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featured story: Empire State Development

Business is brewing

David Katleski is building an empire with new craft beers

In 2010, after over two decades of brewing beer, David Katleski’s timing was right. Business at his Syracuse-based Empire Brewing company was going great, and, wanting to expand, he decided to spring for 22 acres in Cazenovia, the Central New York town where he’d lived for the past 13 years. This time, Katleski wanted to tap into the potential he saw for success in the craft brewing and agritourism businesses: “Beer is an agricultural product. We wanted to be able to show the consumer and customers that are interested in brewing what beer looks like — in other words, the hops, and the barley, and the wheat, and the rye.” Katleski decided to turn 40,000-square-feet of his land into Empire Farmstead Brewery.

For Empire Farmstead Brewery, Katleski wanted to highlight sustainable agriculture — a system that is heralded today as both environmentally sound and industry transforming. Under a sustainability model, nearly everything that contributes to a farm’s operation is reused in a way that avoids waste and pesticides. So, in addition to cultivating a handful of unique ingredients for his craft beers — ingredients from lavender to Thai basil — Katleski opened a restaurant on the property to feed his customers and make his farm truly sustainable.

A cooperative environment
Katleski shares his products with Meadows Farm across the street: Meadows takes Empire’s leftover spent grain to feed their cattle — cattle that then wind up on the menu at the Brewery’s restaurant. Meadows Farm also happens to produce Wagyu beef, named after the lauded breed of Japanese cow, and sells 95 percent of its beef back to Farmstead. “It doesn’t get any more farm-to-farm than that,” Katleski notes. Empire Farmstead Brewery opened in June of 2016, and Katleski is aiming for visitors from around the world to visit the farm.

Katleski is a longtime member of the craft brewing industry dating back to 1994, when he and a partner opened the original Empire Brewing brewpub in Syracuse’s Armory Square, followed by a second location in Rochester and a third in Buffalo. Between the strains of a large expansion and the immediate post-9/11 business climate, business faltered, and they closed all three locations.

Undeterred, Katleski decided to get involved in the other side of the equation. In 2003 he founded the New York State Brewers Association to lobby on behalf of New York craft brewers — including, of course, competing breweries, but that’s simply the kind of commitment Katleski has always had to the industry. By 2007, Katleski was able to reopen his Armory Square location and pick up right where he left off: expanding.

Crafting a future
It’s a great time to be in New York in part because of the Upstate Revitalization Initiative, a program launched in 2015 to revitalize the Upstate economy. Central New York was also one of three regions awarded $500 million based on strategic plans and projects. Throughout New York State, the craft brewing industry has grown significantly in the 21st century — doubling in the past four years alone — and Katleski believes there’s even more room for growth. “Pre-Prohibition Madison County was the hop growing capital of the country,” when the state had only 5 million residents, he says. “We now have 25 million people and 288 breweries.”

In 2012, Governor Cuomo signed the farm Brewing Law into effect as a significant step in New York’s ongoing commitment to increase the supply and demand of locally sourced products. Katleski explains that under that legislation, New York breweries benefit if they get a significant percentage of their hops and other ingredients from state farms. In his case, the tax breaks allowed him to expand. It also enables Katleski to also sell a pint at Empire Farmstead Brewery — a huge boon to business. He has increased production from 4,500 barrels a year to roughly 25,000 through the expansion into his new location.

Rich in connections
Amid the vast array of partnerships between universities and industries in New York State, Katleski is also looking toward the state’s educational institutions to help advance his industry. Empire Brewing is a participant in START-UP NY, and in 2015 was the first with the program to break ground on an expansion project in Central New York. Through START-UP NY, Empire Farmstead Brewery has partnered with its SUNY Morrisville neighbor to create a farm, a culinary program, and a degree program in Brewing Studies.

Morrisville’s labs are working to create farming innovations that will apply across the industry, while Cornell University is also helping to produce a new kind of seed suited specifically to growth in New York. Katleski has come to embrace technology advances like renewable energy. He notes that products like the anaerobic digester Morrisville is building helps create biodegradable material, which enables Empire Farmstead Brewery to dispose of waste and help fuel the campus at the same time.

Central New York also offers the kind of agricultural and regional backbone that’s exciting for visitors, students and employees. Katleski says that a great deal of his interest in providing an agri-tourism experience comes “from an educational standpoint, so the customer can walk around and take a look at what hops look like, smell like, and feel like.” Employees of Empire Farmstead Brewery use the treehouse Katleski built to foster community. It was designed 20 feet off the ground and is furnished with a deck and area to sleep four in case employees need a place to relax.

Katleski mentions that his connections in the region are also fueling his business growth. He has found success distributing his beer throughout Mainland China thanks in part to trade missions led by Global NY. Global NY, an initiative launched by Governor Cuomo in 2014, helps New York State businesses enter the global market, and to expand their presence there. Through those new connections, Empire Brewing partnered with a Chinese tea company, Jing Wei Fu Tea, and became an international company.

Back at home, Katleski finds the green space, quality water, and proximity to Route 81 — which takes his products anywhere in the country — fantastic from both a quality of life and business perspective. He says that the region’s beauty and excellent Blue Ribbon schools appeal to individuals and families coming to visit or work at Empire Farmstead Brewery. “A wise man once told me, ‘If you could figure out a way to live in Central New York, but make money everywhere else, then you have it figured out,'” Katleski says. And he’s doing just that.

For more information on the craft beverage industry in New York State, contact Molly Bauer at [email protected] or ​(518) 292-5200.

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