A Long Talk with Craft Beer Pioneer Tommy Keegan (1970-2021) | Craft Beverage Industry | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

A Long Talk with Craft Beer Pioneer Tommy Keegan (1970-2021)
Jennifer May
Tommy Keegan behind the bar at Keegan Ales in Kingston in 2009.

Tommy Keegan opened up his brewery, Keegan Ales, in 2003, long before Kingston had nice things like boutique hotels and murals all over town. At the time it opened, it was the only craft brewery between Brooklyn and Albany. (There are nearly 500 craft breweries in New York, and we are the sixth largest beer-producing state in the country.) Keegan, a Long Island native, had cut his teeth at Blue Point Brewing Company and decided to set out on his own. He moved to Kingston and bought a defunct brewery in gritty Midtown neighborhood and became a craft brewing pioneer at a time when most beer drinkers were still swilling corporate brands.

Tommy Keegan died of a heart attack at the age of 50 on April 30, sending shockwaves throughout his adopted city of Kingston and the craft beer industry. Keegan was a community pillar—involved in everything from the arts to local sports to healthcare benefits and social-justice initiatives—and the Kingston Freeman was full of tributes from local leaders when his death was announced.

With Keegan Ales, Keegan created not only a destination for craft beer lovers from across the Northeast (and beyond), but a community hub as open and welcoming as he was. Keegan combined his love of beer with savvy entrepreneurship and civic-mindedness to create a business that's become an institution. Tommy Keegan's legacy will long outlast his too-short life.

In October of last year, I heard that Keegan was thinking of selling Keegan Ales, so I called him up and asked for a sit down to talk about his years in the business—a chance for him to look back on all he had accomplished. We talked about everything from why the beer industry has turned to canning over bottling to the time he got punched in the face for a publicity stunt. (Video below.) A much-shortened version of this interview ran in the December issue.

Brian Mahoney: When you got here in 2003 this was a defunct brewery. What was it called?

Tommy Keegan: Woodstock Brewing Company.

Brian Mahoney: Midtown Kingston was in rough shape at that time.

Tommy Keegan: Midtown was terrible. And I think he was a little bit before his time. That was a big piece of it. People weren't ready for that yet. He was a little bit undercapitalized and stuff like that. But people weren't really ready to drink all these beers that people are drinking. Kids that are 21 years old, I was reading an article recently, I'm trying to think of what ... it was one of the trade rags, whatever. 30% of kids that are like 20 to 25 have never had a Budweiser in their life. They grew up drinking, their training wheels beers were Sierra Nevada pale ales, and beers like mine and stuff. So he was just a little bit too soon.

People weren't ready for that to a large extent. Some people were ready for it, but it was hard to make it go with that, trying to sell that into Mariner’s Harbor.

Because we need the Guido family to be able to plow through it. So they buy another keg next week, and their clientele wasn't ready for it. Even though some of the more sophisticated, I guess, for lack of a better term, restaurateurs, Rick Orlando [owner of New World Home Cooking] is a good example. He was obviously ahead of the curve a little bit. But Rick's clientele, you know Rick can love it all he wants, but if Rick can't get $6 a pint, it's no good. the whole thing has got to come full circle. So, that was one of their big drawbacks is they were just too cool too soon.

Brian Mahoney: And so then when you started, I remember you had the tasting room open a couple of afternoons a week.

Tommy Keegan: Yeah. Those were the good old days. It was like cowboy season right there. Yeah. It was Thursdays and Fridays from three to seven, Saturdays from noon to seven. And we didn't do full pints. We did four or six ounce tasters and it was just free for everybody.

It was just crazy. And people thought I was going to lose my shirt. I remember, do you know, I'm sure you do, what's his name? Jesse Smith.

Brian Mahoney: Of course.

Tommy Keegan: He was one of the first people to interview me. And we sat right out here in the beer garden where that little right where that tank is now. He's like, "You can not give away free beer and Midtown Kingston, man. Like this is going to be bad. You're going to blow up. There's going to be riots and it's going to go bad." I was like, "No, no, no, don't worry." And I learned this model from other breweries, specifically the Blue Point Brewery, but other breweries in general. But I worked at Blue Point.

