The husband and wife team of Emily and Evan Watson are the first New York brewery to be featured in the TapRm Brewer Spotlight. The couple make up Plan Bee Farm Brewery in Poughkeepsie where they create their unique beers with raw ingredients entirely from New York State!
TapRm: Plan Bee Farm Brewery is located in Poughkeepsie, New York which is roughly 85 miles north of New York City. It was founded in Fishkill, New York but you bought the Poughkeepsie property and renovated it between 2015-2016. Can you take us through the founding of Plan Bee and what that transformation was like for you guys?
Emily: Originally, Evan and I are from the midwest and we moved to Manhattan right after we graduated college in 2007. Evan had a successful music career and we were traveling a lot. We got to the point where we wanted to create roots and build a foundation for our future. Evan had been working at Captain Lawrence Brewery (Elmsford, NY) at the same time he was working on his music career. In 2008 when there was the hop shortage, we were talking about why don’t breweries use local ingredients. Why do we source ingredients from all over the world yet we say “visit your local brewery that’s making local brews?” We had this idea that we wanted to test out and see if it was even feasible to have a brewery that actually uses all local ingredients. We moved out of the City up to Fishkill where we rented a one acre plot and it had an out building next to our house - so we started as a one barrel brewhouse in an 8x10 shed and we grew as much of the ingredients as we could ourselves. We call the two years we were brewing in Fishkill our “Petri Dish Phase” and honestly there wasn’t enough barley in the state of New York to be any bigger than a one barrel brewhouse. That’s why it took us so long to expand out to the ten barrel brewhouse that we have now. In 2015 a lot more malt houses came on line and that’s why we were able to scale up.
At the end 2014 when we decided it was time to locate a property for expansion, one of our friends said “I’ve got this property that’s not on the market yet but it belongs to my father-in-law and I’d really like to show it to you guys.” We went out to the property and it was a mess, it needed a lot of work and it didn’t have any utilities but there was something about it that just had a lot of character. The location itself was so close to downtown Poughkeepsie yet it feels so remote because the 25 acres are really in the middle of 300 acres of open woodlands and farms. It really was this double world where everything was right down the street and yet when you came to the property it felt completely remote. The barn there (where the brewery is located) is very unique. It’s L-shaped, about 5,000 sq ft, and it’s built into the side of the hill. It has this amazing hay loft that has a perfectly pitched roof which is the reason we decided to save the building in the first place. It has beautiful rafters that we’ve kept open so you can see the original structure. We found out that most of the wood that was used to build the barn was sourced and milled on the property itself. It was built some time in the 1830s for livestock.
TapRm: Where did the name Plan Bee originate from?
Emily: It really has a double meaning. Our “Plan A” was for Evan to be a millionaire rockstar and our “Plan B” was to open a brewery so that’s kind of the origin of the name. The brewery was our back up option in life and the bees (hence the spelling) are the reason we are here. The bees play an extremely important role in that they’re foraging for the yeast when they’re touching all the fruits and flowers. When they’re collecting their nectar they’re inadvertently also collecting all these yeast cultures and bacteria from all over our property and depositing them in the honey. Honestly, without the bees we would have no beer at our brewery because we rely on them to source all of our yeast.
TapRm: Plan Bee Farm Brewery's stated goal is to brew with ingredients that are 100% found in New York State. What are some advantages and disadvantages of limiting yourself to just New York? Do you feel New Yorkers connect with the brewery more because of that than they might otherwise?
Evan: I think the limitation is the advantage. Limitations can render things uneasy but by using things that are only from a singular location you’re distinguishing yourself immediately. The history of beer is founded upon limitations. Maltsters on the ground floor of Pilsner Urquell in Prague can only malt to a certain degree because of the way that that grain grew and created Pilsen malt which created pilsner. The brackish waters in Leipzig, Germany is what created gose. Limitations of surroundings are the only way you can get to creating anything of originality. If you look at it like a capitalist, you would say that it fulfills a niche in that it creates and distinguishes yourself in a market that is forever flooding.
I don’t think people understand where ingredients for beers come from but I think they understand what a farm is. You go to a winery and the expectation is agricultural so you to see the product you’re consuming being grown outside the window of the tasting room but that’s not an expectation for beer which is a far more agricultural product that covers much more acreage as a diversity of agriculture and terroir. In the 90s, the craft beer revolution was all about trying to replicate quality ingredients using truro barley, using noble hops, using floor malted English barley, getting Belgian yeast strands - that’s what our DNA as craft brewers is in the United States. It was to fulfill a niche at the time that wasn’t being filled by giant macro beer who actually were the original American farming brewers - they’re the ones that commission the most grain grown in America.
