A marketing guru would probably charge a king’s ransom to create what has come naturally for Middle Ages Brewery in Syracuse, N.Y. A birthday card inspired the brewery’s name, while love of the British comedy troupe Monty Python helped the brewers name their flagship beer and provided a theme for those that followed.
Of course a marketing guru also would have told the brewery not to mess with that archaic beer style from across the Atlantic Ocean — the one the British call “real ale.”
Although cask-conditioned ales make up a relatively small percentage of Middle Ages’ overall beer sales, the brewery qualifies as one of the major distributing real ale producers in the United States. Six accounts move between 50 and 60 firkins (British casks, each of which holds 10.8 American gallons) a month.
About half of Middle Ages’ beer sales are draft, and only 10 percent of those are cask beer. But the commitment to real ale is an example of why owners Mary and Marc Rubenstein consider it a compliment when they hear their business called “medieval.” The theme replays daily in the brewery, where Marc skims the yeast from open fermenters to be used in the next batch, as well as in the marketplace, where each of the distinctive labels recalls the days of King Arthur.
“I gave Marc a card on his 40th birthday that said, ‘Welcome to the middle ages,’” says Mary Rubenstein, the company president. Long before, the Rubensteins had called their first really tasty homebrew Holy Grail Pale Ale, in tribute to the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
The Rubensteins began home-brewing together in the mid-1980s. “I really liked beer; she liked wine,” Marc says. “The appeal was doing something together. She’s a wonderful cook, so it came easy to her.” Marc brews on his own these days. “Mary can brew, but she can’t get out of the office,” he says.
They got serious about opening a brewery in 1992. “It was something we had a passion to do and something we could do together,” Marc says. He was running his family’s scrap metal business, and Mary was a medical technologist. They spent three weeks at Alan Pugsley’s brewing school at Kennebunkport Brewing Co. in Kennebunk, Maine, then toured about 25 breweries in the West. “At that time everybody was really accessible, willing to trade information,” Marc says.
Back in Syracuse they went shopping for a building, looking at more than 100 before ending up in a former Sealtest ice cream factory. The 9,000-square-foot plant had some of the required floor drains but needed about 4,000 square feet of new concrete. They installed a 30-barrel Peter Austin system with four open fermenters. Current capacity is 6,200 barrels per year, and there’s room to expand.
The building sits in a former industrial area of Syracuse, where city officials are offering tax incentives, utility price breaks, and other inducements to attract new businesses. The Rubensteins, obviously, were not just homebrewers with dreams of entrepreneurship. They used funds from the sale of Marc’s family business and borrowed money from a bank with which they already had a relationship because of the business. “Syracuse is a small town, really,” Marc says. “I’ve been going to the same car dealer for 25 years.”
They sold their first draft beer at the end of May 1995 and had bottles on shelves only a few weeks later.
Grail Ale is the brewery’s flagship beer. It’s tamer now than when it was the homebrew called Holy Grail Pale Ale. “In the first six months (of homebrewing) I tended to overhop beers,” Marc says. He calls Holy Grail “more of a dark amber,” although it remains relatively hoppy at 38 International Bittering Units and packs a punch (1.050 original gravity, 5 percent alcohol by volume). Pale, crystal, chocolate, and cara-pils malts go into a wort hopped with Cascade, Northern Brewer, and Tettnanger.
Rubenstein uses British Muntons’ malts but American hops in the four beers sold in bottles: Grail Ale, White Knight (a golden ale), Beast Bitter (1.053 OG, 45 IBUs), and the seasonal Winter Wizard (a winter warmer, 1.060 OG and 6.3 ABV). “The British hops are twice as expensive,” he says, “and getting them fresh can be a real problem.”
The brewery launched a Family Jewels series in 1996 — draft-only beers intended to be available on a limited basis, though some proved so popular they were held over. Rubenstein sometimes uses British hops in the seasonal beers, such as Old Marcus, a strong bitter. “I’m such a Goldings fan, and I missed them so much, I had to do it,” he says.
Middle Ages beers are fermented with Ringwood yeast, which is common to the dozens of Austin breweries Alan Pugsley helped open in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. The distinctive yeast is easily recognized and often receives either very positive or quite negative reviews. Of course Rubenstein is a fan. “The mistake a lot of breweries make is in the water treatment, and the beers come out tasting really dry,” he says. He softens his local water to avoid that.
The yeast, which quickly drops bright in a firkin, works particularly well in cask beers. Middle Ages began shipping cask beer within months after it opened. William Taggert, who had just opened the Rose & Crown in Rochester, N.Y., after working at another Rochester British pub, The Old Toad, was the first customer. Those Rochester pubs are rare because they have separate “cellars” for British firkins, where the casks are put in stillage and conditioned at the proper temperature for the correct amount of time.
“Cask beer is really for the people who care a lot,” Rubenstein says. “I do it more for myself.”
The brewery owned 10 firkins when the Rose & Crown started selling cask beer. Today it has 90. Two Syracuse bars, Clark’s Ale House and the Blue Tusk, sell cask beer, along with the two in Rochester, one in Buffalo, and one in New York City.
The Rubensteins have been very careful about who they’ll let serve such a fragile product. “We only sell it to somebody who begs,” Mary says. “If the beer is off, the only people who look bad are us.”
Each of the six cask accounts usually drains a firkin in less than three days. The beer was moving even more quickly in 1996 when the Highlander Brewery was operating in New York City. The Highlander originally opened as a brewpub-in-waiting, serving mostly cask-conditioned beer brewed at Middle Ages. “We were going through nearly 100 casks a month,” Mary says. Despite moving that much beer, the quasi-brewpub quit selling the Highlander beers only months after opening. Middle Ages now owns the brand names, and Highlander 80 is one of its seasonal beers.
Although Middle Ages ships beer to New York City, Connecticut, and parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, most of its accounts are in upstate New York. “We’ve stretched out a little more because we weren’t able to sell as much in our town as we wanted,” Marc says. “Hopefully we’ll be able to pull back a little as we sell more beer here.”
They knew going in that Genesee brewed beer with a strong regional following just up the road in Rochester and that Coors Light, Labatt’s, Budweiser, and Pabst were the top-selling beers in Syracuse. They didn’t realize, however, how much trouble they would have getting beers distributed. “We’ve ended up self-distributing through most of the state, and that wasn’t in our business plan,” Marc says.
Getting shelf space in chain stores has been particularly challenging, but bar owners have been supportive. “Having two great beer bars (Clark’s and the Blue Tusk) in your town really helps word-of-mouth.”
One of Peter Austin’s classic statements is that a brewery shouldn’t sell beer farther from its door than a horse can walk in a day. The Rubensteins might amend that to allow the use of a truck, but otherwise they agree.
“Our personal preference is cask,” Mary says. “Then it would be draft, but you get a lot more exposure with the bottles.”
Even those are better close to home. “We just want to make good beer for our region,” Marc says. “I come from a small family business and that’s what this is, too.”
Middle Ages Brewing Co., is located at 120 Wilkinson St., Syracuse, N.Y. For information call (315) 476-4250.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of the Beer Travelers Guide, which lists more than 1,700 brewpubs, bars, and restaurants in the United States that serve flavorful beer.