And then I started doing the math and we would let people come in and drink for free during those hours, but we would also, they would fill growlers. So we were doing about half the beer for free and half the beer in growler refills. People come in with their empty growlers, have a couple of half pints, whatever. And I was making more money on that keg of beer, doing that, like giving half away for free and filling growlers, than if I sold the whole keg to sell to Mariners Harbor. And then we also closed at seven because I didn't want to compete with my other customers... It's weird in my business because I have so many layers of what I consider my customers.

Brian Mahoney: The bars, restaurants.

Tommy Keegan: The Guido family [who own Mariners Harbor], they're my customers, as much as these guys drinking a pint are my customers. In a different way, but you have to think about them differently. So I didn't want to compete with them. But then they would drink till seven and then they would go out into town.

Brian Mahoney: Go get some dinner, right.

Tommy Keegan: Right. They would go to the Anchor, which was the Basement then, or the Forum then, or whatever it was then, or Mariners or whatever. And they saw me and my kids and my dogs running around under foot. And it gave us a sense of loyalty to the community. I just fed him free beer for three hours. Of course they're going to drink Keegan Ales and not a Sierra Nevada pale ale.

Brian Mahoney: So the focus when you first opened was based on this marketing model of giving the beer away.

Tommy Keegan: We spent a lot of energy trying to jump out and make people feel like we've always been part of the community. People ask me if I went to middle school here. I didn’t move here till I was in my mid-thirties. I spend a lot of energy trying to make myself part of the community and it's worked. And if you do the right thing and the community follows you around.

Brian Mahoney: When did retail become part of the focus?

Tommy Keegan: So it's actually kind of a funny story. Initially we were a production brewery. And then we had our second anniversary party and all our backers were here, my family and friends. I gave a state of the brewery address, for lack of a better term. Just kind of catching everybody up on what we were doing. And a couple of my family members were like, "Hey man, your original business plan that said after two years, you're going to open up a pub. It's our second anniversary party. Where's the pub?" I was like, "Well, as soon as you open up your purses again, we'll get a pub." So that meeting took a left turn and we opened up our purses again and we ended up opening a tap room.

And I didn't really expect it to be as big of a part of my business as it is, but it's huge. Probably half of my gross sales come out of this room alone. And they kind of feed each other. People come here and they drink the beer and then they love it, hopefully. And then they go out to the town or whatever, they go back to New York City, Brooklyn, whatever, and they see the beer there and then they drink it because they remember it from being here. And conversely people that are in Brooklyn that are drinking the beer already come here because of that. They're like, "Oh, I'm a Mother's Milk fan because I drink it in my local bar in Manhattan or wherever." I keep using Brooklyn as an example. So they kind of fed each other. But now they're probably about 50, 50. As far as, not in volume, not in gallons of beer, but in gross sales, for sure.

Brian Mahoney: Right. And so that also, I think, speaks to a change in the beer ecosystem in a way, because I'll be here on a Saturday and maybe just grabbing a beer and someone will come in, they'll be like, "Hey, I'm coming in from Burlington." Right. And I'm like, there're beer pilgrims now. Like the culture is such that people travel because they want to go to a brewery. They want to have that experience traveling around. And I've seen it. People are coming here to have that, for lack of a better word, authentic experience.

Tommy Keegan: Yep. And that's a good experience. I actually got a really poor Google review this week, because the guy was like, man, "It stinks like a farm in there." I'm like, "Well, that's what happens when you're sitting in the parking lot of a real brewery, like there's grain everywhere." That's just the way it is. And he replied back pretty positively, and we kind of worked it out, but it was kind of funny. Because you're right, you get that authentic experience, but it's also a very unpolished experience. If you want the polished experience, there's plenty of places that do that. Go to Le Canard Enchaine and have some escargot and have a great time. And I love those guys, but that's not what we do here.

Brian Mahoney: Right. It hasn't really changed that much since you opened up the tap room, right?

Tommy Keegan: I don't think so. You know, it's funny, people that I don't see for a long time, when they come back, they're like, "Wow, the place looks great." And because they're little incremental changes, I don't feel it as much as they see it. But basically, look at the place. I built a clubhouse that I want to hang out in. And if that's your gig and you want to hang out, great, come on in. And if that's not your gig, I'm not going to be offended. If you want to go white tablecloth and escargot, we've got that too in Kingston. You may as well go get that.

