While Adirondack breweries are seeing continued growth, has craft beer reached a saturation point?
By Mike De Socio
When young people approach Mark Jessie, the owner of Raquette River Brewing in Tupper Lake, to ask for advice on opening a new brewery, he’s quick to tell them it’s not a matter of hanging around, making and drinking beer all day.
“This is a business, and it’s an extremely demanding business,” Jessie said.
A business of 16-hour days, complicated paperwork and now intense competition, as craft breweries have proliferated in New York state, including the Adirondacks region. Statewide, the number of breweries has gone from 95 in 2012, to 415 in 2018, the most of any time in state history.
Twelve of those breweries are located within the Adirondack Park, according to Chris Ericson, president of the New York State Brewers Association, and owner of Big Slide Brewery and Lake Placid Pub and Brewery.
That makes for a somewhat saturated craft beer market in the Adirondacks, leaving little room for growth, especially in the challenging economic environment brought on by the pandemic. Well-established brands are still keen on expansion, according to several brewers in the Adirondacks; but completely new startups might have a hard time gaining a foothold.
“All the obvious choices are taken, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some places that would benefit and would be cool spaces for new breweries,” Ericson said.
Entrepreneurs will have to be smart about how they size and locate new businesses. Ericson would know: He recently purchased a property at 79 Woodruff St. in Saranac Lake where he plans to open the third location for his business.
He wasn’t ready to share additional details, but a real estate listing for the property described an 8,600-square-foot building fronting the Saranac River.
“The Saranac Lake community has been ripe for a brewpub,” Ericson said.
Making the most of a pandemic year
Ericson’s existing businesses in Lake Placid are coming off a relatively successful year, pandemic aside.
“Business actually has been as good as it can be, we’ve been busy,” he said.
With hotels in Lake Placid still allowed to fill to 100 percent capacity but restaurants limited to 50 percent, Ericson said there’s been enough tourism to keep most establishments in town busy. But Ericson has noticed a shift away from conference-heavy travel to more families and local visitors who are driving demand for both dine-in and takeout meals.
The biggest remaining challenge for Ericson is finding employees as operations scale up again. He said he has job postings for nearly every position in both locations, and the second floor at Lake Placid Pub and Brewery remains closed for lack of staff.
Jessie of Raquette River Brewing has also found success in an otherwise challenging year.
Jessie brought on more employees than he’s ever had in seven years of business, because he needed help waiting tables under Covid dining restrictions.
Now that cold weather has limited Raquette River Brewing to indoor seating, wholesale business has gone up as people are drinking more beer from home.
“Our cans have pretty much saved the day, because it’s what people want,” Jessie said. In a stroke of good luck, he had just installed a canning line right before the pandemic arrived. The business has also started filling kegs again as restaurants and bars have reopened.
At Paradox Brewery in North Hudson, the pandemic hit two weeks after it opened a new, 25,000-square-foot facility and tasting room — a big step up from the notoriously small location it previously occupied. The new property includes 15 acres, leaving plenty of outdoor space that allowed Paradox to seat 500 guests under Covid restrictions this summer.
“It wasn’t a bad summer, we did well during the summer. We’re still doing okay now too,” said Paul Mrocka, president and co-founder of Paradox.
He’s still confident in Paradox’s expansion, and said it has allowed the business to increase efficiency and keep up with demand for canned beer during the pandemic.
Strategic about growth
Despite the challenges, all three breweries are still in growth mode, but with the benefit of brand recognition and business savvy behind them.
That’s essential in the time of Covid, when on-site sales are down and these breweries are relying a lot on cans.
“There’s a lot of them out there, some are good, some are bad, but they’re still filling the shelf space,” Mrocka said.
That will make it hard for new players to jostle their way in and stand out. That’s why Devon Hamilton, director of operations at Paradox, says the real opportunity for growth is with on-premise sales. But that, too, comes with a caveat.
“I would be hesitant if I were opening a brewery right now if I didn’t have a good spot in a downtown location,” Hamilton said.
Few downtowns in the Adirondacks are without a brewery at this point. Branching out to the western Adirondacks is a possibility, but may be more risky.
“I don’t think you have the population there,” Mrocka said.
Plus, the further out you go, the more challenging distribution becomes.
“Even shipping your beer gets more expensive if you can’t get there from here,” Hamilton said, noting Paradox’s location right off the I-87 Northway. Higher shipping costs translates to higher sticker price on the beer, which puts you at a disadvantage on the shelf.
Jessie said it’s hard to say when the Adirondacks will reach the point of having too many breweries.
“I would imagine there’s some room for a little more growth. It’s tricky, you don’t want five breweries in one little town, but there’s definitely some towns with no breweries,” he said. “
Jessie has been thinking about expanding Raquette River Brewing for a few years now; the business brews 8,500 barrels of beer annually on a 10-barrel system, but has a hard time keeping up during the summer.
Shifting tastes and demographics also bode well for the continued growth of craft breweries.
“It’s not like the old days where somebody picked a brand like Miller or Bud and said, ‘This is all I’m ever going to drink,’” Jessie said. Now consumers are interested in trying a little bit of everything, and are favoring quality over quantity.
Ericson, who’s been in the business for about 25 years, said we’re now at a point where everyone has grown up with craft beer choices. And with craft beer accounting for about 14% of the total beer market, he sees room to grow.
“It’s much more accessible and much more front of mind than it ever has been,” he said.
A close-knit community
Regardless of whether the industry continues on this trajectory in the Adirondacks, each of the brewers emphasized the need for continued collaboration and partnership.
Jessie doesn’t see new breweries as competition, but more so as community. He said they’re all eager to support and promote each other.
“The more breweries there are, the more we need to do that,” Jessie said.
Ericson said it speaks to the unique character of craft breweries in this region.
“We really integrate ourselves into local communities and I think that lines up really well in the Adirondacks way of life,” he said.
Especially in the pandemic, Ericson said the support of local customers, bars and restaurants is essential to keep these small businesses open. And just as breweries are often called on to donate to local groups like the Rotary Club, the support must flow both ways.
“Now it’s time for the Rotarians to make sure they are buying our beer,” Ericson said.
The mix of stress, uncertainty and growth that craft brewers have seen over the past year may be best summed up by Mrocka at Paradox Brewing: “It’s a difficult time, but we’re surviving.”