Meet Keegan Ales

Nestled in the heart of downtown Kingston, NY, Keegan Ales could be considered an elder statesman in the growing craft beer scene in upstate New York. Founded by Tommy Keegan in 2003, Keegan Ales operates not only a brewery, but a lively brewpub that is the centerpiece to life in Kingston. Their beer is widely distributed in the region and their flagships, Old Capital, Hurricane Kitty and Mother’s Milk, have won numerous awards. We recently sat down with Owner and Brewmaster Tommy Keegan to learn more about his approach to brewing.

BREWMATES: So how did you end up getting started as brewer?

TOMMY KEEGAN: I was studying biochemistry at San Francisco State University and then I went on and got a master's degree in fermentation science at UC Davis. I expected to become a brewer in one of the large breweries, maybe running quality assurance or running yeast banks or something like that. I expected to become a brewer with a lab coat kind of thing and as fate had it, I ended up here in Kingston with my own brewery.

BREWMATES: Did you start out with homebrewing?

TOMMY KEEGAN: Yeah. I was living in an apartment on the third floor in a flat in San Francisco and homebrewing in a small urban kitchen. There were a lot of mistakes, you know? There were a lot of times when things did not turn out the way I expected them to do, but I just kept doing it and doing it and doing it. There were batches that we threw down the drain, there were batches we choked down and pretended that weren't that bad. I just kept making beers that I liked drinking. That’s the secret: Make beers that you like drinking and then nail that recipe down every time.

BREWMATES: Tell us about the setup at Keegan Ales.  

TOMMY KEEGAN: When we started Keegan Ales, I started this brewery with three beers and those three beers only had one yeast strain, five different types of malt, and three different types of hops, I think, and that was the whole company for five years. We just nailed it, nailed it, nailed it.

We have a 20 barrel brewhouse. If you think of a keg of beer, like a regular keg in a backyard, that's half a barrel. At one time, we brew 40 kegs worth of beer and we can run that system twice in a nine hour day, where we take the grain and the water and do the mash and then the boil and then get that into the fermenter. We can do that two times in one shift. Then we've got several 40 barrel fermenters and then several 80 barrel fermenters, which if we're brewing into our 80 barrel fermenters, we'll usually brew two times on one day, and then do the same thing again and we'll fill it halfway up and then fill it up the rest of the way the next day.

BREWMATES: So how much beer are you making?

TOMMY KEEGAN: We just did a pretty significant expansion over the last year in the brewery itself, so now we're up to where we have the capacity to make about 10,000 barrels of beer or 20,000 kegs of beer per year. Right now we're at about 6,000, 6,500, somewhere in that range.

BREWMATES: That’s great!

TOMMY KEEGAN: Yeah, we've got a little room to grow.

BREWMATES: So you’ve gone from homebrewing to operating your own brewery and brewpub in Kingston, NY. How does that feel?

TOMMY KEEGAN: I think it's kind of kooky, because it's my job, so I should think of myself as a professional in the industry, but at the same time I still get jazzed up every time I see somebody actually paying for beer that I make, because I would still do this in my garage for free. I was happy that my friends would choke one down and smile when the beer was really bad, like, yeah, this ain't too bad, you know? Now I go to the supermarket, totally unrelated to work, like I'm on my way home just picking up eggs and milk like everybody else, and I see the person in front of me and they've got a six pack of my Mother's Milk in their cart. We've all been to supermarkets, there's a lot of beers out there to choose from and the fact that somebody out of that whole shelf, that whole wall of beer decided to give me $11, it's humbling, it's rewarding, you know?

I mean there's a lot of great breweries out there these days and I think everybody has to find their niche and I think ours is we just make good, clean everyday beers for everyday people. Simple, clean, beers that you can drink.

All these kinds of guys, scientists, doctors, whatever, lawyers, judges, I see them come in here on Friday night and they've had a stressful week and they come in and they get a sip of beer and then I can physically see their shoulders round over on a Friday afternoon and they're like, "Ah." People say we sell beer, and we do sell beer, but we sell reset buttons too, you know? That's the payback for me, is to see people like after a stressful week kind of go, "Okay. Great. Good thing Keegan Ales is here, because I needed a freaking beer today."

BREWMATES: So why did you partner with Brewmates?

TOMMY KEEGAN: Because I can see immediately how they would give the beginning homebrewer the confidence to be able to go out, make a beer that they enjoy drinking and then feel proud about serving to their friends and family at the end of the day. I know it's a daunting task and it's kind of nerve wracking a little bit and people don't always understand all the details in between. Brewmates will be good at taking those initial anxieties away for you.

BREWMATES: Tell us about the recipe we’ll be releasing in your Brewmates kit.

TOMMY KEEGAN: The recipe that we decided to share with Brewmates is a California Common, which is a traditional West Coast style beer that it began back in the gold rush days when everybody was running out west to chase the gold in California, San Francisco specifically. Then the brewers that came to feed those guys beers were Germans and they used lager yeast and lager yeast usually is fermented at a colder temperatures, but they were in San Francisco and didn't have refrigeration. It's an ale like beer using lager style yeast. The reason we chose that is it's a relatively simple style, it's not very complex, there's not a lot of moving parts to it, but it still has a lot of body, a lot of color, a lot of flavor. Some commercial examples, well the biggest commercial example is Anchor Steam. Anchor Brewing Company is the first brewery that I ever worked at, actually, and that's another reason, because it's near and dear to my heart.

BREWMATES: What tips do you have for the homebrewer just starting out?

TOMMY KEEGAN: It's very easy to make good beer at home. Very easy to make good beer at home. Our setup is just a big pot. That's all it is, man. You throw some hot water in there, you throw some grain in there. The key is to do it the same every time and write it down. Always clean everything and then clean it again. You can't get stuff too clean, just sanitation, sanitation, sanitation. I think, personally, one of the great things for the homebrewer is as the craft industry is booming it's also flourishing all these new creative ideas. People are using ingredients like never before and people are trying and experimenting in ways unheard of a 100 years ago or 50 or 10 years ago and I think that gives the homebrewer, or it should give the homebrewer, the confidence to play around a little bit, you know? You want to make whatever, man, you got a load of bananas that are going bad? Throw some bananas in there. Whatever, it's not going to kill anybody, you know? If it's not your favorite don't do that again. If it turns out like, wow, that was unexpectedly cool, do that again or do that and throw some raspberries in it or whatever. Whatever. I think the emergence of the craft brewing industry going on right now is definitely giving people more confidence and more creativity.

Ryan Pointer