I'm okay with that. I'm not offended. This is not where I would bring my wife for our 25th anniversary party.

But some people get married here because they love that kind of a vibe. And that's cool, but that's not everybody. And it's never going to be. You can't ever be everything to everybody.

Brian Mahoney: I remember being in New York City, not long after you opened and I saw Old Capital on the shelves at a bodega on the Upper West Side. And I was like, "Wow, Tommy's got good distribution."

Tommy Keegan: We started off self-distributing. It was necessary, but it was a nightmare. First of all, they take your distributing partner in New York City, use it as an example, is Manhattan Beer. They take a third or so. It depends on the products and stuff, but a third is a good number to use. They don't have the same ... I'm trying to think of the right word, the same connection to the bar owners. You know, as me, as the brewer, walking into a bar owner, a very good friend of mine.

It's harder for them to say no to me, then it is for them to say no to a sales guy that he's got a Coors T-shirt on because Coors is the flagship brand of Manhattan Beer. They're like, "Yeah, you got a bunch of beers, whatever." So initially, we were self-distributing, and we were doing great. And it just got harder and harder as we got bigger and bigger because I just didn't have the infrastructure.

Not just the infrastructure as far as having trucks on the road, but I didn't have the access to marketing. One good example is the Hannaford's right here in Kingston, at the Plaza. The general manager of the supermarket was a fan of our beers. So he brought our beer into his place. And then he had two buddies that ran the Hannaford's up by the mall, and then the Hannaford's over in Red Hook, so we were in three Hannaford's. But in the beer world, you have to stock your own shelves, so—

Brian Mahoney: So you have to have somebody go to the store and put it on the shelf?

Tommy Keegan: Yeah. You've got to walk through the warehouse, get that shit, bring it up front. I don't have the infrastructure to do that stuff. Meanwhile, the bigger players have tons of guys that do nothing but that. And my personal pickup truck is in the back of the supermarket, lined up against all these 18 wheelers. They're throwing them up onto the loading docks. It was stupid. So having a distributor solved a lot of those problems. It also gave me access to places where I would never be in. Not just Hannaford's, but QuickChek. Stewart's.

QuickChek's huge. I sell a lot of beer at QuickChek. There's three in Kingston alone. There's one on Albany Avenue. Two right next door to each other, but that's another thing.

Brian Mahoney: Nobody understands that.

Tommy Keegan: Even if I made the connections myself, I wouldn't have the infrastructure to execute it.

Brian Mahoney: Right. But these are deals that you did, what? 10, 12, 15 years ago. Right?

Tommy Keegan: Exactly.

Brian Mahoney: Now we have this market that has so many outfits brewing beer. I go to the Beer World and the choices are almost overwhelming.

Tommy Keegan: You don't know how to order, right?

Brian Mahoney: Yeah. I don't know what to do.

Tommy Keegan: That's a big problem that every small brewer is focusing on right now. I have customers that say, "Man, Mother's Milk. I put that keg on tap, I've never sold a keg of beer faster in my life. Never made more money on it. Never got more compliments." I'm like, "Great. You want another keg of Mother's Milk?" They're like, "No. What else is new? What else you got? I want something new." Everybody wants the...

Brian Mahoney:Novelty. Sure.

Tommy Keegan: Yeah. The industry term is rotation nation, because all those taps rotate. It used to be, in the good old days, when it was like old men were running bars, that was your tap. It was a pain in the ass to get it, but once you got it and that was your tap, when you're out, they'd put another one on. They put it out, you could walk into a bar and know what it was going to be. The same ones every day. But now, the customer has become educated enough to demand the bar owner keeps rotating stuff, which demands the wholesaler keeps rotating stuff, which puts us at a disadvantage as a production facility.

Brian Mahoney: Because?

Tommy Keegan: Because now, I'm constantly having to come up with new brands.

Brian Mahoney: Well, I see brewers like Newburgh Brewing Company releasing new beers all the time. It's like every week that they're throwing something else on there. That just must be a lot of work to do.

Tommy Keegan: It's a lot of work, and it also eats up a lot of... How do I describe it? It's hard to do. I mean, with the beer industry moving from bottles to cans, things are a little bit easier, but traditionally, beer is served in bottles. And you got to buy six-pack carriers, you got to buy what we call the mother cartons. The box that holds four six-packs. You got to buy all this equipment, all this marketing material, packaging material, and you got to commit to a brand. You can't just say, “I'm going to make one small batch of that, and then tomorrow I'm going to make a different batch of that.” I’ve got to buy like $10,000 worth of stuff, worth of cardboard.

