Sitting in his New York City apartment several years ago, Evan Watson was at a crossroads. He had moved to Harlem as a 21-year old in 2007 before promptly landing a record contract, and was home brewing in his spare time, playing around with a kit his then-girlfriend bought him.
“I was enamored with music,” says the Indiana-native, “but I like to have irons in different fires.” The musician, whose vocals recall a grittier Tom Waits (if that is possible), recorded his debut album and appeared on season 7 of NBC’s ‘The Voice’, but music had already begun to take a back seat to his home brewing endeavors. Check out one of his live performances.
At the time, Watson was brewing as often as three times a week, still in that tiny Harlem apartment. He started working at Captain Lawrence Brewery, in Elmsford, NY, completing various odds and ends, including brewing.
“Music had become tedious,” he admits. “There was no daily gratification, and I wanted to touch something every day that I was working on and get some kind of reward from that.”
He married Emily, who purchased that inspirational brewing kit, and the couple moved to Fishkill, NY at the end of 2012 with the dream of founding a self-sustaining brewery. “I was working at a brewery that was amazing at crafting beer but was sourcing ingredients from around the world,” says Watson. “I wanted to create a modern American brewery, one that encapsulated its region and the terroir.”
Plan Bee Brewery opened in early 2013, operating on an acre of land and a shack to house Watson’s one-barrel brewing system. In just over two years, Plan Bee has emerged as one of the leaders in New York State’s farm brewery movement.
The state has always been known for its wineries, drawing locals and tourists alike to the Finger Lakes or Long Island, but as the craft brewery boon consumed New York – there are now more than 200 brewing statewide, and there has been a 60 percent jump in openings this past year – governor Andrew Cuomo passed a law in January 2013 that incentivized and strengthened craft beer’s growth: farm breweries could operate and sell beer and cider by the glass provided that 20 percent of their hops and other ingredients were grown or produced within New York (those percentages bump to 60 percent by 2018 and then 90 percent in 2024).
Plan Bee grows its own hops, cultivates wild yeast, and plants the herbs used in several of its brews – from the Savage sour to the Hops and Honey ale and the Chamomile, brewed with chamomile and honey, Watson’s approach stresses hyper-locality, a brewery that grows just about every ingredient needed in the beer-making process.
“Beer is even more agriculturally-based than wine, and since we have used 100 percent NY products from the beginning, we’ve been at the front seat,” says Watson. “We are trying to do an old world style of brewing and undoing all of this scientific progression, brewing with a unique taste tied to a region.”
What sets Plan Bee apart from the State’s roughly two -dozen other farm breweries is their wild yeast. “It is funny to reinvent the wheel in terms of yeast, but it allows us to have a very local and specific flavor,” says Watson.
Thanks to the abundance of orchards dotting Fishkill and the surrounding areas, Watson wanted to discover a yeast strain that would provide a true taste of the region. After cultivating yeasts from peaches and strawberries, which Watson admits were distractingly funky, he settled on a yeast strain coming from wild Muscatine grapes. “It has a bright, champagne-y quality to it,” says Watson. Along with honey culled from Plan Bee’s two hives, Watson is able to essentially bottle the region.
Since Plan Bee’s founding in 2013, demand has quickly ramped up – people travel hours for the brewery’s distinct bottles, and the brewery’s waiting list is a few hundred deep. It quickly became clear to Watson that a one-acre farm would not be enough. “This space was just enough to experiment,” he says, “I call this our petri dish phase.”
The next step, though, has already been cemented – Watson and his wife recently closed on a 25 acre farm in nearby Poughkeepsie, enabling the brewery to expand its brewing operations to ten barrels and the potential to grow wheat, barley, and more hops. Plan Bee grows four hop varieties now, including Centennial and Chinook. Watson plans to plant more hops. Which hops exactly will depend on what he feels will grow best in the region.
“What we are doing isn’t an easy business model,” he says. “We want people to come buy the beer and then experience the farm. To walk through the field of grain, see the bees buzzing and the barley being malted instead of standing in a warehouse with cement floors and drinking a beer while staring at a big stainless tank.” Watson continues, “There is even a barn from the 1800s so we can do a true farmhouse brewery.”