By Daniel Bean
Edited by Kevin Wise
With the craft beer industry continuing to grow in Western New York, beer enthusiasts look for the next big brewery to open its doors. However, it is the little gems you find that often provide the personal feel and experience that exemplify craft beer in its rawest form. From the gravel parking lot to the handcrafted wooden tap handles and bar just a few yards from the brewing area, this is not a hipster hangout or a mega sports bar. It’s Griff’s Brewery in the scenic community of Spencerport, NY, and it feels like home.
“It’s a small quiet place, no TVs, it is very community based, so we encourage an old fashioned thing called ‘conversation’ here and it works,” said Shawn Griffin, owner and head brewer at Griff’s. “We see all walks of life sitting at the bar collaborating together.”
It’s definitely an old fashioned saloon, more or less. You have the people you’re sitting with to enjoy along with the beer.
Griff’s Brewery opened their new 2,100-square-foot brewery and tap room at 5324 West Ridge Road in January. It is only an hour drive from Buffalo and less than 15-minutes from downtown Rochester. The brewery features an often changing selection of small batch craft brews ranging from the simplistic “BEER” for those just entering the craft brew world to more complex flavors such as Doppelganger Black IPA, Lawnmower Fuel, and Smoke on the Porter.
“I don’t want to be known for any specific style, I try to do a wide range, even if it’s something I’ve never done before,” said Griffin. “Like our ‘Double D’ Belgian Dubbel. I’ve never made a dubbel before, but I did and put it out.
For me it’s trying to hit what people like.
So instead of trying to specialize in IPAs or Porters or Stouts, I’ve been trying to really put out a lot of “gateway” beers for people to get started in this craft beer thing and understand we’re a local farm brewery to foster our community and the brewing community here.
“I’ve found it has really brought a lot of locals together. ‘I live on xxxx, you live on xxxx street, hey I’m your neighbor’ now you’re getting these people together, meeting and collaborating like they never have before,” said Griffin.
From its conception, the brewery has always been a community-focused business venture. Born in Vermont, Griffin and his family moved to Churchville, NY when he was a young child. He and his wife grew up in western New York and that sense of family and community is one of their core personal and business values.
The brewery hosts events such as pet adoptions, receptions, birthday parties and will hold homebrew classes in the future to bring people together. They also partner with their neighboring business, A Gust of Sun Winery (East) and plan on building an outdoor patio area between the two buildings and hosting local music and special events together this summer.
As a member of the business community, Griff’s strives for ecologically responsible operations. All of the spent grains, hops and even yeasts are recycled by a local organic farmer as feed. Griffin hopes to eventually add solar panels to the roof of the brewery to further reduce their carbon footprint and seek out additional ways to go even greener.
Griffin produces his unique small batch beers using what he describes as a “Hillbilly” or “Ogre” customized system. His homemade grain hopper/milling rig and the modified over-sized burners for the direct fired 3-barrel StoutTanktm brew system are a couple of his adaptations. He also uses a pair of linked on-demand hot water systems to replace the need for a separate hot liquor tank and a ground water cooling system for his two 3-barrel fermentation tanks to reduce his equipment and energy expenses. However, these customizations have been evolving over time. It didn’t start out so easily. Brewing almost daily to meet the demand for his beer, the 90-hour work weeks were long but provided a unique experience for the customers.
“The first few months we were running on just the ½-barrel pilot batches,” said Griffin. “It was a ton of work and endless nights, but it allowed me to step through a lot of different flavors that didn’t last long (on tap) to peak interest. It really helped with the draw, if there was a flavor they liked, they knew it wouldn’t last long.”
Now three months into business, the 3-barrel system is online and taking over the larger brewing operational needs, but there are always small batches in the works. The row of filled glass carboys in his fermentation room offer a glimpse into what’s coming next. Never straying far from his years of home brewing, Griffin still uses his ½-barrel pilot system and carboys constantly.
“I use glass for a few reasons,” Griffin said. “I’m a big stickler for it, I love it, pain in the ass to clean, but I love it. I love the flavor in glass and I think it’s great. The other thing it offers here is for the people the people that come in. We are loaded here with home brewers, and we are always having them come in for advice, conversation, and taste testing. For them to come in and see carboys being used, it allows them to realize how close to the ground my ears are. I’m still one of them. I’m still using the same equipment. I think it makes them more comfortable asking the questions, and have those conversations.”
The information and lessons shared in those conversations are important for both parties, according to Griffin. Experiments that worked, new hops, different yeast strains, batches that failed, and figuring out what caused the results simply makes all of them better brewers and a closerbrewing community. Lessons learned through other’s experiences are far less costly in both time and money. Keeping that collaborative learning with his brewing peers is essential for Griffin.
If you ever stop learning, you’re in the wrong business, and if you feel like you know it all, you’re in the wrong place.
“I don’t want this to be a competition,” said Griffin. My (system) is bigger than yours or what not. I don’t have delusions of grandeur. I don’t have the big need to be in a 20,000-square-foot facility with tanks so big you can swim in them, it’s not for me. I never want to run my business from an office. Until my 3-barrel system is running 24-hours-a-day, it’s wasting time just sitting there. So, for me to increase my capacity to a 6-, an 8- or 15-barrel system is a waste. Sure, I can produce more quantity of one beer, but I still can’t produce the flavors I want and have the freedom to do what I want with a small batch. When I taste beers made on the larger systems, they seem to lose some of that flavor.”
Keeping his eye on quality brewing and the community is Griffin’s focus now as the business continues to grow. Eventually, his future expansion plans include bringing more tap room staff onboard, possibly another brewer/assistant, and eventually adding more 3-barrel fermentation tanks (no swimming pools). The biggest challenge according to Griffin is time, or lack of it.
“There are only seven days in a week. We need to petition for maybe 8, 9, or maybe 10 days in a week,” he joked. “Or, we could increase the length of the day. You know to maybe 36 hours a day to help make things happen.”
So as you’re out touring the Western New York craft brewing scene, take the time to stop by Griff’s Brewery. Sit down and enjoy good pint and share some great conversations that will certainly include beer.
For more information on Griff’s Brewery, what’s on tap, and when to visit; check out their website: www.griffsbrewery.com.
This is an interview in a series of guest entries by students in the Practical Brewing class at Erie Community College. Students were asked to conduct an interview with a person of their choosing in the brewing industry.
Daniel Bean is currently an intern at 12 Gates Brewing Company as part of his requirements for a state certification program in Brewing Sciences and Services at Erie Community College. Bean enjoys making mead in addition to being a homebrewer.