So, it's made that very difficult. The craft beer world has moved towards canning because you just buy blank, silver cans.

Brian Mahoney: And you just slap them with a label.

Tommy Keegan: And you just slap it... Yeah. And you don't need the mother cartons, and you don't need six-pack carriers. You just snap those things on top, and then you're bang, and you're up and running. So that's kind of helped a little bit, but it's still... Look, the marketing side of it is hard. That's why you see a lot of bad marketing, I think, out there these days. Which I think will correct itself. The market's always swinging. The pendulum is always swinging in any market, not just the beer market, the pendulum's always swinging in any market, in my opinion.

Brian Mahoney: Have you switched from bottling to cans?

Tommy Keegan: No.

Brian Mahoney: Because you have the bottling infrastructure?

Tommy Keegan: Yeah. I got a bottling line, so I stick with bottles. But it's limited my ability to be flexible. That's definitely been a weak point. That's like if somebody had to ask me what are my weak points, not being able to can is one of them, but we do can it sometimes—we bring in a mobile canner.

If I was to open a brewery today, first of all, I'd say, there's no reason. There's enough breweries in the world. You don't need to open a brewery today, go do something different. But, I wouldn't open it with a bottling line, I would open it with a canning line.

Brian Mahoney: Why? What drove the move from bottles?

Tommy Keegan: Cost. It’s so much cheaper to put beer in a can than it is in a bottle.

Brian Mahoney: I remember, as a young beer drinker—

Tommy Keegan: Everybody was like, "Cans suck."

Brian Mahoney: Yeah!

Tommy Keegan:"You can taste the metal," and all that crap.

Brian Mahoney: That was just a triumph of marketing?

Tommy Keegan: Somehow, that went away. The canning, manufacturing people will tell you that they've improved their technology to the point where they put these liners inside the can, on the metal.

Brian Mahoney: So it tastes better. Definitely.

Tommy Keegan: Yeah. Or it doesn't taste worse. You can't taste it. But really, what I think really, really did it, was a brewery called Oskar Blues who make Dale's Pale Ale. They just were like, "You know what? Fuck it. We're going to crush it." And they did it, and then their brewery did really well. And after that, that was the first thing that started the fire.

Brian Mahoney: Did you have much competition when you started?

Tommy Keegan: I had basically from Brooklyn Brewery to Albany all to myself. And all the way out in Cooperstown was Ommegang. Now there are three breweries just in Kingston.

Brian Mahoney: So, I did my research before this interview. And I was looking back at some pieces, and I had forgotten about the punch in the face stunt on the radio.

Tommy Keegan: Okay. We could do that one.

Brian Mahoney: And so, what was that about?

Tommy Keegan: Okay. You know Lisa, my wife, right?

Brian Mahoney: I certainly do.

Tommy Keegan: She's from Texas. Her brother was getting married in Austin, and she was in the wedding. I had never been to Texas, I didn't know any of her family. I never met anybody. Lisa's going to the bachelorette party. It's the same night as the bachelor party. Like I said, I don't know anybody. And I'm just kind of like that guy at the wedding that's hanging around. And I'm not even at the wedding, I'm at like the pre-wedding parties. So I get invited to the bachelor party, and I can't not go.

So I'm expecting I'll be standing up in the back of a pickup truck, shooting shotguns, and drinking Miller Lites. It turns out that Lisa's brother runs this really high end wine bar. And they're all drinking fine wine and saying, "Tommy, you got to try this. It's like $200 a bottle." And I'm like, "No, man. I just want some Miller Lites. Where are the fucking shotgun shells?" So I'm texting with Geoff, our brewer. I'm like, "Hey man, when we get back to Kingston, remind me to get you to punch me in the face. I need you to re-instill some of that New York testosterone." Like as a joke, it's our text. So, that's funny, ha-ha, done.

