By Chris Rowley
Based in an old brick building on the edge of the historic district in Kingston, New York, Keegan Ales is one hot little micro. Keegan’s beers have become favorites up and down the Hudson Valley with about 200 pubs and restaurants forming the core of the cliental.
Inside the building, the pub at the front is an exercise in shabby chic. A mix of wooden benches, old couches and a few tables cling to the walls of a big room. A small square bar sits at one end, and the rest of the space is wide open for dancing.
But, of course it’s early days, this part of the operation has only recently opened.
Already winning a rep for its signature IPA– Hurricane Kitty, and for the legendary Super Kitty, Keegan Ales is the result of Tommy Keegan’s desperate desire to avoid a career in biochemistry.
Of course you could say he hasn’t exactly succeeded since right now he’s riding herd on a few billion cells of yeast, and if that isn’t biochem, I don’t know what it is. But let’s not quibble when the beer’s this good, eh?
Keegan comes from a family steeped in brewing. His great-granddad brewed for Schlitz, back in the day. “And my dad started the Brickhouse brewpub on Long Island,” and that’s where Hurricane Kitty got its start. Hurricane is our family brew.”
The tale behind the name is that Tommy’s grandma was a force of nature behind the wheel of an automobile. “It was back in the sixties, and she was always speeding to get to the ferry, that the cops called her Hurricane.”
“Today, she comes in the bar now and then and people want to get her autograph on whatever’s to hand. Bottles of beer, T-shirts, beermats, and she’s 85, you know, and not accustomed to fame. But, she’s a great sport and she signs stuff.”
With that kind of family background, it’s not a huge surprise to learn, then, that as a youngster ,Tom Keegan brewed his own beer at home. Having started a life long affair with yeasts and other micro-organisms, he went on to become a biochemist. “That’s my bachelor’s degree, but then I went out to UC Davis in California for a Master’s in Brewing. Seemed like a good idea, coming up in a family like mine. Great program they have there, funded in part by Anheuser Busch. In fact about 25% of AB’s brewers go through that program now.
“Then I worked at SUNY Stonybrook. Molecular biology,okay? interesting work, but not exactly fun, you know?
So a solid career at one end of the microscope was developing for him. But the fun was calling and Tommy responded, as if to the call of his ancestors. “Yeah, I moved on to a brewing job at Bluepoint. I was Head Brewer there for a couple of years. Wearing a white lab coat and working in a nice sterile laboratory, hey, I can do that, but it’s not my passion. I prefer getting messy, working with beer.”
Unfortunately, there’s always something, as we all know. And before long he was facing a crisis. He loved his job, but he had a freshly minted young family to house and feed. “Basically I needed more income. So, I was heading back to genetics and all that.”
With heavy heart? So it would seem. Because the next step was not the orthodox one. “Well, what happened was, I heard about the empty building up here in Kingston. You know, the Woodstock Brewery was here in the 90s, but went out of business. Their equipment was here and everything. So after a ton of talk, I cut a deal with the city, bought the building, picked up some of Woodstock’s equipment too and started Keegan’s Ales.”
Okay, we say, and you can keep the white lab coat for some other poor biochemist. But, why Ales? Woodstock’s signature brew, after all, was the sweetish, amber Hudson lager.
“Oh, no brainer. Ale takes three weeks to get to market. A decent lager will take about nine, okay? And you don’t stop with just the one batch, right? You’ve got nine brews in the production line before you start selling the first. So your investment is much, much bigger.
“More than that, the problem with lager for small brewers is consistency. The secret of the big brewers? Blending. The mass market commercial beers are all blends of any number of brews. That’s the brewer’s job there, blending. Used to joke that a can of Bud’s got 57 different brews in it. That’s how they keep it the same, year in, year out.”
Hmmm, and that might answer my own question as to why Bud in LA is subtly different from Bud in NY or Bud in London.
So to the everyday brew at Keegan’s– Old Capital. It’s a light style of ale, an American style, pale gold and lightly hopped.
“Yeah, it’s the American style. I wanted to make a crisp brew, a lager-like beer, simple, easy drinking for the average guy at the end of the day who just wants a couple of beers. We use Cascade Hops, and some Magnum Hops for bittering. It’s not meant to be a big beer at all, it’s a session brew, a beer for anyone.”
The name reflects Kingston’s early history, back in the 1600s, when the town was the first Capital city of the colony of New York, after the English had taken it from the Dutch.
Next up is my personal favorite of Keegan’s every day beers. Hurricane Kitty–a dark copper tone, and a heavy hand with the hops make Kitty a big mouthful of beer and a popular one too. As noted above, the brew began at the Brickhouse brewpub on Long Island, but is now becoming something of a regional favorite with distribution out of Kingston. Cascade and Chinook hops are used, along with plenty of malt.
And then there’s the unusual, but popular–Mother’s Milk. “There’s a lot of dry stouts out there, so we wanted to be different. We actually started out making an oatmeal stout, but then we added a 50 lb bag of lactose to the first batch. It was an experiment, you could say. And those first kegs went out, and next thing we knew we’d won a Gold Medal at a Beer fest up at Hunter Mountain with it. So, we thought, we’ll stay with that, seems to work. And it’s proven to be a very popular beer. Mother’s Milk is a milk stout, a style seen more in the north of England than anywhere else where Mackeson XXX is the best known example. The lactose is a sugar that yeast can’t ferment (eat) so it remains in the brew, giving it its sweetness, and a creamy finish, hence the name.
Leaving the best for last, we have the heavyweight– Super Kitty. 12% alcohol, limited seasonal brew, and basically a Barley Wine. However, Super Kitty is made from the same ingredients as Hurricane Kitty, only more so, and then during a six month conditioning period receives a hundred pounds of local honey, oak chips and several doses of hops. Result is a big honey taste on the palate, along with an oakiness that can seem a bit raw at first. But the trick here is to remember that this is a Barley Wine and it deserves laying away in a dark, cool place, like a wine cellar, for a year or five. In fact I think this one will age gracefully into six, seven or even eight years, for those who can be patient enough. Says Keegan–“Super Kitty is our super beer, something to keep us all interested in the art of brewing.”
If you want some you have to get on the list since production is limited to a few hundred 1 liter bottles and is sold out even before it goes into those bottles.
And then? Yeah, patience. Lay it down and leave it there for at least a year, to let the whole massive structure mellow down and get ready for drinking. When ready it’s a huge beer, all kinds of fruit flavors in the palate, with honey lurking in the background and good bitterness up front. Darned good with food, too. But while we’re waiting for our Super Kitty to mature for some dinner way down the pike, we’ll be settling in with some Old Cap for the ball game, or a pint or two of Super Kitty to go with dinner. And sure, we’ll take a Mother’s Milk as well, for dessert!