TapRm: Plan Bee is the first New York brewery to be featured on TapRm’s Brewer Spotlight. Much of the state is often ignored in favor of New York City but for a brewery that is actually pretty close to the city and is located on a farm, what is beer culture like in Poughkeepsie?
Emily: In Poughkeepsie we have several breweries but I would say that most of them take on the restaurant-first model that also produce their own beer and are trying to replicate very specific styles that fit into their portfolio for the dining experience. We do see a lot of people from the City come up. One of the reasons we chose our location is because we were only three miles from the train station. Poughkeepsie is the last stop on Metro North so you can travel from Grand Central to Poughkeepsie using the MTA. For us too, we can just jump on a train and get into the City quite easily from our farm. When people come to the tasting room, they are generally from somewhere other than Poughkeepsie.
Evan: We’re very proud of Poughkeepsie but it’s a city that’s seen better days and we’re this old historic piece of it - the only agriculturally zoned part of Poughkeepsie. We’ve been able to garner a lot of friends in the Hudson Valley and people of similar ethos that have gone on to create really great breweries themselves - like Hudson Valley Brewery who we conceptually work through beers with together, Suarez Family Brewery who are our close family friends, Newburgh Brewing Company has been a great ally and friend, Industrial Arts, Captain Lawrence where I used to work, Peekskill - I think of the Hudson Valley as a community that’s deeply influenced me. When I made our barn beer for the first time, I texted each of those brewers to get a little piece of advice for this new process of trying to cool ship the beer with hops on top of it, dropping PHs, all these nuances that I had learned from all these different brewers but also to get them to collaborate with us. There are really great breweries here and I think we’re developing a really great reputation for the area.
TapRm: There is a very green initiative on the farm that you discuss on your website. Talk about the efforts you take to make your farm sustainable and green.
Emily: In 2018 we signed a contract with a community solar farm and the solar fields went in across the street from us. 95% of our electrical use by the end of January will be offset by solar. We’re in the process of working with Brewmation in Fishkill to create a bio digester for us so we can take all of our grain which we currently compost and actually use it to run the brew house off of spent grain. Any effort we can make to reduce our carbon footprint when it comes to sourcing all the things we use for the brewery we’ll look into. All of our farming is organic, we don’t use any sprays or unnatural fertilizers when we’re planting. We have our own well - we wanted to have proprietary water for the brewery but it also helps out the town that we’re not taking water from them for our brewing.
TapRm: In general, what would you say Plan Bee brew's are known for?
Emily: All of our beers are coolship cooled and they’re all fermented in oak. Most of our beers age between three months and eight months before we release them to the public. They all use our proprietary house yeast which is a culture that we cultivate from raw honey from our beehives - very “Poughkeepsian.” They’re all funky and tart and dry and soft. I always tell people that they have layers of subtle complexity that are built in because of the technique and the ingredients that we use. They’re all going to have oak and acidity and some funk and fruit. They’ve got this lemony thing that’s going on. Our beers are 100% unique and are unable to be replicated in any true sense. A Plan Bee beer is a Plan Bee beer because it uses ingredients that nobody else uses.
Emily: At the beginning when we first started our brewery, we only sold at farmers markets. We had such limited exposure to the public that when people wanted to get our beers it was a challenge. We used to say that the only way you know you bought a Plan Bee beer is if Evan or I handed it to you. We developed The Hive as a membership club in which people got every single one of the beers we produced. The amount that we produced was so small that the Hive became all of our revenue and anything they didn’t consume we’d take to farmers markets. Now it’s transformed into a loyalty club where we have people who have been a part of Plan Bee who are effectively our ambassadors. I write monthly newsletters to them which are very private. We get together every six months and celebrate. It’s really become this micro-community that’s a part of who we are. I think our members are fantastic and TapRm is going to make it easier for them to get our beer faster and more frequently. Most of them wait so long to pick up their beer though because they have to come to the farm in-person that we feel like we’re touching that community less and less. TapRm will be able to deliver that beer directly to those members. What’s going to excite them more than being able to drink Plan Bee more often? TapRm will really help us expand that Hive membership because we can reach more people, get them beer quicker, and touch more people that might not know about us yet.
TapRm: TapRm is the exclusive distributor of Plan Bee online. What do you see in the TapRm model that is different from how you've conducted business in the past and what are you most looking forward to in your partnership with this distributor?
Emily: I think it’s a real game changer in the beer market. Craft beer is a market that’s exploding and I think that it’s finally coming to this place where it’s less romantic to stand in line and wait for beer than it used to be. I think getting beer shipped directly to your door is so appealing for so many people who want to taste everything and be able to get their hands on rare beers that they would never have the opportunity to have otherwise. We’ve seen this in the wine industry where people are signing up for wine memberships - what’s more exciting than coming home and there’s alcohol sitting on your doorstep? TapRm could deliver beer to people who travel hours to us maybe once a year more frequently!