Fast-forward a year, and Black IPAs were hot for a hot minute. So, Geoff wants to brew a black IPA. And I say, "No." He says, "Why not?" I go, "Well, why do you want to brew one?" And he goes, "Everybody's brewing one." I'm like, well, that's the exact reason we're not going to brew one. We're not going to do what everybody else is already doing, that's a stupid reason to do something. Let's do something different. All right, all right. So, sure enough, our next order of grain comes, and our grain, when it comes, isn't ground. Milled. But it's pre-mixed, so we have different groats of grains, all blended together. I've been using the same company for 18 years, only once did they make a mistake in our recipe.

So, Geoff’s brewing Hurricane Kitty, and it comes out pitch black, right? I'm like, "All right, fucking fine. You get to make your black IPA." Right? Because it came out like an IPA, but it was pitch black. I couldn't sell it as Kitty because it didn't look right. So, all right, so now we got the beer. So we're talking about a name, and my dad is my silent partner. Although he's not very silent if you ever met him, but whatever. And he's on speakerphone, and Geoff and I, I think we were right in this room. And I'm like, "All right. What are we going to do with this beer?" Like it's a one-off, whatever. We wouldn't have to think too hard about it.

And we're like, "A black IPA." And I'm like, "Man, I don't want to just call it Keegan Black IPA. That's so generic. It sounds like a very no-frills kind of thing." We're going back and forth and back and forth. And my dad over the phone goes, "Hey, how about like a black eye? Like a punch in the face, like a black eye?" And Geoff goes, "I owe you a punch in the face from that bachelor party." And I was like, "Son of a bitch. You're right. You do owe me a punch in the face." So that's why... So the next week, I called up Tobin at WPDH and I told him the same story I just told you. And they're like, “So you want to come into the radio station, and get punched in the face?” I'm like: “Kind of, I think so.” And sure enough we went to the radio station and our marketing intern filmed me getting punched in the face by Geoff at 8 in the morning, live on the radio.

Brian Mahoney: That's amazing. Did you actually get a black eye?

Tommy Keegan: Oh, yeah. I got punched right... One of my best friends, this is a woman from high school. Her name is Bob, which is, she's her own piece of work. Her husband is a bad-ass bodybuilder, and a mixed martial art guy. And he tells me, if you want to get a good black eye, but not get hurt that bad, you got to punch underneath. So that way, it'll make this cheek part swell up, and it'll look really ugly, but it won't hurt that bad. So we had this whole coaching session. I did not sleep that well night. Imagine waiting all night to get punched in the face tomorrow. And then you got to drive down to Poughkeepsie, and then I'm sitting there, and they're like, "Okay. Tommy Keegan's going to get punched in the face. But first, the news. And then the sports, and then the weather." I'm like, "Can we just get this damn thing over with?"

Brian Mahoney: I watched the video this afternoon. It's quite a thing. You stand there and the guy just squares up, and fricking pops you in the face.

Tommy Keegan: Yeah. The first time I ever took a punch in the face without... With knowing it, and not fighting back.

Brian Mahoney: You took it like a champ.

Tommy Keegan: It didn't hurt as bad as I expected it to. I was like, "Oh man, that was a lot of nervousness for nothing." But it was awesome. It's one of those things that's like, check. I don't need to do that anymore. Check that off my... I didn't even know that was on my list, but that was on my list.

Brian Mahoney: So, let's talk about how the Clemson deal kind of came about, and fell apart.

Tommy Keegan: Yeah. That's great. Okay. So, I've known Kenan Porter, he's the owner of Clemson Brothers and Gilded Otter, for a while.

Brian Mahoney: Right. And they started in Middletown, with Clemson?</p>

Tommy Keegan: Yes. It was Clemson, right. I met Kenan because a friend of mine from Long Island, who used to brew with my dad. My dad owns a brewery, too. But I became friendly with Kenan. The craft brewing industry is pretty friendly.

As a matter of fact, my boss and mentor at Blue Point Brewing Company, his tagline is, "The beer industry is 99% asshole free. Don't be that guy." Because we all get along, there's plenty of love for everybody. You and I against Budweiser are better off than you and I fighting each other, and Budweiser just crushing both of us. Now Blue Point is owned by Budweiser, but well, that's another story.

Every time I saw Kenan, he'd say, "When are you going to sell me that brewery, Tommy? When are you going to sell me that brewery?"

