d need to stay afloat.

Subversive has come a long way since then. While the majority of its beer is sold out of the cafe, the brewery has recently moved into a new facility and is undergoing a sooner-than-expected expansion. Once that is complete, Ocean and Coffey hope to sell their beer to numerous farm-to-table restaurants in the Hudson Valley and New York City area, and eventually throughout the state.

“New York’s a big state,” Coffey says. “If you fully saturate New York State, you can sell a lot of beer.”