And he finally made me an offer I couldn't refuse. And the timing was right. I had been in the business for 17 years at that point, in January, it’ll be 18. So maybe it was like 16 and a half when we started. But I needed to start figuring out an exit strategy. Neither of my kids want anything to do with the brewery. I mean, they're coming here and hanging out or whatever, but they don't want to make this their lives.

I've been here 20 years almost, or I will be by the time we get the deal done. I don't want to be here another 20 years, humping kegs and shit. I love this job, but it's a young man's job. So finally, we got to a point where we made a deal.

For a variety of reasons, it was a complicated deal. And at first, it felt like a round peg in an oval hole, and the more we tried to sand it down and make it fit, it just kept getting worse. It just wasn't fitting right. It just didn't feel organic to me, personally, or to him, I don't think. It’s was one of those deals where it's always something. And how many somethings do you need before this starts to not feel like a good fit, organically? And they pulled the deal. And we were close, we were going to close around April.

Brian Mahoney: Right. You're not going anywhere.

Tommy Keegan: I didn't have a For Sale sign out. I was doing my own thing, and then this opportunity came up, and then COVID kind of put it on pause. I was like, all right, well, I'll just keep doing my own thing, and call me when you need me. I'll be ready for it.

Brian Mahoney: So, you guys walked away friends.

Tommy Keegan: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Totally friendly.

Brian Mahoney: So then COVID hits, what were you thinking?

Tommy Keegan: Well, it was hard initially, for everybody. I'm not in a unique situation there, but like I was saying, 50% of my money comes out of my restaurant and 50% of my money goes out of my wholesale, but wholesale goes to mostly restaurants and bars too, or about 50% of that, 50% of it goes to bottles, to off-premise sales. So my off premise sales went up a little bit, but the packaging costs, the margins are not there. So I lost probably 80% of my business for, since from, I guess it started St. Patrick's Day we'll call it right, till whenever we open back up a little bit.

Brian Mahoney: That was in June?

Tommy Keegan: About June, and then we were doing about 50% and we're still at about 50%. Things are kind of coming back a little bit, but it's still far as that really carried a lot of beer, which were the bars that I do well in, like the beer bars down in the city or just use a local example of The Anchor. They have 18 taps, they're now down to six taps.

Brian Mahoney: So, you're fighting for elbow room.

Tommy Keegan: We're fighting for elbow room again, where you're already fighting for elbow room because of the boom in the craft beer industry and now everybody's cutting everything in half and even out of those taps, they weren't selling all out of beer. So it's been difficult. On the other hand though, people were really itching to get out. By the time June, July rolled around, people were like, I want to go somewhere and I always go to Keegan's, I need something to do. So, they would come out, but they wouldn't, it wasn't the same. It's still not the same. They just, the whole industry has changed, really.

Brian Mahoney: In what sense?

Tommy Keegan: I used to pack 400 people in there and I would sell four kegs in a day. Now they have these outdoors, sit down, acoustic things and everybody has one beer instead of having six beers and it's not a big bash and I can't have a Halloween party here. You know, Halloween we used to book a band called The Big Shoe. I don't know if you've ever heard of The Big Shoe. Those guys, 300, 350 people show up on Halloween, put them all the way in the brewery and the place was just a mob scene. We were shoulder to shoulder like college kids at a frat house, who cares? But you can't do that anymore. So it doesn't make sense. So all of those types of opportunities, not just for my retail, but for every other bars retail. The Golden Rail Ale House, for instance, in Newburgh.

I love those guys. But they can't buy the amount of beer I need them to buy. So he was buying 15 kegs a year from me, now he's buying two kegs a year from me, maybe three.

Brian Mahoney: Have you ramped down production?

Tommy Keegan: By a lot. So we've been able to combat that by minimizing a lot of staff. We had four of us really running the production side of it. It was me, three of my guys and just by luck, because I didn't know what to do because it was breaking my heart not paying these guys. First of all, we had the PPP money and stuff. So that carried us for a while and we all went on a semi for a load basis, so that if they were working three days a week, they were getting four day weekends. Plus they would get the six day, 600 bucks a week.

Brian Mahoney: That was a sweet little stipend for folks.

Tommy Keegan: It was cool for a minute. So we were all working a little less, make a little more, but that was over. But I just don't need the production. And then on this side of the wall [the tap room], with COVID, I actually have to force you to buy food.

Brian Mahoney: How is that working?

Tommy Keegan: What we did was we have three items on our menu. We have macaroni and cheese, jambalaya, and a big Bavarian pretzel. All three bucks. So with your first beer, you have to buy one of them.

Brian Mahoney: And so the SLA said, in order to drink, you have to have food as well.

Tommy Keegan: With your first or alcoholic beverage, you have to order food.

Brian Mahoney: It seems to me that the state, through the SLA, has been very accommodating.

Tommy Keegan: Oh my God! I cannot be more complimentary of how the Governor's office has tried to make things work. They've really worked hard to make it work and let me keep my lights on. And I just got an email this morning from the state liquor authority, because the governor can't just pass laws, willy-nilly, like on his own, right. But he can do an executive mandate, but that can only last 30 days. So every 30 days he has to extend whatever privileges he just granted. And he just extended them again through November 3rd for home delivery, curbside pick-up and take out, right. But he used to never allow that, you couldn't just order a cheeseburger and two beers and deliver it to my house, drop it off. We dropped it off. We dropped off one order today, four cases of beer, just leave it on the front step. Okay. That used to be totally illegal. But now it’s legal.

Brian Mahoney: I'm curious to know if that can somehow be enshrined after COVID is over, because that certainly has helped your business, that idea.

Tommy Keegan: Absolutely. And that's something that The New York State Brewers Association is working hard to foster. They're very active and making sure that none of us are the rotten apples to screw it up for everybody else. When this is over, we want to point back to the last year and go, Hey look, this was something that worked and it helped our businesses. You had some problems with bars not obeying COVID rules and social distancing, but none of them were breweries.

Brian Mahoney: Do you feel positive now?

Tommy Keegan: I think so. I feel that the industry is going to take a big hit and I'm not sure how that's going to recover. I feel positive on my own personal property or my own project because I'm fortunate that I own my own property. I've owned this real estate for 18 years. I almost have no mortgage anymore. You know, so if I need to go digging for cash, I have equity.

Brian Mahoney: You've got a little leverage.

Tommy Keegan: Right. I would really feel bad for a guy that started this project 18 months ago. He's like, I've been in business six months and then COVID hits, man. If I was in business six months, when this started, we wouldn't be having this conversation. I'd be digging ditches, whatever it took.

Brian Mahoney: You said this was a young man's game, which led you to think about entertaining the offer from Clemson Brewing. How many years do you think you got left here?

Tommy Keegan: It depends on the deal that I ended up with. I still like my job. I love my job. It's fun, it's cool right? I get interviewed by the Daily Freeman once in a while. I get to ride on parade floats and people, I get to...

Brian Mahoney: Get punched in the face.

Tommy Keegan: Get punched in the face. I love getting punched in the face. That was the best. Like I said, I don't want to do it again, but I love that. Just like I love all of that. For the day-to-day grind is kind of it wears on me a little bit. So it depends on how that deal works out. I don't have like big round numbers.

If I could find somebody that will take over this place and then I could kind of get out of here and say, “I ran that show for 20 years, peace out!” Walk away with a clean conscience. And I know that I didn't, did right by myself and by my investors and everybody got paid, everybody got their interest, and all that money, they all made a buck on it. It’s cool. And if it goes on to live, that's great. And if it didn't, to run a company for 20 years is an accomplishment of itself. Not to pat myself too hard on the back, but to be able to keep a business open for 20 years is cool. Right? January will be year 18. And I'm pretty sure I won't run out of business between now and then.

But just to say, 20 years, and then I'm slowly walking into the sunset is fine by me. And if I'm having a great time, I'll stick around. I don't know. It's a hard question to answer because of what we were talking about before. It depends on how the deal is structured. If somebody walks in and they go, “Here's a bunch of money, get the fuck out of here and don't show up again.” Great! I'll bounce at 18 years. If they go, “I need you to stick around,” like the way the Clemson Brothers kind of wanted me to stick around. All right, I'll stick around. If I can kind of slowly back away, but still show up and not have to pay for beers for myself and my old lady. That's great too.

Brian Mahoney: I think that's it. I think we did it.

Brian K. Mahoney

Brian is the editorial director for the Chronogram Media family of publications. He lives in Kingston with his partner Lee Anne and the rapscallion mutt Clancy.
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